30 Years of Coastal Shark Protection in the Atlantic

This April marks the 30th anniversary of US federal protection for sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a long time coming, but these regulations, in combination with the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and the 1997 ban on killing white sharks in federal water, set the stage for the conservation success story that is at the heart of Chasing Shadows. Here is an excerpt from chapter six of the book in a section we titled “A Sea Change: Protections for Sharks”:

It wasn’t until April 1993 that the Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean was finally implemented. The final plan regulated thirty-nine frequently caught species of Atlantic sharks and divided them into three groups: large coastal sharks, small coastal sharks, and pelagic sharks. It established a commercial permitting system, commercial quotas, and a framework for adjusting quotas. For recreational anglers, it put in place a trip limit of four sharks per vessel for large coastal sharks and pelagic sharks and a daily bag limit of five sharks per person for small coastal sharks. It also prohibited finning and the sale by recreational fishermen of sharks or shark products. While it was a long time in the making, sharks in the northwest Atlantic enjoyed widespread protections for the first time ever.

Like any federal management plan, the Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean that was implemented in 1993 was not perfect. Both commercial anglers and recreational anglers criticized the plan (for different reasons, of course), but it was a start.

Article from Press of Atlantic City, Atlantic City, New Jersey · Tuesday, April 27, 1993

If you’d like to read Chasing Shadows, you can preorder it now on Amazon wherever books are sold. We are also launching a Galley Giveaway next week on Goodreads if you’re interested in a chance to get an advance copy.

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Happy Birthday, Stan!

Today is Stan Waterman’s 100th birthday!

For those who don’t know, Stan Waterman is a five time Emmy winning cinematographer and a pioneering giant in the world of shark diving. We mention Stan a couple times in Chasing Shadows because 1) he is a pioneering giant in the world of shark diving (as previously stated) and 2) because he was a big influence on my co-author Greg’s life and career.

When I was first getting to know Greg, he mentioned the movie “Blue Water, White Death” on several occasions. I was familiar with the movie because of Peter Matthiessen’s 1971 Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark about the making of the film (I wrote about that a bit in this blog post), but I had not seen the film in years. It is extraordinary on many levels, and we talk about the “feeding frenzy” scene in the book. Stan Waterman was both a producer and photographer on the film.

Stan enters Chasing Shadows in chapter three. It’s 1979, and Jack Casey (Greg’s mentor and the author of Chasing Shadows‘ forward) had mobilized a team that included Frank Carey of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to try and study white sharks in the western Atlantic. The work was mostly funded by ABC television, and the network sent a film crew that included Stan Waterman. It was a win-win, where the scientists got some of their research funded and the network got some great footage shot by Stan for their popular American Sportsman show.

Fast forward to chapter nine of Chasing Shadows. It’s now 2010 and Greg is preparing to dive with a white shark feeding on a whale carcass off Cape Cod. When I was interviewing Greg about that day, he told me Stan Waterman was very much front of mind as he prepared to enter the water with the 18-foot shark. We write:

“Nobody had filmed white sharks underwater in the Atlantic since Stan Waterman filmed the segment for ABC’s American Sportsman in 1979. It was something for which I’d been waiting my entire life, and I happened to have one of the best underwater cameramen in the world [Nick Caloyianis] at my side.”

What happens next was both one of the most exciting and terrifying moments in Greg’s life, but you’ll have to read the book to get the whole story. We also include a couple pictures of the incident in the book’s 16-page photo insert, but here’s a bonus picture Greg snapped of the shark he and Nick would name Curly.

These connections with our mentors and heroes across time are so humbling and rewarding. Happy Birthday, Stan!

P.S. As many of you know, I live on the coast of Maine, and Stan Waterman was the first resident of Maine to purchase an aqualung following World War II. How cool is that?!

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Beloved Invaders – Perceptions of Non-native Species

This episode of the Beyond Data Podcast (Season 1, episode 3) was originally released in August 2018.

The non-native brown trout, which the data show places a burden on imperiled native fishes, is revered in the United States, while other non-natives are demonized. In this episode of the Beyond Data Podcast, we take a deep dive into the interplay between non-native and native fishes–especially salmonids. We’ll look at how our perceptions toward introduced species are shaped, and we’ll ask the question of whether or not there is a place for non-native species in ecosystems we consider healthy. 


(in order of appearance)

Dr. Julie Lockwood, Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University

Dr. David West, Science Advisor, Freshwater at New Zealand Department of Conservation

Kirk Deeter, Vice President of Trout Media at Trout Unlimited

Kim Todd, Sparrow Author of Tinkering with Eden and Sparrow

Dr. Nathaniel Hitt, Research Fish Biologist at USGS Leetown Science Center

Michael Steinberg, Author of Forthcoming A Brook Trout Pilgrimage and Associate Professor at The University of Alabama

Francis Brautigam, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife 

Catherine Schmitt, Author of The President’s Salmon and Communications Director at Maine Sea Grant

Derek Young, Professional Fly Fishing Guide, Owner of Emerging Rivers Guide Services and Founder of Headwaters Matter


PART I [00:00] Non-Native Cover Fish

The cover of the winter 2018 issue of Trout Magazine features a brown trout.

Trout Unlimited’s Trout Magazine 

PART II [4:00] Nuanced Definition

Dr. Julie Lockwood’s Invasion Ecology, 2nd Edition

“Conserving Honey Bees Does Not Help Wildlife” in Science, January 2018

“How Invasive Feral Pigs Impact the Hawaiian Islands” from Island Conservation

“Why are lionfish a growing problem in the Atlantic Ocean?” from NOAA Ocean Facts

PART III [7:50] Earth’s Virgin Utopia

Silver Pine Lodge 

New Zealand Department of Conservation

“Rotenone treatment has a short-term effect on New Zealand stream macroinvertebrate communities” in New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research

“Reintroduction of a native galaxiid (galaxias fasciatus) following piscicide treatment in two streams: response and recovery of the fish population” from Ecology of Freshwater Fish

Zealandia Sanctuary

Galaxiid Conservation Status

“Silently Spreading Death” from Fish & Game New Zealand is linked as a PDF

PART IV [21:55] The Brown Trout Comes to America

“Tinkering with Eden” by Kim Todd

PART V [27:00] What the Data Show

“USGS Study Reveals Interactive Effects of Climate Change, Invasive Species on Native Fish” 

“Brook trout use of thermal refugia and foraging habitat influenced by brown trout” in Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences

Fausch’s “Competition Between Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) for Positions in a Michigan Stream” in Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences

“Temperature‐dependent shifts in phenology contribute to the success of exotic species with climate change” in the American Journal of Botany

“How Climate Change is Helping Invasive Species Take Over” in Smithsonian Magazine

PART VI [31:50] Maine’s Embattled Coldwater Fishes

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

IFW Angler Survey

PART VII [42:45] Immigrant Fish & Dark Rhetoric

“Why Do I Love Brown Trout So Much?” by Kirk Deeter 

David Theodoropoulos on Invasion Biology at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 

“What is the Brown Tree Snake” from USGS FAQs

“Conserving Honey Bees Does Not Help Wildlife” in Science, January 2018

“Why are lionfish a growing problem in the Atlantic Ocean?” from NOAA Ocean Facts

PART VIII [50:05] Angler Evolution & A Conservation Ethic

The President’s Salmon

Penobscot River Restoration Project

Trout Unlimited

Native Fish Coalition 

Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture

Western Native Trout Initiative

American Sportfishing Association

Headwaters Matter


In addition to my guests today, special thanks to Loren McClenachan of Colby College and Molly Payne Wynne from The Nature Conservancy. Music by Andy Cohen and Fabrika Music at HookSounds. Sound effects by acclivity at freesound.org. A big shout out to Jess from the Murder Road Trip Podcast for New Zealand voice talent. Cheers to Clay Gloves at the Fish Nerds Podcast for doing all you do.

Beyond Data is reported, narrated and produced by me, Ret Talbot, in Rockland, Maine.


About the Beyond Data Podcast

For the past decade Beyond Data Podcast host Ret Talbot has been a freelance journalist and science writer reporting on fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. He frequently uses the hashtag #datamatter because, well, they do. But what happens when the data simply don’t exist, are insufficient or unavailable? What happens when so-called alternative facts are considered just facts and people operate under the impression that the plural of anecdote is indeed data? How do we reach consensus when everyone espouses his or her own data—his or her own facts? In the Beyond Data Podcast, Talbot and his guests go where he’s often been unwilling to go in his reporting–beyond data.

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Where Science and Poetry Meet

Science makes discoveries when it admits to not knowing, poetry endures if it looks hard at real things. Nature writing, if such a thing exists, lives in this territory where science and poetry meet. It must be made of both; it needs truth and beauty.

-Tim Dee
Covering a story in the Solomon Islands for Coral Magazine

For much of the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to make my living as a freelance magazine writer. Much of that time has been spent as an independent journalist and, more specifically, a science writer covering ocean issues and fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. I’ve had the opportunity to write about everything from high performance liquid chromatography to white band disease. I’ve covered “Mercury-Laden Fish Floated for School Lunches” (editors write titles!) and human rights abuses in the seafood industry. I’ve written about sharks in the Gulf of Maine and lionfishes in Florida, an 800-pound grouper threatening Florida’s reefs and a tiny coral reef fish from Sulawesi threatened by humans. I’ve travelled from Canada to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia to Belize covering fascinating stories about science and scientists. I’ve been fortunate to make my living this way, and I’ve been lucky to have the support of some fantastic editors along the way.

And yet there is something missing for me: Poetry.

Okay, not actual poetry because I’m a bad poet and the world absolutely does not need more bad poetry. What I mean is crafted language–beautiful language full of imagery and metaphor. Language which is sometimes used in unconventional ways to express what conventional language cannot express. I’m talking about narrative and storytelling–more than “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Can that type of writing be incorporated into science writing? Into journalism? Of course it can, but often it isn’t (and often for good reason, I should add).

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good science writing–even masterful writing–in the pages of National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, New Scientist, and Smithsonian to name a few magazines I try to read regularly. I aspire to be as good as Oliver Sacks, David Quammen, Mary Roach, Sy Montgomery, Natalie Angier, Siri Carpenter, and many other science writers I admire. But I also increasingly have a desire to inhabit the space that writer Tim Dee defines as existing “where science and poetry meet.”

In the soon-to-be-published book I wrote with white shark biologist Greg Skomal, I had the opportunity to go beyond the who, what, when, where, and why and tread into the subliminal space of the imagined and the beautiful, something I don’t often get to do in short-form science writing for magazines. Chasing Shadows is the story of the resurgence of the white shark population in the western North Atlantic seen through the eyes of Greg, a leading white shark biologist. What most attracted me to the project is that it’s a too-rare conservation success story about restoring an apex predator to an ecosystem. As far as I’m concerned, it’s too big a story to be contained by what some may consider the conventions of science writing. Toward that end, we open the book firmly in the shark’s world:

The morning sun cut through the green-hued water, casting bright down-shafts of light that undulated along the slate-gray back of the eleven-foot shark. It moved effortlessly—or so it appeared—but also with inimitable purpose. If a fish could swagger, this is surely how it would look. From the side, its pointed snout, large dorsal fin, and crescent-shaped tail disclosed its identity, but it’s the color—the abrupt demarcation between dark upper and glaring white underside—that is unmistakable to even the most casual observer.

The white shark is commonly called the “great white,” because the mere mention of its name conjures up larger-than-life imagery. In the face of those jaws or that dorsal fin—those are, of course, the most common tropes—anything short of hyperbole falls flat. The shark’s confidence becomes arrogance. Its efficiency, aggression. It’s frequently called “mythical,” and while it does occupy a central role in the mythologies of many cultures, there really is no need to idealize or embellish. The actuality is enough.

The hard reality is that this animal is about as close to perfection as any animal in existence today. Everything about the white shark is purpose built to excel in one of earth’s most inimical environments, as it has done for millions of years. The white shark swam here when Glacial Lake Cape Cod was still draining—when humans emerged and when the dinosaurs went extinct. The white shark’s ancestors managed to survive every mass extinction since they arrived on the scene more than 450 million years ago. To call the white shark an evolutionary success story would be like saying Leonardo da Vinci was a reasonably competent artist.

The white shark is no myth. It is no accident or aberration. It is the result of a sequence of precise adaptations achieved over millions of years, and it has culminated in this—a near-perfect, albeit little-understood, animal swimming steadily north along the Outer Cape on a mid-September morning.

I am beyond appreciative that Greg and our editors at William Morrow/HarperCollins allowed me the space to delve into the shark’s world throughout the book in these vignettes where we little by little reveal this extraordinary animal to the reader. There is, of course, also lots of great history, science and policy in the book, not to mention many incredible stories from Greg’s career and the careers of those who inspired and came before him. My hope is that we created a space in Chasing Shadows where science and “poetry” meet and that it’s a space you would like to inhabit with us for a time.

Chasing Shadows is available for pre-order now at Amazon or wherever you get your books.

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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-boarder 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?

Screen Shot 2020-08-23 at 4.53.03 PM

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.

To learn more about the resurgence in the white shark population in the western North Atlantic, I invite you to read my new book Chasing Shadows, which I wrote with Greg Skomal and will be published on 11 July 2023.

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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.

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 11.12.29 AM

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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