The global challenges that we face as a human race will require collaboration from parties that can find common ground. This type of collaboration will many times involve the use of data so that all parties can have an agreed-upon baseline from which to develop plans to address a particular issue. We all have our own frames of reference and agendas that we bring to the table. Different parties may interpret data quite differently. Leveraging data and then using language to get a message out in a powerful and coherent way — and recognizing the inherent challenges that come from our own points of reference as potential roadblocks — is important to truly understanding an issue thus developing effective solutions.

An example of how a standard report that is meant to serve as baseline data has been interpreted in multiple ways is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) annual report, “The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture.” The most recent report, from 2014, shows that 10% of the world’s fisheries were “under fished”, 61% of the world’s fisheries were “fully exploited”, and 29% were “over exploited.” The terms under fished, fully exploited, and over exploited are scientific terms that indicate whether fisheries are within their biological sustainable levels. So the word “exploited” in scientific terms means that a fishery has the stock available for capture and of the quantity that is available for capture whether they have been under captured, fully captured, or over captured. In reviewing the infographic provided by the FAO, they interpret the data as meaning “71% of the commercially important marine fish stocks monitored by FAO are fished within biologically sustainable levels.”  This 71% is an improvement from the 2012 report, when the sustainable stock fished within biologically sustainable levels was at 68%. Still, 29% of the fisheries being over exploited is something we need to continue to work on.

When using common spoken language, the terms “fully exploited” and “over exploited” sound extremely alarming relative to the scientific definition. It’s very understandable to see some conservation groups use these terms to support their cause with their constituents. This paints a picture suggesting that 90% of wild fisheries are over captured. Unfortunately, this interpretation does not recognize the efforts of those organizations working so hard to maintain sustainable fisheries. It becomes demoralizing to know that their efforts are not viewed as making a difference. So when we work with multiple stakeholders with diverse backgrounds, it’s imperative that we understand how they are using language to convey their concepts. This builds a case for multi-stakeholder efforts to be open to possible meanings from data that had not considered before.

We had an excellent interaction in reaching out to another non-profit conservation group on their interpretation of the FAO report. They listened to our explanation of the scientific meaning behind the term “exploited” and updated their interpretation of the data by recognizing the scientific definition. In turn, we learned from them that the data collection is a global effort and that there are imperfections to the report. This particular non-profit is raising awareness that improvements need to be made to the actual data collection process.

Our oceans are our lifeline and we need to do everything in our power to protect them and leave them in a better state for our future generations. As we work to address human health and environmental health, we should be mindful of how we are interpreting data to support issues that we are addressing. Some questions to consider: Are we viewing the data from all perspectives that could impact the development of solutions? Are we solving the right problems in the right ways? Are we asking the right questions? We can tell the story we want to tell based on our interpretation of data from our own lens. It will take courage to understand the story the data is trying to tell us.

 Linda Cornish is Executive Director for the Seafood Nutrition Partnership. She has held leadership and management positions with Arthur Andersen, Hitachi Business Consulting, Harrah’s Entertainment, Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce and the Bill of Rights Institute.