Tips for Journalists Covering Oceans and Fisheries

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Earth Journalism Network, Washington, DC

Building Bridges with Audiences

Conveying these very ambitious goals and engaging the general readership in ocean issues can be difficult. Most readers’ knowledge of the ocean is low. The journalist must therefore continually educate readers about the basic metrics of the sea when reporting. How much seafood comes from wild fisheries? How much from farming? Who owns the oceans? How is it governed? What are the primary ways fish are caught? How do these methods affect the environment? How are fish and shellfish farmed? Which methods are the most sustainable? These basic facts are largely unknown to the general public. And even though the reporter who frequently covers the ocean may find him or herself repeating this information again and again, what we are looking for with ocean issues is a “snowball effect”—i.e. a greater and greater number of general interest readers that will accumulate around a core of readers who already understand some of these foundational elements of ocean science and management.

In addition, many readers also come to ocean issues somewhat distanced from ocean creatures. Whereas terrestrial animals share many common things with us – binocular vision, four limbs, warm bloodedness, fish usually lack these traits and are thus somewhat alien to us. The journalist must therefore figure out how to overcome that distance, to introduce an element of wonder at the great variety and strangeness of the sea, and to bring readers closer to the profundity of that wonder.

The first way is to try to choose subjects that are key to the eating patterns of their readership. Once key species are identified journalists can gather preliminary information through a number of online resources. An excellent starting point is Fishbase.org. Here the journalist can look up species by common or scientific name, and check relative abundance, distribution, and many other factors. This resource is available in several languages including Mandarin Chinese. Some resources like seafoodwatch.org offer more detailed reports on individual species with some country-specific information provided as well.
In looking through all of this data, it’s important to remember that each fish or shellfish can be used to tell a story through its evolution and its lifecycle. Salmon tell the story of the interconnection of the distant sea with the rivers that originate into the heartlands of our nations. Tuna tell the story of the open ocean and the crises in negotiating functional multi-national treaties around fishing. Shrimp reveal the issues of coastal degradation, the loss of saltmarsh, and the destruction of mangrove forests. Beyond these familiar species are also the stories told by new arrivals on the seafood marketplace. Whenever a new fish or shellfish appears widely in the marketplace, it nearly always is telling the story of a profound ecological or economic shift. Why, for example, did tilapia appear in China when before it was not native to the country? Why, to give another question, is tuna-based sushi booming in China when before it was considered an exotic cuisine?

Time management & gaining access

If one were to do first-hand reporting of ocean issues aboard fishing vessels every time one wanted to report a fisheries story, one would spend a lot of time at sea and probably not generate that much content. In some countries it is possible to gain access to an ocean going fishing vessel, as the American journalist Rowan Jacobsen did in this excellent article on the crisis in New England cod. But because nowadays fishing vessels often spend weeks if not months at sea, reporting must also be done at arm’s length. There are a few ways to produce acceptable fisheries articles without spending excessive amounts of time at sea. A few possibilities:

Tracking vessels and fisheries remotely.

Because of innovations in GPS monitoring and the Internet, it can now be possible to remotely track vessels at sea via computer. The website MarineTraffic.com allows researchers to locate vessels throughout the world relatively easily. In other instances reporters working remotely can find fisheries violations literally from space. In 2013 Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak working from her desktop while in residence at the University of British Columbia was able to observe fish traps in the Persian Gulf that were clearly exceeding their quota. This kind of desk-based research has been aided in recent years by the development of Ocean in Google Earth. This function allows journalists to understand a bit more about the geography of the ocean without actually setting foot on a boat.

Visiting local government fisheries offices and interviewing scientists dedicated to the study of your target species.

Most local states or provinces have local administrative organs that set fisheries quotas and interface directly with fishing communities. As such they are responsible for gathering data on annual catches and tracking catches over time. A visit to one of these agencies is often a good place to start a story about fisheries.

Interviewing fishermen before and after trips at sea.

In addition to being good sources of colorful commentary, fishermen offer something scientists often don’t: many days at sea. Though scientists will spend their lives studying a given fish or shellfish, their ability to actually work at sea in hampered by available funding for field research. Fishermen, meanwhile, will spend much of the course of their lives in fish’s home environment.

Visiting fish markets.

Repeated visits to fish markets often reveal economic and ecological changes over time. The diminishing or price rises of shrimp in local markets in 2009 was probably the first indication of the shrimp disease Early Mortality Syndrome. Similarly, visits to markets over the course of the 1990s would have revealed the rise of Pangasius catfish and tilapia and the decrease in wild “white fish” like cod.

Verifying with internationally published reports.

Local fisheries agencies and fishermen may either not allow access to fisheries data or may for exhibit local biases in their reporting. Fortunately there are resources available online that give metadata on fisheries and fisheries management that may help the journalist reach more informed conclusions. In this respect, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization collects data from governments around the world and is a good entry point for finding more detailed reports about a specific fishery or region.

Covering aquaculture.

Since aquaculture now constitutes almost half of world seafood production the reporter on the seafood beat is obligated to spend considerable time on aquaculture. Fortunately this is a good deal easier than covering fisheries. Aquaculture operations are usually accessible from land and permissions can often be obtained on a corporate level rather than on a governmental level. Still, with seafood safety now an issue of concern for many aquaculture companies, the journalist may find resistance to on-site visits of farm sites. In visiting aquaculture sites one must also be aware of the possibility that the aquaculturist in question may have facilities that it commonly shows to reporters which don’t necessarily represent the norm of that company’s operations.

Common Conflicts in Sources

In assembling final stories on fisheries, certain conflicts of points of view inevitably arise and affect the biases of interviewees you may encounter. It’s important to keep these biases in mind. Some of the most common are:

Aquaculture vs. fishing conflicts:

Fishermen often feel threatened by the presence of aquaculture. They tend to think aquaculture depresses prices for wild caught fish and threatens their livelihood. The farmers of seafood, meanwhile, tend to regard fishing as an out-of-date, primitive endeavor, an industry that is impossible to be scientifically managed. The truth lies somewhere between these two points of view and the journalists would be well advised to understand these biases before presenting these points of view to the reader.

Artisan fisheries sectors vs. industrial fishing sectors:

Most coastal countries have an artisan, small-scale, near-shore fleet with minimal catch effort per vessel but high employment, as well as industrial distant water fleets with larger vessels, a high degree of mechanization, low employment per unit of fish caught but a high overall production in the tonnage of fish. The artisan fishing sector frequently voices opposition to the industrial sector, accusing it of monopolizing quota and depressing market prices. The industrial sector, meanwhile, will frequently point to the difficulty of managing a complex, multi-party artisan fishery. Enforcing quota, the industrial sector frequently asserts, is much easier with fewer, technologically advanced vessels that carefully monitor catch. Many countries have sought to maintain both sectors and to manage conflicts between them. The interstice between these two sectors is fertile ground for the reporter as both sectors have strong, valid opinions.

Fisheries Scientists vs. fishermen:

Fishermen often believe that because it is they who spend the greatest amount of time on the water, they know best. Fisheries scientists who may only conduct monitoring on a periodic basis, are often seen as biased against fishing or uninformed about the true nature of abundance in a given fishery. Understanding the exact points of disagreement between fishermen and the scientists that are deployed to establish catch limits is key to reporting on a wild fishery.

Local problems vs. international trends:

In fisheries, problems are often expressed in global terms. We are frequently told, for example, that fisheries are at or exceeding their maximum sustainable yield. On a global basis this has proved to be true. But every fishery is different. In some regions good management practices have been put in place and stability in fish stocks have been achieved. Keeping in mind which problems are global in scope and which are local can help clarify the nature of a given problem and lead to region-specific solutions.

Conclusion & Future Topics for Research

There are many dangers confronting the ocean at the dawn of the 21st century. Beyond the problems cited in this toolkit other issues like plastic debris, toxic algal blooms, acoustic pollution, and many others – are all becoming more severe with the passage of time. At the same time, one striking fact must be kept in mind. In spite of all these degradations, in spite of all of the abuse humankind has thrown at the ocean, the ocean is still alive -- alive enough to produce more than 80 million metric tons of seafood each and every year. It is this statistic that the reporter covering the ocean must keep in mind with every interview conducted and with every site visited. We were born into this world with a living, nourishing ocean at our disposal. It is our responsibility going forward that our children have the benefit of such wealth in the future.