My Relationship with White Sharks

Ret SurfWith a growing number of white sharks returning to New England each summer, I’ve been asking people about their relationship with sharks and how that relationship may have changed over time. I’m struck that many start by talking about JAWS. I was barely five years old when the movie was released in June 1975, and I don’t remember the first time I saw it. Maybe on VHS? Maybe a late night TV movie years later? It’s possible the first time I watched it all the way through was only a couple months ago when I bought it on Amazon. As a child, I don’t recall being afraid to swim in the ocean (although I did grow up mostly on beaches in Long Island Sound…so take “ocean” as such). In fact, I actually don’t recall thinking very much about sharks at all.

Even as an adult, sharks were not really on my radar screen. As a science writer, I’ve spent more time criticizing Shark Week than watching it, and I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a shark t-shirt or other shark-themed souvenir. As a journalist who covers ocean issues and fisheries, my book shelf is full of books on all manner of marine animals, but up until recently, there wasn’t a single book on sharks save a tattered copy of Peter Matthiessen’s Blue Meridian–The Search for the Great White Shark. I love Peter Matthiessen.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like sharks. I recognize the presence of a top predator–an apex predator like a shark–to be be a sign of ecosystem health. In my writing about coral reefs, I’ve frequently commented on the lack of reef sharks as indicative of deeper troubles. I’ve dallied in debates over shark fisheries and shark finning from time-to-time, and I’ve even written two shark-specific articles–one on sharks in Maine and one on dogfish. Still, sharks have never really been a focus for me personally or professionally.

All that changed this past March, however, when amidst a global pandemic, I had the opportunity to work on a project concerning white sharks in the western Atlantic. I set out, as I usually do when starting a new project, to read every book I could find about white sharks and sharks in general. I read Susan Casey’s Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Shark and Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore. William McKeever’s Emperors of the Deep: Sharks—The Ocean’s Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood, and Most Important Guardians and Peter Klimley’s The Secret Life of Sharks: A Leading Marine Biologist Reveals the Mysteries of Shark Behavior now sit next to Blue Meridian on the bookshelf in my office. The Shark Chronicles by John Musick and Beverly McMillan, The Shark Handbook by Greg Skomal and Richard Fernicola’s Twelve Days of Terror: Inside the Shocking 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks have all joined the stack beside my bedside table. Amidst my reading, I talked to shark scientists and worked my way through many scientific papers. My take-away: While I knew we had a lot to learn about the biology and life history of white sharks, I’m floored by how much we still simply don’t know.

Screen Shot 2020-08-24 at 4.14.46 PMFast-forward to July and the first shark fatality in Maine’s history. I covered the event in a piece for National Geographic, where I emphasized that, while tragic, the event should be seen in the context of a relatively rare conservation success story. We no doubt still have a lot to learn about the white shark population in the northwest Atlantic, but the data we do have–combined with some pretty compelling anecdote and deductive reasoning– suggest an uptick in the number of white sharks returning to New England (and farther north) every summer. Yes, that means human-shark interactions are likely going to increase, but it also suggests a healthier ecosystem. In addition, apex predators are viewed as “sentinels” of an ecosystem’s response to climate variability and change.

Passionate Hopes and Fears

Thinking about all this–what a resurgence of white sharks in the western Atlantic means–takes me back to the 1990s when I was living and guiding in Wyoming. At the time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was working on re-introducing wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, an initiative that had its origins nearly two decades previous when the gray wolf was listed as endangered and recovery was mandated under the Endangered Species Act. I was fascinated by how emotionally charged the prospect of reintroducing this apex predator to the West became. When the Environmental Impact Statement was complete in 1994, there were over 160,000 public comments–the most comments ever received for any federal proposal at the time.

I was still in school in the early 1990s, pursuing a degree in writing, and penning mostly fiction. During the summers, I was working in Wyoming, and Rick Bass’ short story collection The Watch was almost always in my backpack. When Bass published The Ninemile Wolves in 1992, I purchased the hardcover at Jackson Hole’s Valley Bookstore (not an insignificant purchase for someone who was saving his pennies to buy pasta). The book recounts the story of a female wolf that was spotted in Marion, Montana in 1989. She was captured and moved to Glacier National Park but soon left the park and re-emerged with a mate and then pups in the Ninemile Valley near the border with Idaho some 100 miles south of Glacier. In the years before federal reintroduction officially began in 1995, the Ninemile Wolves (both the pack and the book) became the most focused lens through which Americans, most of whom had never co-existed with an apex predator, considered our place in a world where we could restore and conserve a species we’d spent nearly a century eradicating in the name of “predator control.”

As the New York Times put in their review of Bass’ book, the pack was watched “closely by ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, politicians and bureaucrats, and became the object of the passionate hopes and fears that wolves had inspired in humans ever since the first one was kept away from the door.”

The resurgence of white sharks in New England waters is a more cryptic conservation success story than the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, but it’s one of equal significance. As I’ve experienced first hand, and as Nate Blakeslee recounts in his 2017 book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, people flock to watch the wolves in Yellowstone, where a little effort to see one generally pays off. It’s not quite so easy with white sharks. The undersea topography in which the white shark lives is largely hidden from the casual observer, and white sharks, unlike wolves, share very little in common with domesticated animals with which people are familiar and consider intelligent, cute and friendly. This all can make recovering a species like the white shark more difficult.

And yet here we are, and it has me thinking a lot about our relationship with sharks. It also brings to mind something Bass wrote in The Nine Mile Wolves:

We’re all following the wolf. To pretend anything else—to pretend that we are protecting the wolf for instance or managing him—is nonsense of the kind of immense proportions of which only our species is capable. We’re following the wolf. He’s returning to Montana after sixty years.

“Something Holy in Their Silence”

While I don’t remember when I first saw JAWS, I do remember my first significant shark encounter in the wild. More importantly, I remember the emotion it evoked. I was a teenager, and it was in the Galapagos Islands. I was snorkeling at a place called the Devil’s Crown, a sunken volcano crater that resembles the wretched vertical column of some behemoth lying coiled in the shallows. I’d ventured to one side of the rocky formation where the bottom fell away into a deep blue-black abyss. It mesmerized me. While the rest of our party explored the relative calm of the shallows where small fishes peppered the rocky substrate and shoals of surgeonfishes and grunts moved like undulating tapestries, I remember just floating over the deep and thinking about the immensity of it all. It was like leaning over the rim of the Grand Canyon without any gravity to pull you down.

The first shark I saw was just a dark shape far below. I didn’t know it was a shark. Then there was another. And then another. The scale was deceiving–my own weightlessness disorienting–but slowly the individuals blurred into a group that grew larger as they slowly corkscrewed up from the depths. They were hammerheads, their shadowy silhouettes making the scene all the more surreal as they drew closer in a sort of fluid choreography. I’m not sure if I recalled Matthiessen then, but he comes readily to mind now when I remember the scene. “The shadow of sharks is the shadow of death, and they call forth dim ultimate fears,” he writes. “Yet there is something holy in their silence.” To me, it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and while it may have been the immortality of youth, I do not recall thinking about death, much the less fear. Something holy? Absolutely. 

Over the past five months, I’ve considered the escalation in shark-human interactions in New England. The risk of being bitten by a shark remains small. The risk of dying as a result of the bite is even smaller, but still a single attack brings with it an outsized response of both fear on the one hand and bravado on the other. I was talking with Dr. Greg Skomal, the Massachusetts’ senior marine fisheries scientist who leads the State’s white shark research, and he told me that after the 2018 fatality of a body-border off Newcomb Hollow Beach on the Outer Cape, surfers were back in the water at the very same spot the next day.

I think about that a lot.

And I remember that in 1998 I surfed Stinson Beach in Marin County, California, within a month of a 16-year-old being bitten in shallow water less than 50 yards from shore. I walked right by the large signage warning beachgoers of the risk and pulled up the hood of my wetsuit, attached the leash to my ankle and surfed. I don’t remember why I made the decision to surf that day despite the risk. I don’t even remember if I made a conscious decision.

I’m not sure if I would make the same decision today.

An Evolving Relationship

My own relationship with sharks has evolved, and I’m quite certain it will continue to evolve. As a science writer, it will be largely informed by the data and by the words of shark biologists, but it will also be infused by memory and emotion–by stories and even mythology. In understanding these animals better–in observing them and hearing people who both revere and fear them talk about them–it will be hard to remain objective at times. Maybe that’s okay.

I’m sure I’ll think about wolves a lot. As someone who spent my fair share of time with my eye glued to a scope watching wolf pups emerge from dens in Wyoming, I know how easy it is to interpret a cocked ear or a curled lip as representative of human characteristics or emotions. It’s perhaps harder with sharks because it’s harder to see them, but the risk of anthropomorphizing them is there. Take, for example, the recent picture of a white shark after gorging on a whale carcass off Nantucket. Is there any question as to why the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy used that image for a caption contest?

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There are lines that I don’t want to cross, but there are also places I don’t want to keep myself from going. It will be a balancing act. I’ve taped the following quotation from The Ninemile Wolves above my monitor:

They say not to anthropomorphize–not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think–but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again.



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We Have the Data – Let’s Act on It

If you have been following along on my personal Facebook page, you know that I have continued to advocate for an all-in approach to COVID-19 here in Maine. A couple days ago, on the graph I generate daily and publish on Facebook, I added the major steps the State has taken to date and then projected out the 14-day incubation period after each of those actions were taken.

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When people ask me why I want an all-in approach, I point to these incubation periods. When the Governor made a Proclamation of Civil Emergency on 15 March, the incubation period stretched to the 29th of March. In other words, anyone infected by the virus who altered their behavior on the 15th because of the civil emergency may still continue to transmit the virus until the 29th.

We then waited until the 19th to determine that we needed more restrictive measures, and an Executive Order was issued to close all dine-in restaurants and bars. People infected by the virus in those bars and restaurants prior to this Order–like the ones who attended St. Patricks Day events–are still capable of transmitting the virus to others today even if they are asymptomatic. They will still be a risk to the community until 1 April.

We then waited again until the 25th to determine that we needed more restrictive measures, and an Executive Order was issued to close public-facing, non-essential businesses. People infected by the virus in these non-essential businesses prior to this Order are still capable of transmitting the virus to others today even if they are asymptomatic. These people will still be a risk to the community until the 7th of April.

I fully expect that more restrictive measures are on the way based on the extant data from other affected places and people’s current behavior here in Maine. I asked someone the other day how they viewed each new more restrictive state-wide measure–if they saw each new measure as an acknowledgement that we had not gone far enough with the last one. The person’s response was “no.” We need, he said, to “adjust as necessary.”

A reporter asked the Governor on the 18th of March if there was any consideration being given to a ‘stay-in-place’ order.” The Governor said “No.” She said “We’re being measured.” While I support the Governor and her work to take care of Maine and Mainers during this crisis, I think the data have shown us since long before Maine started testing for COVID-19 on the 9th of March that the way to “flatten the curve” is to go all-in. If the time to be measured ever existed, it is long-since past.

Just remember that whenever we do decide to go all-in in our response to COVID-19, we’ll only just be starting the clock on a 14-day incubation period.

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What Does ‘Essential’ Mean During a Global Pandemic?

Yesterday Maine Governor Janet Mills issued an Executive Order “mandating that all non-essential businesses and operations in Maine close their physical locations that are public facing.” Understanding what is meant by an “essential business” during a global pandemic is something about which I have been thinking a lot recently. I think it’s a topic that needs a broader, community-wide dialog, and I hope to at least partially frame that discussion here. As I’ve sated in my previous COVID-19 pieces, while I am a journalist, fisheries, not health, is my usual beat. Having said that, I frequently cover food and food system issues, so, to keep this somewhat in my wheelhouse, I’ll focus here on what we mean by “essential” through the lens of the food system. (Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answers, but I’ll share my personal approach at the end.)

A couple days ago, I reported on a local restaurant that elected to close their take-out operations despite doing a booming business–despite being deemed essential (as all restaurants, cafes, etc. that offer take-out service currently are). Based on my interview with the restaurant, I learned that, in part, the decision was about a commitment to the health and well-being of its staff. In part it was also about community health. What really struck me, however, was what one employee told me:

Even if we are doing it 100 percent safely, it does seem like being open diminishes the severity of the situation.

When it comes to food safety, US restaurants are focused primarily on bacterial problems. As such, the protocols and procedures in place are also focused on bacteria. Coronavirus is not a bacterium, and so it’s worth pointing out that the usual protocols and procedures in a restaurant are not aimed at stopping its transmission. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to kill coronavirus by wiping down surfaces with the appropriate cleaners. So, while there is a risk associated with the virus being transmitted through the act of preparing food for take-out, that’s not actually the risk that worries me the most.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what’s happening socially as a result of restaurants, cafes, specialty markets, and the like remaining open even if they are adhering to the “letter of the law”–even if they are “allowed” to stay open under the Executive Order. I’m wondering about if the ability to order my favorite dish from my favorite restaurant “diminishes the severity of the situation,” because I see a lot of people that don’t appear to be taking the situation as seriously as a global pandemic might warrant.

Allowed vs. Being Socially Responsible

In 2014, Brian Beggarly and Molly Eddy took the reins at Boynton-McKay Food Co. in Camden, Maine. The small business is an institution in the local community (“Custom remedies for ‘what ails ya’ since 1893. Food since 1999”). Whether you stop in for an award-winning breakfast, a quick (locally roasted) coffee or house-made Kombucha, or some slow-roasted pork tacos, Boynton-McKay is as beloved a destination today as it’s ever been.

On the 16th of March, two days before the Governor’s Order closing restaurants and bars to dine-in service in Maine, Boynton-McKay announced to its customers that they were moving to take-out and delivery only. In making that choice, they cited their commitment to community health even as local bars were advertising St. Patricks Day parties for the following evening. “[W]e are all looking out for each other in this time of uncertainty,” they wrote on their Facebook page.

Yesterday, within moments of the Governor’s Order for all public facing, non-essential businesses in Maine to close their physical locations, Boynton-McKay again stepped up as a community leader and announced that they would be closing altogether. 

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The interesting thing about this decision, and the decision of several other restaurants and cafes in the area to close, is that Boynton-McKay is actually considered an essential businesses under the Governor’s Order. One customer accurately pointed this out to them on social media, saying “You are still allowed to do takeout and delivery.”

So why did they choose to close?

Boynton-McKay’s response was one of the most concise and thoughtful responses I’ve heard to the question that’s been nagging me about what an essential business is. As Boynton-McKay responded in self-defining as “non-essential”:

‘Allowed to do’ and being socially responsible are different right now.

“I am conflicted about the right path forward,” says Boynton-McKay’s Brian Beggarly. “But if staying home is the best way to prevent the spread of this, isn’t offering people a reason to leave the house in direct contradiction to that advice?” He adds that the real tragedy is that people have forgotten how to cook and thus feel like they can’t live without restaurants.

The (Temporary) New Normal

As I was thinking through all of this, I turned to my friend and local chef Max Miller, whose thoughts about food and the food industry are just about as on point as the extraordinary food he makes. While Max agrees that having restaurants open at any level at this time decreases our capacity to take this pandemic seriously, he also thinks there is something else going on here that we must address. Something about the very heart of community and the hospitality industry in general.

“It is part of the construct of hospitality in general to make people feel comfortable and at home,” Max says. “It’s the real mission, but also a deep personal gravitation, of any cook or server that loves this industry to make other humans feel like nothing is amiss, the world is grand, and they ought not to think of the woes of everyday life.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 4.20.15 PMMaine Street Markets, a small Rockland-based specialty market and cafe, echos Max’s thoughts on their Facebook page announcing that they are open, saying “By providing delivery service, offering curbside pickup, and being open for takeout, we are ready to help recreate normal.”

Of course the obvious response to Max and Maine Street Markets is that things are not normal, nor should we be treating them as if they are. Things are amiss, the world is not grand, and we probably should be thinking more about the woes of everyday life living through a global pandemic than figuring out where we are going to get our house-made Kombucha and slow-roasted pork tacos.

How long will this new normal last? Based on the existing data from other areas affected by COVID-19, it’s all but a certainty that the numbers of infected people (and people who die from the disease) will rise in the next few weeks. As a result, and as history shows us, we will feel even more of a need to minimize contact. After we flatten the curve somewhat, we can start thinking about how to get people their favorite meal safely, but right now we need to focus on basics like limiting the spread of the disease.

What Do the Data Tell Us to Do?

Those of you familiar with my work as a science writer know that I put a premium on the data. What do the data tell us about where we should be shopping and how we should be living our lives in the face of COVID-19?

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 4.36.22 PMThe alternative to take-out from local restaurants and shopping at local specialty shops is the large, chain grocery store. Most have physical retail spaces of more than 5,000 square feet, and they are therefore following the Governor’s recommendations for stores of that size including, but not limited to, allowing only 100 shoppers to shop at any one time, staggering their hours for shoppers of a certain age, marking six-foot measurements by the cashier stations, reminding customers to remain six feet apart while in store, staggering break times for employees, and frequently sanitizing high-touch areas like shopping carts. Unlike many small businesses, they have the ability to staff the stores over night in order to implement additional sanitation measures that then provide the safest environment for vulnerable individuals to shop during special shopping hours first thing on the morning.

Is safe to shop at these large grocery stores? The reality is that, given the procedures in place, those at the greatest risk are the grocery store employees, not you, especially if you follow the guidelines and take smart precautions.

Should you shop almost exclusively at these large grocery stores right now? Simple math indicates that, yes, you should. Our primary responsibility to ourselves and to our communities at this point in the pandemic is to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Looking at the data regarding this virus’ transmission efficiency, it’s clear that the best (and easiest) way to reduce that risk is to have fewer interactions (e.g., fewer trips to fewer places). Unlike a trip to a restaurant for take-out, a trip to the grocery store can provide food for a family for an entire week or more. Unlike a cafe take-out, a single trip to a grocery store can supply two weeks or more of non-food related necessities like toiletries and medicines. The grocery store allows us, as consumers, to reduce the risk to ourselves, our families and our communities by limiting our interactions IF we shop at the grocery store as if a global pandemic is the new normal. 

A Greater Good?

The elephant in the room for many reading this will be that shopping at a small locally owned business–be it a restaurant or specialty market–is also about supporting one’s own community. In a place like Rockland, Maine, where I live, that’s an important consideration. I would argue it’s an important consideration anywhere. Main Street Markets expresses it well:

“We know the outside world has been changing continuously, and caution is encouraged. But to find normalcy, not only now but down the line, we ask you shop local. Buy gift cards for your loved ones, have us deliver prepared foods and groceries to your home or food to a neighbor in need, pick up curbside on your way to work. Shop local now so you can continue shopping local later.”

If local businesses close, most will need to rely on external support. Their longterm survival can be augmented by purchasing gift cards, but in reality, the help they will need will be much larger. Can we trust that local and federal government will take care of small businesses that elect to close in the best interest of community health? If we answer “no” to that question, then we are essentially saying that the increased risk is justified when we shop at these businesses. It’s important to remember that the data show us the risk is not just to the individual choosing to shop–it is to our families and our communities. The choices you make in the face of COVID-19 are choices that affect everyone, and you won’t know what that effect is until it’s too late.

I said at the outset that I don’t have the answers. Personally, I’m on day 13 of not leaving our property, and during that time, nobody besides my wife and I have entered our house. We stocked our pantry, fridge and freezer almost two weeks ago before I penned my first COVID-19 piece. We are fortunate to have a wee farm that supplements our diet, and we are blessed to live in a community that both barters and generously shares in times of need. We will shop at our local Hannaford grocery store sometime in the coming week with the goal of getting everything we need for the next two (or more) weeks. Although we generally feel strongly about going out of our way to shop at small local businesses (in part because we are one), we feel good about our choice to rely almost exclusively on Hannaford during this time. In large part, that’s because we feel like it’s the best way to mitigate the risk to ourselves and our community, as Hannaford is set up to disinfect and sanitize and mandate physical distancing in a manner that many small businesses are not. But it’s also because a large business like Hannaford is in a position to immediately support our local community in myriad ways, including a recent pledge of $250,000 in donations to support local food banks.

Looking only at the data regarding the transmission of the coronavirus and the trajectory of COVID-19, it seems clear to me that we must be far more selective about what businesses we consider essential whether or not our government defines them as such.

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COVID-19 – It’s Time to Pivot Maine

It’s time to do more.

I had a conversation with a friend who still pops into get coffee at the local cafe on his morning walk. A local business that sells antiques in town remains open saying “We’ll respect your choice not to come in, please respect our choice to honor our obligation to our dealers.” People continue to make fairly regular trips to the grocery store “because its open, and we need staples.” I spoke with someone who usually doesn’t eat out very often but who is now buying takeout from local restaurants several times a week as a way “to support local businesses in this difficult time.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 1.53.37 PMWhen, on 18 March, Maine Governor Janet Mills announced an executive order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people and closing dine-in facilities at restaurants and bars, a reporter asked her: “I hate to be gloomy, but having heard some people say that Maine needs to follow the example of some other states and shut everything down it possibly can, have you talked about it? Is there a threshold at which you take tough actions?”

“This is pretty aggressive action,” Governor Mills said in response. “Ask any of the restaurants or bars who are going to be losing tremendous business. This is pretty aggressive action. Telling people they can’t congregate in groups of more than 10 is pretty aggressive action across the State of Maine. Actually, our actions today are not dissimilar to those of say Pennsylvania and certain other states where they’ve done pretty similar things and made strong recommendations about public facing businesses but not mandates. We’re being measured.”

When asked “was there any consideration to maybe a ‘stay-in-place’ order,” the Governor simply responded “No.”

On 15 March, when many people, including me, were asking why k-12 schools were remaining open in light of the data, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Senior Vice President of Community Health for MaineHealth, wrote “While I understand why many schools are closing, I also understand why many are staying open for now.” She cited (in a long and thoughtful post on Facebook) US CDC’s recommendation for schools not to close at that time.

Time to Pivot

I look at each of these conversations or actions through the lens of the data, and I keep having that sinking feeling that we are being too measured, especially when it’s clear that, based on their actions, much of the public is either unaware of the severity of the situation or willfully ignorant of the data. As I wrote on 18 March:

Each new measure we have taken as a State and now as a City mirrors a measure taken by a place a few days or weeks ahead of us in terms of the spread of the virus. At some point, we need to get ahead of this and realize that taking extreme measures now will mean we won’t have to continually look back and wish we had acted sooner. There is little doubt in my mind that more severe mitigation actions are on the horizon to limit the spread of the virus, but the data show us clearly that every day we fail to act matters. We need to act now.

It’s time to do more. It’s time to pivot. But what does that look like?

I have a friend who works at a popular local restaurant that has been crazy busy with take-out since they halted restaurant operations before the Governor’s executive order. Now they are ceasing all operations given a thoughtful assessment of the risks and the ongoing stress on employees of operating a business that is not only following “the letter of the law” but is also actively committed to community health and reducing the spread the virus. I would argue those are two different things, which is a huge part of the problem.

This restaurant has been taking extreme precautions but, even so, ultimately decided those precautions are simply not enough given what’s at stake. There’s been only a skeleton crew, and they’ve all agreed to only go to the restaurant and then go home. They let nobody into the restaurant, and they are sanitizing everything after each order is delivered. Unfortunately, customers were not always as careful–getting out of their cars, not practicing social distancing and the like.

While the decision to close was a difficult one, and while the hardship on the business will undoubtedly be significant, one employee put it all into perspective: “Even if we are doing it 100 percent safely, it does seem like being open diminishes the severity of the situation.”

Let’s remember that on 18 March, Governor Mills strongly urged non-essential public-facing businesses to close their doors. Getting take-out is, for most, not essential. Going into a cafe to get a coffee, even if it is only doing take-away, is not essential. Buying antiques or speciality food items is not essential. The grocery stores remain open not for our convenience but so that we can, if necessary, make infrequent trips to get basic supplies that allow us to stay home, where we can cook our own meals, make our own coffee and generally act, as Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC said we should in today’s Maine CDC press conference, like COVID-19 is already in our community. As if each of us have it.

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No disrespect to the Governor, but it increasingly seems clear that, if the public is not going to take this situation seriously on its own, we need the state and federal government to implement more aggressive actions in the name of pubic health. We probably even need mandates.

For non-essential public-facing businesses to tell those of us who are taking COVID-19 seriously that we need to respect their choice to stay open because they are respecting our choice not to shop, I once again implore you to look at the data.* If you look at the data on transmission rates, asymptomatic transmission and the virus’ ability to persist on inanimate surfaces, you would see that your choice is affecting all of us even if we don’t come into your place of business. If you’d like help finding or understanding those data, please reach out.

We are in this together, and it’s time to start acting like it. Let’s all take a deep breath and really begin to think as a community.

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EDIT: In order to clarify the businesses about which I was speaking, I added “non-essential public-facing” to the paragraph “For non-essential public-facing businesses to tell those of us who are taking COVID-19 seriously that we need to respect their choice to stay open because they are respecting our choice not to shop, I once again implore you to look at the data.* If you look at the data on transmission rates, asymptomatic transmission and the virus’ ability to persist on inanimate surfaces, you would see that your choice is affecting all of us even if we don’t come into your place of business. If you’d like help finding or understanding those data, please reach out.”


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Civil Disaster Declaration in Rockland

As I’ve done with the last two pieces I’ve penned about CORVID-19 and, more specifically, our response to it here in Maine and in my city of Rockland, I will reiterate at the top that I am not a medical health expert. I’m a journalist who usually covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. As a science writer, however, I deal with data every day, and data is the lens through which I’m looking at the coronavirus pandemic. I’m using this space to share some of my thoughts based on what I understand are the best available data. If you have other data, please share them with me.

Yesterday I wrote about my continued concern about local businesses in Rockland that were acting in a manner inconsistent with the best available data. I was concerned especially about bars actively advertising St. Patricks Day events, ongoing pool tournaments, trivia nights and the like. When the Rockland City Council met for a special COVID-19 planning meeting yesterday, I was expecting a disaster declaration or some other directive measures to restrict these businesses’ (and others’) activities that, based on the best available data, were putting our community at greater risk. I was disappointed that the Council did not make a disaster declaration at the time of the meeting, but I’m thankful that the town manager did so yesterday afternoon.

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While there are those who are criticizing this action by the City, the data suggest this was the right call. We are dealing with a virus that can be transmitted by people without symptoms. We are dealing with a virus where every non-isolated infected person has the potential to infect two or three other people who in turn may infect four or six more people (a transmission rate of two-three). We are dealing with a virus that can survive on inanimate objects for up to nine days. We are dealing with a virus for which we have a severe lack of testing and no vaccine.

It seems too many people seem to think there is something different about Maine, which justifies us not taking a similar approach to other places that are further along than we are with the spread of the virus. I don’t know what makes us think we are different, especially when the data available on the virus here in Maine appear to follow such a similar pattern to the data from other affected areas.

Each new measure we have taken as a State and now as a City mirrors a measure taken by a place a few days or weeks ahead of us in terms of the spread of the virus. At some point, we need to get ahead of this and realize that taking extreme measures now will mean we won’t have to continually look back and wish we had acted sooner. There is little doubt in my mind that more severe mitigation actions are on the horizon to limit the spread of the virus, but the data show us clearly that every day we fail to act matters. We need to act now.

Act how?

As I write this, there are non-essential businesses that continue to operate in the city of Rockland staying true to the letter of the declaration but not to the data. This needs to stop.

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Unless these business have a serious plan in place to mitigate the risk to the people who choose to shop there and then go on to interact with others in our community, then their actions are an unacceptable risk to us all. What does mitigation look like beyond the 10-individual city mandate? For starters, since we know the virus can survive on inantimate objects for up to nine days, surface disinfection multiple times per day with 0.1% sodium hypochlorite or 62–71% ethanol significantly with a one minute exposure time should be a basic requirement.

But in reality, what we need to do is go a step further and close all non-essential businesses now. As Winston Churchill said:

It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.

I’ll leave you with a good data visualization from Gary Warshaw that many of you have probably already seen and which helps to show why social distancing is so important right now. Be the seventy-five percent.

garywarshaw infographic

#datamatter #bethe75percent

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COVID-19 – Do the Right Thing…Now!

As I wrote a couple days ago, I am not a health expert, but as I watched aghast at local k-12 schools, museums, restaurants, etc. in Maine choosing to remain open despite really clear data showing the necessity for social distancing, I felt compelled to add my voice to the discussion surrounding COVID-19. While health issues are not my beat as a journalist, I deal with data daily in my science writing, and so I’ve tried, as I know many of you have, to approach COVID-19 issues almost exclusively through the lens of the best available data.

Today the COVID-19 data continue to be consistent with the assertion that this is a very serious public health emergency that needs an all-in approach to addressing it. While I’m pleased that local k-12 schools did announce closings on Sunday (as did many other local businesses over the weekend and into Monday), I continue to be dumbfounded by those businesses that are actively choosing to ignore the best available data. In Rockland, for example, we have at least two bars that are right now actively promoting Saint Patrick’s Day events for tonight. One of them is also continuing to hold pool tournaments with buffet food provided.

When challenged about the decision to stay open–and many of these establishments are being publicly challenged on social media–the response is often something along the lines of “this is still a free country” or “the media is whipping people into an unnecessary frenzy” or “nobody is making you attend, so mind your own business.”

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Those looking at the data know that these responses ignore those data. They know this is a virus with a transmission rate between two and three, meaning that every non-isolated infected person has potentially infected two or three other people who in turn may now have infected four or six more people. The data also show the probability of a transmission event happening before the infected individual becomes symptomatic (much the less tests positive) is ~26 percent. In addition to direct human-to-human transmission, the data show this virus “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days.” At least one study has also shown that the virus can live in the air “up to three hours post aerosolization.” Add to this that we here in Maine, as well as in the United States in general, are woefully behind when it comes to testing, a point illustrated by a data visualization in today’s New York Times:

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Days ago we needed an all-in approach to social distancing. As the data from other affected countries clearly show, every day counts at this point. Given the situation, and given that some businesses have been slow to do the right thing, it is unfortunately time for a more top-down approach. Today, the Rockland City Council met for a special COVID-19 planning meeting, and these issues came up. Several council members called for the City to look seriously at a top-down approach and declare an emergency at the meeting. Citing the City’s Emergency Operation Plan, the Mayor said that such a decision rests with the mayor and the city manager, and no Emergency was declared at the time of the meeting.

“None of us are going to try to act lightly,” said Mayor Lisa Westkaemper. “We’re not going to operate in a vacuum. We’re going to try to act calmly, reasonably, taking everything into account that we can, doing the best we can with the information we have at the time, not ignoring it, not taking it overly seriously, not taking it underly seriously but finding that balance for all of us in the middle of how to plan for the future and how to deal with today at the same time.”

While most reasonable people would likely applaud the Mayor’s approach in normal times, these are not normal times. The data show us we can’t really take this “overly seriously,” but if we do, I can live with us looking back at the decisions we make now and saying we over-reacted. The alternative is to look back, as we now can look back to just a week ago, and say we were too slow to act.

So what data am I referring to? There are many and many good sources for constantly updated data. Here I’ll share just two figures with you. I’m sure most of you have seen a data visualization such as the one below (this one was posted in r/dataisbeautiful yesterday by u/nathanxgarcia).

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It shows that once the virus begins to show up in testing, the number of cases rises exponentially. These data allow us to project ourselves into the future, and we can see that, even with extreme measures (i.e., Italy’s imposed national quarantine on the 9th of March), the picture is not a pleasant one.

The second figure looks just at Maine. We currently have 32 cases of COVID-19 in Maine, but keep in mind we’ve only tested ~0.002 of the State’s population. While our dataset is currently small, we can clearly see exponential growth since the first positive test result was reported by Maine CDC on the 12th of March.

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This exponential growth is consistent with a virus with a transmission rate of two to three and one that can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms.

Do we really think there is something different or special about Maine that would make us an outlier? Or is the much more reasonable approach to assume that our data will continue to fall in line with the data from other states and countries? I think the data are clear, and I think they clearly outline what our next steps must be in the best interest of our community. If you have other data, I’d love to see it.



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COVID-19 – What’s at Stake for Maine: One Virus Two Possible Outcomes

The current piecemeal, a la carte, wait-and-see approach to COVID-19 I’m seeing in my community and in Maine in general appears to be inconsistent with what we should have learned from the data.

As a mountaineer, I can’t count the number of times I backed off a climb in the Rockies because of the threat of a thunderstorm. Depending on the orientation of the mountain, a thunderstorm can be on top of you with little warning, and so most mountaineers take precautionary measures to make sure they’re headed down before the afternoon thunderheads, even if they have not seen them yet. Mountaineers who ignore the possibility of an afternoon thunderstorm (something that is very well represented in the weather data) may find themselves in a panic as a cobalt sky is suddenly eclipsed by a dark anvil shaped cloud. Summit fever has put me there a couple times, and it’s terrifying as the wind picks up, the hair of your beard stands on end, and, in the most terrifying of cases, your rack of metal climbing gear begins to hum and then glow. COVID-19 is like a really bad thunderstorm, and it’s increasingly feeling to me like we didn’t start down the mountain in time.

While I’m a science writer by profession, the science surrounding COVID-19 is not in my wheelhouse or on my beat unless we’re talking about how it affects the Maine lobster fishery (and it is affecting the Maine lobster fishery!). Having said that, I am concerned about COVID-19 and, more important, our collective response to it. While I would not characterize my concern as fear–and I do not believe what I’m about to write is fear mongering–I’m very concerned we’re not acting based on the best available data, and if you know anything about me, you know I think the data matter.

Although COVID-19 may not be my beat as a journalist, data certainly are a big part of my daily work flow. Looking at the data, it appears clear to me that the best thing we could be doing right now for our families, communities (mine is Rockland, Maine) and nation as a whole is to be all-in when it comes to social distancing. The current piecemeal, a la carte, wait-and-see approach I’m seeing in my community and in Maine in general appears to be inconsistent with what we should have learned from the data.

What would an all-in approach to social distancing look like? In my opinion, the time to close schools, museums, theaters, gyms, and the like has long since past. It’s long past the time to cancel all sporting events, trade shows and any other large gatherings. Everyone who can work from home should be working from home. Any essential commercial activity that must continue should be carried out only with protective measures in place (e.g., there should be sufficient space for people to maintain at least two meters distance between themselves and others). Restaurants that can provide effective distance between diners ought to adopt limited hours to focus only on their essential function and then close early. Businesses that remain open should implement and publicize protocols for effectively sanitizing public spaces. This is not a comprehensive list, and I am not a public health expert, but these are the sort of steps that seem obvious to me based on the data.

I know these measures may sound extreme, but consider the alternative….and the point I really want to drive home here is that considering the alternative doesn’t need to be a theoretical exercise based on some model of a hypothetical situation. Instead, we can actually look directly at the data available from places that are a couple weeks or months ahead of us insofar as the spread of COVID-19 is concerned. Many of those places did things (and are doing things) we have not done, and we can learn from those actions and the results of those actions as they manifest themselves in the data.

While people have been seriously talking about coronavirus in Maine since at least early February, the public discussion about altering behavior didn’t really ratchet up until early March. On 5 March, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) announced that “testing for the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at the state’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory is expected to begin in the next several days.” Further, Maine CDC said they would inform the public if positive tests are confirmed, and they said that the number of positive test results would be posted to Maine CDC’s coronavirus webpage. This was forty-five days after the first known coronavirus case was announced in the United States.

On 10 March, Maine CDC began daily reporting, and we learned that less than 30 people had been tested for COVID-19 and none had tested positive. The population of Maine is in the neighborhood of 1,345,000.

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By 11 March, 47 people had been tested and there were still no positive test results.

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On the 12th of March, the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in Maine was announced by Maine CDC after a total of 85 people were tested. By the following day, 13 March, there were three presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Maine with a total of 108 people people tested statewide. NOTE: A presumptive positive result is when a patient tests positive at a state, reference, or commercial laboratory but results are pending confirmation at US CDC.

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How does Maine compare to the Nation as a whole? As of today, the US CDC is reporting 1,629 cases nationwide (in 46 states and the District of Columbia). US CDC is reporting 41 deaths.**

Put another way, according to Maine CDC data, 0.0002229 percent of Maine’s population has tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 0.0004936 percent of the US population as a whole. Wow! Those are pretty small numbers. All things being equal, I think many of us would take those odds. Consider, for example, that we have around an 8 percent chance of being struck by lightning in the US and yet we really don’t alter our behavior that much to avoid a lighting strike, do we? So why should we alter our behavior for a 0.0002229 chance of becoming infected with a virus that probably won’t even kill most of us?

I have two answers: 1) Only about 0.008 percent of the population of Maine has been tested to date, and 2) Most of us actually do alter our lives to avoid being struck by lightning, but the actions we take are so intuitive and ingrained–such common sense–that we hardly even notice them–so much so that we think we aren’t even taking them.

On the first point, the exceptionally low testing rate has given us a false sense of security. The lack of positive tests in the State and in individual communities is always the first argument for why this school has not closed or this event is still happening. This low testing rate insures, however, that there were most certainly cases of COVID-19 in Maine before CDC reported the first positive test on the 12th of March. In addition, we need to consider that the best available data show that the number of secondary infections generated from one infected individual (the transmission or reproductive rate) is somewhere between two and three for the coronavirus. So every non-isolated infected person has potentially infected two or three other people who in turn may now have infected four or six more people.

“But wait,” you say, “we got the word out early and people have been great about staying home if they have symptoms.” While that’s debatable, keep in mind that, unlike influenza, the coronavirus can be transmitted before any symptoms appear. In fact, the data show the probability of a transmission event happening before the infected individual becomes symptomatic (much the less tests positive) is 26 percent. Finally, in addition to direct human-to-human transmission, the data show this virus “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days.” At least one study has also shown that the virus can live in the air “up to three hours post aerosolization.”

In short, we are long past using the number of positive tests for COVID-19 as our guide for whether or not we should implement mitigation strategies like social distancing.

On the second point about the relative risk of being struck by lightning, one of the reasons we have almost cut the fatality rate of lighting strikes in half in the last decade is surely because we understand the data and we respond appropriately to it. In the same way that not standing in the middle of a field during a lightning storm is obvious based on lightning strike data and our understanding of how lighting works, social distancing is clearly the common sense move in the face of COVID-19. I fully understand that mitigation of COVID-19 through the type of social distancing I outlined above is certainly a big ask, but COVID-19 is not a lightning storm. Nor is it influenza, a common cold or a hoax. All the credible data with which I’m familiar show COVID-19 is here, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 3.33.42 PMEven if we implement the most austere social distancing possible, there is no evidence to suggest it would stop COVID-19 in its tracks. Actually the data show that it wouldn’t. What it can do is buy us time, and that’s what we need right now (this is what you’ve heard referred to as “flattening the curve”).  Why do we need time? To be blunt, I’ll borrow population health and health policy expert Dr. Drew Harris’s words: “It’s the difference between finding an ICU bed & ventilator or being treated in the parking lot tent.”

For too long, we here in Maine listened to the news and looked at those maps showing Maine as one of the handful of states with no confirmed cases of COVID-19. We forgot perhaps that Portland is under two hours by car from Boston, which is home to an international airport that sees more then 50.5 million passengers per year. COVID-19 was scary but in the same way news of foreign wars is scary. We’re not, after all, Washington or California or even Massachusetts. By the time the first Maine case of COVID-19 was reported by Maine CDC, we were already in the grips of a declared global pandemic, and we didn’t even know it. We were already past the point of having the conversations we are having now–conversations like should we close k-12 schools. Conversations like should we close museums and theaters, especially as we have the oldest population in the nation with almost 20 percent being 65 or older.


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The map shows the known locations of coronavirus cases by county. Circles are sized by the number of people there who have tested positive, which may differ from where they contracted the illness. Some people who traveled overseas were taken for treatment in California, Nebraska and Texas. Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories are not shown. Sources: State and local health agencies, hospitals, C.D.C. Data as of 12:19 p.m. E.T., Mar. 14. (Source: New York Times)














We are at a point where every day we don’t act matters. When we look at how COVID-19 has behaved in other countries, we can see what to expect. When we look at other nations’ response times and outcomes, we can clearly see what has worked and what hasn’t. When we look at historical analogs like the Spanish Flu, we also can glean the same information.

So what works? I’ll leave you for now with a great chart from Tomas Pueyo’s article for Medium titled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.” This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject, and it is certainly the one that cemented my current belief in calling for all-in social distancing.

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As Pueyo writes of the above chart, “This theoretical model shows different communities: one doesn’t take social distancing measures, one takes them on Day n of an outbreak, the other one on Day n+1. All the numbers are completely fictitious (I chose them to resemble what happened in Hubei, with ~6k daily new cases at the worst). They’re just there to illustrate how important a single day can be in something that grows exponentially. You can see that the one-day delay peaks later and higher, but then daily cases converge to zero.”

The time for debating what we are going to do is over. We know the thunderstorm is cresting the summit. We’re going to get rained on and we might even hear some distant thunder rumbling, but we can still decide to mitigate the risk. We can still decide to be prudent and begin a systematic descent immediately with no lingering thoughts of standing on the peak. This isn’t about panicking. It’s about being prudent.

We have the data, and the data matter.

**The New York Times has updated their numbers twice since I started drafting this piece. Almost 100 new cases were reported in the time it took me to write this piece:

As of Saturday afternoon, at least 2,345 people in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have tested positive for coronavirus in the United States, according to a New York Times database, and at least 50 patients with the virus have died.

As of Saturday afternoon, at least 2,443 people in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have tested positive for coronavirus in the United States, according to a New York Times database, and at least 50 patients with the virus have died.

Thank you to Richard Ross and Andrew Rhyne for your pre-press comments.


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Summer’s Not Over!

coralThank you to all of you who have written notes to see if I’m okay. I am, and I know I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a couple months.

Summer is a time when my writing productivity usually drops off as a result of keeping up with the farm, hosting houseguests and helping my wife with the Karen Talbot Art Gallery (we’re open weekends until at least the third weekend in October). While I have not published much this summer, I have been hard at work on several big projects, which I look forward to announcing soon.


In the interim, if you’re in Rockland, Maine, consider checking out the joint show I currently have up at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center. The show features some of my photography (including a large print of the above coral image) along side the scientific illustrations of the immensely talented Karen Talbot. I’ll also be giving a talk in late October at the visitor center about coral, so stay tuned for that.

Until then, you can find Karen and me either pressing apples here at Three Bird Farm or eDNA sampling for embattled Arctic char in northern Maine.


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Maine is Running Out of Lobster Bait. Is Farmed Salmon the Answer?

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The following is an excerpt from my most recent piece in National Geographic. Click here to read the full story.

ROCKLAND, MAINE – People love lobster. For some, it’s nostalgic, eliciting memories of bygone days and summers in Maine. For others, it’s a celebratory meal reserved for special occasions. From whole lobster or tail to a lobster roll or bisque—from Panera, McDonald’s, and Red Lobster to the finest white-tablecloth restaurant, lobster is an iconic American food. And waitstaff and apps tell diners that Maine lobster is thriving—it’s a sustainable fishery certified by the Marine Stewardship Council—so they can feel good about what’s on their plates.

The bait used to catch lobster, however, is less on people’s minds. But it’s unavoidable when talking to Maine’s lobstermen these days.

Genevieve McDonald fishes out of Maine’s largest lobster port aboard the F/V Hello Darlings II. Last November, she became Maine’s first female commercial fisherman (“fisherman” and “lobsterman” are the strongly preferred terms for both women and men in the industry, she says) elected to the Maine House of Representatives, representing a district that includes Maine’s two biggest lobster ports. Not surprisingly, McDonald ran on a platform many in the fishing industry support. But above all else, one issue stood out.

“Our biggest issue is the bait crisis,” she said in November, regarding a newly imposed 70 percent catch limit cut for herring, the most popular lobster bait. “I can’t get the herring quota back,” she said, “but I want to try to see about other… [CONTINUE READING]

Posted in Aquaculture, Fishing Industry, Lobster Fishery, Maine Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seafood Expo North America 2019

Today is the first day of Seafood Expo North America 2019 (SENA19), and I’m headed to Boston for the show. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is largest seafood exposition in North America with thousands of buyers and suppliers from around the world. There is also a conference program that features more than 25 educational sessions, presented by seafood industry thought leaders and experts from many segments of the seafood industry.

As a freelance journalist, I cover this event annually, as it’s a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with some of the sources with whom I work throughout the year. It’s also a great opportunity to keep up with trends in the seafood industry.

If you’ve followed my coverage of previous shows, you know that I’m often interested in the relationship between what is being discussed on the floor of the show where all the exhibitors are and what is being discussed in the conference sessions. As a journalist who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability, I’ve found it fascinating to look at how the concept of sustainability has been presented at SENA over the years. From the days when one didn’t see the word “sustainable” on the floor at all, to more recently when it seemed like every exhibitor had sustainability claims front-and-center, it’s illustrative to observe how the conference discussion tends to lead the marketing efforts.

In more recent years, the conference discussion has focused quite a bit on how the ubiquitousness of the word “sustainable” in the seafood industry has led to it meaning less and less. When companies start claiming “100% sustainable,” for example, it’s clear that we are no longer focused on a journey toward greater sustainability–and sustainability must always be a journey, never a destination.

This year at SENA19, I’m going to be taking a closer look at fishery improvement projects (FIPs) within the context of true sustainability. FIPs emerged in recent years as a tool for incentivizing fisheries to progress along the path to greater sustainability. With the advent of third-party certification, verification and advisory schemes (e.g., MSC, Seafood Watch) it became clear that the seafood industry needed a way to identify fisheries that had not attained an ecolabel but were still on the right path. In part, this was a direct result of market forces–like when Wal-Mart announced they would offer only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seafood to US consumers. There was simply not enough supply, so they had to expand the definition of what sustainable meant to them.

The emergence of FIPs as a sustainability tool was also, however, about insuring that fisheries had incentive to improve rather than simply being marginalized. As I wrote in 2015 while covering SENA, sustainability must never become a club.

The leaders of the seafood industry need to avoid wearing sustainability blinders. Yes, we need to shine a light on those who are doing it well insofar as sustainability is concerned, but, more importantly, we must not allow those in our periphery vision to fall out of focus. Reward those who have worked hard to achieve certification, but also engage with those who have not. Certification is a tool; use it as such.

FIPs are a great way to engage those fisheries that have not achieved certification or been green-lighted by an advisory scheme, and the success of many FIPs is well documented. Having said that, FIPs are also vulnerable to many of the same issues as sustainability initiatives. Some point again to the example of Wal-Mart: When they were unable to meet their stated seafood sustainability goals, they shifted to also including FIPs. When sourcing remained problematic, the bar on which FIPs passed muster shifted.

Others point out that FIPs often unevenly distribute the costs and benefits of improvement. In many so-called successful FIP models, fishers end up paying the lion’s share of the cost but don’t readily see the benefits. Because sustainability is increasingly seen as including not only environmental sustainability but also socio-economic sustainability, this shortcoming in the traditional FIP model is one that needs to be addressed.

With this interest in FIPs at the forefront of my mind as I head to SENA19, I’m excited to attend a panel discussion later today titled “Triple Impact FIPs: Finding and Capturing Value to Accelerate Fisheries Improvement.” The presenters claim that “FIPs may be achieving environmental improvement but at great social cost to fishers, those who in globalized supply chains are least capable of paying for improvement.” During the presentation, they will be discussing a revision to the FIP model that can “evaluate, track and incentivize improvement of fisheries’ social and financial performance along with their environmental performance.”

If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @RetTalbot.


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