The Big Picture – Freedom, Collaboration and Vigilance in the Name of Conservation

It’s high time that we recognize that our freedom and our biodiversity are linked together. We cannot have an abundance of the former without an abundance of the latter.

– H. Bruce Rinker

Dr. H. Bruce Rinker’s most recent offering in The Roanoke Star does not concern fishes or fisheries, but I’m going to draw your attention to it nonetheless. If you’ve been following my work recently, you know I’ve been writing a lot about the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and how people respond to it–how listings are often plumbed into the contemporary media pipelines of polarization and hyperbole. Sound-bytes and attention-grabbing headlines. It seems to me that we benefit most when we look at the Big Picture and take the long view. Unfortunately it seems we rarely do this, and I think that’s why Rinker’s column really struck a chord.

Rinker’s “The Passing of a Pigeon” reminds us that as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we also should take note of the 100th annual observation of the global extinction of the passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon was “at one time the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world,” Rinker writes. But it was “driven into extinction by humanity’s stupidity and self-importance.”

Society had had all sorts of warnings about its pending doom, mostly ignored with the assumption that it had flown elsewhere. But then politicians got involved, thus ensuring the inability of conservationists to stop the slaughter.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the writing of the star-spangled banner this month–as we recall the flag waving “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”–we should also remember that we have not always been the best stewards of that land and the species which it supports. Rinker recalls the words “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” indelibly imprinted on the façade of the National Archives and suggests we might also consider the wildlife management analog: “The price of conservation is eternal vigilance.”

“It’s high time,” Rinker writes, “that we recognize that our freedom and our biodiversity are linked together. We cannot have an abundance of the former without an abundance of the latter.”

In my own reporting on recent ESA listings and regulatory actions affecting fisheries, I feel as if I far too often hear an “I’ll-give-you-my _____ when-you-pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands” approach from those who believe they have a lot to lose. Some of the opposition to these conservation initiatives may well have merit, but the sound-byte version most commonly and carelessly bandied about is often akin to nothing short of conspiracy theory. For hobbies like recreational fishing and aquarium keeping, the hobby media often respond with articles that appear to objectively address big picture issues with data but instead are really anecdote-laden appeals to emotion full of misinformation and designed to stir the pot and rally the troops.

Kelly Heber, a PhD candidate in coastal and marine ecosystems, policy and economics at MIT summed it up well in a post today at her own blog. Heber was responding to an article titled “Florida Anglers Call for Goliath Grouper Harvest” published at She writes:

[W]hen recreational anglers hear that the stock remains closed, despite what journalists like this are saying, trust and goodwill are lost in what can and should be a worthwhile collaboration between state and national level fisheries management agencies, scientists, and resources users like anglers and divers. It veers a scientific, socio-economic, and political issue into the realm of the conspiracy theory (i.e. scientists/ NOAA/ Obama/ whomever are trying to keep the stock closed because of bureaucratic rigidness/anti-angler mentalities/ insert conspiracy here.)

Our freedom and our biodiversity are indeed linked together, but when we make ad hominem arguments about our freedom being taken from us by those seeking to conserve biodiversity–by the man–we lose sight of the big picture.

The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, and now it’s gone. Collaboration. Vigilance. These are important words when we look at the Big Picture.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Endangered Species Act (ESA), Forida, Ornamental Fisheries, Southeast Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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