Science Communication

Marine Biologist in an Ocean of Journalists

Journalists are an interesting group of people. As a scientist and specifically, one who studies animal behaviour, I cannot help but study human behaviour as well. We are half-way through this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) Annual Conference in New Orleans. As a writer and a scientist, this conference is a great fit for my interests and experiences. That said, I am in the minority as the scientist, the one that studies whales. As always, people are always very interested to hear about my research and to learn about whales. Journalists, though, are captivated! If you can formulate science into a story, then complex data can become palatable and engaging with nearly any audience – charismatic megafauna need not be the only interesting subject!

My journey in Louisiana began with an introduction to the state’s oyster reefs and fisheries in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. A small group of journalists and myself traveled from New Orleans to Empire, LA – a small fishing community along the Mississippi River delta – to meet John Tesvich, a local oyster fisherman, and gather his perspective of the state of this fishery. We took a trip aboard his vessel into the bayou to experience oyster fishing firsthand and, of course, to eat oysters! While listening to Tesvich speak, I found that the perspective of fishermen is very similar no matter their target catch species nor where they live – from Labrador to the Caribbean to the west coast United States. It is clear that many of our country’s fisheries, which have supported communities for many, many generations, are in dire shape. Those fishing in the Louisiana Mississippi River Delta system have it especially difficult given the regions’s land loss crisis and increasingly extreme climactic conditions from floods to hurricanes to droughts, all of which can dramatically change the coastline and bayou’s in one single event. I cannot help but sympathize with these people.

Similar to the dire situation fishermen face, large land mammals are in a precarious situation of their own. I sat in on a discussion titled, “Endangered Species: If we can’t save charismatic big cats, what can we save?” What was most astounding to me was the so-called “tiger bone wine”. I, like many others in the room with me, had never heard of this Chinese product before. Author Judy Mills described that it is reportedly the most significant risk to wild tiger populations and is a symbol of status and financial investment for wealthy Chinese. To make tiger bone wine, a whole tiger skeleton is steeped in a vat of rice wine. The price of the wine increases the longer the tiger bones are left the steep. The most expensive wine actually contains a small bit of ground tiger bone right in the bottle. Further, as tiger farming in China increases, the demand for wild tigers for wine increases exponentially and thus is putting wild populations at a far greater risk than ever before. A case of this wine can fetch $32,000 or more. The description of tiger bone wine physically and emotionally repulsed just about everybody in the conference room and left many of us speechless, reporters and myself included.

To round out the first half of the conference, I attended the session, “Skating on Thin Ice: Climate change at the poles” moderated by Sunshine Menezes of the Metcalf Institute. Here, again, we discussed the dire situation at the poles due to climate change. Habitat degradation is not only of concern for the large marine mammals that I study, but also for microscopic organisms as well as land flora and fauna. Speaker Melanie Bahnke put it well when she referred to another endangered species of the Arctic that is often overlooked and forgotten about: Inuit natives. This statement in particular struck me as incredibly insightful and yet blatantly obvious, if only you stop to think about it. Their land is rapidly deteriorating and changing around them – land that they rely on for subsistence and survival – and yet they are far underrepresented and rarely considered by policy makers. They experience the ramifications of climate change first and foremost. What native populations most want to see is that natural resources are protected. To do this, Traditional Knowledge holders and western scientists need to collaborate with policy makers in order to protect and preserve Arctic populations’ livelihood and heritage. Bahnke’s discussion put a human toll on the climate change crisis and highlighted a need for action in a way not many people, whether reporters, scientists, or lay people, know or perhaps care to think about.

I think it is important for research and science to tell a story; from these three people alone, dramatic and memorable stories were told. I gained a lot of insight thus far and I hope that by telling these few stories to you, the knowledge gap between science and public has shortened, even if just slightly. More stories will be told soon to round out the SEJ conference and enlighten those who seek knowledge.

This program is supported by a grant to study Seasonal Trophic Roles of Euphasia superba (STRES) from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs (Award Number 1142082). Read more about the STRES project here.

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