Sunday, January 15, 2017
A DUTY TO FULLY INFORM
Time passes quickly.
I still remember being a boy, obsessed with fishing, waiting each month for the new magazines to come out. I read the “big three”—Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, Field and Stream—beginning when I was in grade school, finding dreams and adventure, as well as how-to, on every poured-over page.
I fished in salt water since I learned to walk, catching flounders and eels, tomcod and young-of-the-year “snapper” blues, fish that would never make the pages of a glossy national publication. Although they sometimes held stories of bonefish or marlin, fresh water fishing and hunting were their primary subjects—novel subjects to me, since my family did neither one.
So I read the folks who wrote about those different worlds.
And because I knew nothing about them, I ended up trusting the writers.
OK, I was a 10-year-old kid, still young enough to take adults’ words on faith. At least if those adults were in a position of authority, which the various writers seemed to be.
Still, regardless of age, there is a tendency to believe that anyone who writes for publication possesses at least the authority conveyed by knowledge, and that the fact that something is published suggests that it might be true.
Intellectually, we know that’s not true, as the current “fake news” imbroglio, which has both sides of the political spectrum pointing fingers, demonstrates to our dismay. Even so, we have a tendency to accept what we read as true; at least we do unless it conflicts with one of our closely-held beliefs.
Thus, to avoid betraying such trust, writers have an obligation to fully inform their readers, taking care to present all of the facts to the extent that they can be known. Even in opinion pieces, where the author is trying to convince readers to come to a particular conclusion, facts should not be concealed.
After all, if knowing all the facts might lead a reader to disagree with a writer, perhaps the writer is wrong…
Taking that sort of forthright approach is particularly important when addressing technical subjects, where data and science drive the issues, and writers must act as interpreters, presenting the facts to their readers in language that the readers can readily understand.
Outdoor writers frequently find themselves in that role when addressing conservation and wildlife management issues. While some topics, such as the harm caused bycoal mines that remove entire mountaintops and dump the debris into Appalachian brook trout streams, can be understood without much technical knowledge, others require writers to provide more detailed explanations.
That’s particularly true of marine fishery management issues, which tend to revolve around complex stock assessments and population models, along with concepts such as maximum sustainable yield, biological reference points, recruitment and acceptable biological catch, none of which are part of most anglers’ everyday conversations.
When addressing such concepts, that are foreign to so many readers, a writer must be careful to define each term used, let readers know why it is important, and then explain to the reader how it applies to the issue at hand, so that the reader can understand the factors that go into making a decision, and the consequences that any likely decision might have on the species or population being managed.
If writers truly want their readers to understand how various species are being managed, they need to ensure that such readers are fully informed of why fisheries management decisions need to be being made as well.
On the whole, they do that pretty well, at least when freshwater fish are involved. We can read plenty of articles supporting no-kill sections in trout streams, or warning of threats toBristol Bay’s salmon from the so-called Pebble Mine.
But in the salt water world, things are a bit different. There, far too many writersactually tell anglers that conservation efforts are bad.
It seems that there are folks in the recreational fishing industry who think that conservation is bad for business, and that magazines’ primary duty is convincing readers that all is well with our fisheries, and that they should be out buying more boats, rods and reels.
If I ever had any doubt about that—and I never did—it would have been cleared up by a series of private messages that I received on Facebook a couple of years ago. The sender will remain unnamed, although I will say that he was employed in the industry, most recently (as of the time when the messages were sent) by a tackle company based in New Jersey.
The guy started out by criticizing something that I wrote, finishing his first message by saying
“It’s a very important topic, but I’m not sure your take on it is the correct one for our industry (recreational). [emphasis added]”
The exchange went on. I was criticized for wanting to prosecute poachers, and for other positions that I’d taken.
And then things began to get threatening.
“So how do you reconcile your stance with the advertisers who support your writing?
“…Your stance is not popular with a lot of folks on the rec side who are also well informed and whose businesses support many.
“You are certainly entitled to your position, but it galls some of us quite a bit that you promote it while being active in a recreational fisheries publication. That is not opinion, it is a fact. [emphasis added]”
In other words, if I want to keep writing for the angling press, I’d better concentrate on keeping advertisers happy, and not on keeping readers fully informed.
Which makes sense, for knowledge is power, and industry—any industry—never likes the public to have enough power to get in that industry’s way.
Better to keep the plebs dumb. Don’t let them question the industry’s line…
Now, outdoor writers who cover saltwater issues are going to have another opportunity to put their integrity to the test.
For years, when the recreational fishing industry attacked proposed regulations, one of their primary arguments was that the estimates of the fish killed by anglers was far too high. A recent article in The Fisherman, which criticized new restrictions on anglers’ summer flounder harvest, is typical.
“One by one, members of advocate groups like [Jersey Coast Anglers Association] and the Recreational Fishing Alliance spoke out against the data used by NOAA Fisheries in mandating the cuts, with Nick Cicero, Sales Manager of a Mahwah, NJ based national tackle distributor, noting recreational overage numbers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are unfounded based on his tackle wholesale numbers for 2016
“’If more people went fluke fishing and more fluke were caught, more Gulp would be bought, more fluke hooks would be bought, more jigs would be bought, that’s not the truth,’ Cicero said. ‘I can substantiate my numbers, they can’t substantiate theirs.’
“…At issue for many in the room was the status of the recreational data harvest survey…NOAA Fisheries has been working to redesign the collection methodology ever since a 2006 National Academy of Science (NAS) review deemed it ‘fatally flawed’ and desperately in need of an overhaul.
“…not many fishermen in New Jersey seemed impressed with NOAA’s efforts thus far in their comments to [the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission].
“’I taught science for 31 years,” said Capt. Steve Bent of the Cape May based charter boat Free Spirit. ‘If these biologists, if this is the way they gather information, and they were in my science class, I would’ve failed them.”
However, the National Academy of Science apparently disagrees with Capt. Bent. The Academy issued a report on the Marine Recreational Information Program last Tuesday, comparing it to the former program that was deemed to be “fatally flawed.”
“Work to redesign the National Marine Fisheries Service’s recreational fishery survey program (now referred to as the Marine Recreational Information Program) has yielded impressive progress over the past decade in providing more reliable catch data to fishery managers. Major improvements to the statistical soundness of the survey design were achieved by reducing sources of bias and increasing sampling efficiency as well as through increased coordination with partners and engagement of expert consultants. [emphasis added]”
No, the survey still isn’t perfect, with the Academy noting that
“Some additional challenges remain for the survey program, including those associated with nonresponse, electronic data collection, and communication and outreach to some audiences. [emphasis added]”
Still, it seems to have received pretty good marks.
Now, the question is whether writers for The Fisherman, and for all of the other publications that have criticized harvest estimates so loudly for so long, will provide their readers with balanced articles on the National Academy of Science’s report.
If they see themselves as serving the truth and their readers, they’ll admit that, while there are still improvements that need to be made, the Marine Recreational Information Program is a workable tool for providing estimates of recreational landings. Such writing will assist NOAA Fisheries in their effort to communicate with “some audiences” that remain skeptical of the survey, and by reducing the level of skepticism and resultant nonresponse, probably increase the quality of the survey results.
If they see themselves as tools of the advertisers, they will tell their readers whatever such advertisers believe will best benefit their businesses, regardless of the impact on readers, the survey, and the quality of landings estimates.
Right now, the odds in favor of truth and full disclosure don’t look very good.
The American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, placed an opinion piece about the National Academy of Science’s report in Sport Fishing magazine. That op ed, which will probably be read by thousands of anglers, never mentioned the Academy’s findings of “impressive progress” or “major improvements to the statistical soundness” of the data developed by the recreational harvest survey.
Instead, it latched onto one recommendation found halfway through the full report, which said that, in order to address concerns expressed in the past by various stakeholders, NOAA Fisheries
“Evaluate whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points is compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits.”
The American Sportfishing Association then spun that simple and reasonable recommendation into a finding that
“A full evaluation of this issue would almost certainly conclude what anglers have long known. The inability of MRIP to allow for in-season adjustments exposes one of the core flaws of the federal saltwater fisheries management system.
“Addressing this core flaw will require both alternative management approaches and alternative data-collection approaches…
“Anglers who would prefer that the NAS report simply have concluded that ‘MRIP sucks’ may have come away disappointed. But that doesn’t get us anywhere. Instead, we can take this opportunity to question whether MRIP is capable of fulfilling federal law’s unfortunate expectation: to manage recreational fishing the same way as commercial fishing.”
It’s not my intention here to point out all of the flaws in the American Sportfishing Association’s editorial, although that may happen in the next week or two.
For now, I just want to focus on tone. And judging from the tone of the editorial, the American Sportfishing Association would have made an attempt to use the National Academy of Science’s report to condemn MRIP even if it had found the survey program to be flawless.
Because it has a bigger mission in mind, its continuing effort to undermine federal fisheries law.
Given the American Sportfishing Association’s response to the Academy’s report, it’s pretty likely that the angling industry will remain hostile to the MRIP program, and to the estimates that it produces.
That means that outdoor writers covering fishery management issues have to ask themselves one big question.
To whom do they owe their allegiance?
Is it to their readers, who have come to know them through their writing and have come to trust them over the years? Do they have an obligation to keep those readers fully and accurately informed, regardless of the consequences?
Or is their allegiance solely to their advertisers’ bottom lines?
And having made that decision, I suspect that a lot of folks are going to have to ask themselves one more thing.
Are they going to keep on shaving, and be forced to look themselves in the eye every morning when they face the mirror, or will it be easier, and less conscience-jarring, to just grow a beard?