National Media Ignores the Data in Favor of Riding ‘Bluefish’ Wave

Scientists say Washington Post article on 'Finding Dory' should be hashtagged #FindingJournalism based on its poor reporting.

Scientists say Washington Post article on ‘Finding Dory’ should be hashtagged #FindingJournalism based on its poor reporting.

You’ve heard that the sequel to ‘Finding Nemo’ is coming out, correct? If so, you’ve probably also heard the new movie is called ‘Finding Dory’ and features the blue tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. To the best of my knowledge, these things are true. But likely much of the rest of what you’ve heard in the media about the movie and its potential effects on blue tang is, at best, poorly sourced speculation and, at worst, outright untruths in support of poorly conceived anti-aquarium trade campaigns.

If you’re familiar with my writing, you know I have written about marine aquarium fisheries and their potential to create economic incentive to fish sustainably and even conserve reefs and reef species. You also know I have covered the impediments to the aquarium trade realizing that potential–things like continued destructive fishing practices such as cyanide use, serious concerns about non-native species introductions and even human rights abuses in aquarium supply chains. When I cover aquarium trade issues, as I do with all my fisheries reporting, I do so based on firsthand research and independently verifiable data whenever possible. That’s what journalists do.

Or at least it’s what they’re supposed to do.

Journalists Riding the Bluefish Wave

As the release of ‘Finding Dory’ grows closer, it’s easier and easier to slot a blue tang story into the mainstream media news cycle, and many journalists have taken advantage of this in recent weeks. Unfortunately, many of those journalists have not done what they are supposed to do–research and report. Instead, many of these journalists have been caught up in “the Bluefish wave,” (tip of the hat to the documentary ‘Blackfish’) and have become mouthpieces for anti-aquarium trade campaigns that ignore, misrepresent or flat out manufacture data that support their ends.

Each day for the past several weeks, I wake up to a new email–sometimes several–pointing me to another story about the potential effects of ‘Finding Dory’ on wild populations of blue tang. My readers and people who have heard me speak over the last year know that I have concerns about the movie and its effects on wild blue tang populations. I have been vocal about those concerns, but these articles people email me are often so over the top and inaccurate that I hardly know how to respond.

So, for the most part, I have not responded.

One reason I have not responded–attempted to share accurate data and set the record straight in the face of such horrendous reporting–is the very simple fact that defending the aquarium trade against inaccurate accusations and bad press is not my job as a journalist. While it offends me that journalists are willing to be so loose with the data and so unprofessional in their reporting, I have other important stories on which I’m working concerning other fisheries (what the heck is going on the state of Maine Atlantic halibut fishery?!).

The other reason I have been reticent to engage beyond publishing my concerns about the blue tang fishery is that I don’t see the aquarium trade addressing the issues that threaten it. Instead, I see a largely reactionary trade that has gotten very good at circling the wagons–so good, in fact, that it has become the trade’s de facto stance. When I look to other fisheries, take global seafood for example, I often see an industry addressing issues head-on. I see public-private partnerships. I see industry funding science and seeking data. I see engagement with NGOs. I see industry trade associations such as National Fisheries Institute (NFI), which represents more than 70% of US seafood businesses, talk frankly and publicly about the issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of issues with seafood, but there is also a lot of dialog, collaboration and, yes, progress.

#FindingJournalism – Responding to the Washington Post

Even though I have not engaged directly, I am bugged by this cascade of poorly written articles espousing data I know to be inaccurate. That’s why I was so pleased to read what I thought was an important letter to the editor of the Washington Post by Roger Williams University’s Dr. Andrew Rhyne, a scientist on whose work I have reported in the past. The letter was in response to a 18 May article titled ‘Finding Nemo’ wasn’t so entertaining for real clownfish. Now conservationists worry about ‘Finding Dory’, which is amongst the worst of the ‘Finding Dory’ media pieces. Dr. Rhyne had confidentially shared the letter with several people he thought might find it interesting before it was published in the Post.

Unfortunately the Post elected not to publish Dr. Rhyne’s letter, citing a policy that they don’t publish letters in response to pieces published exclusively on their website. So I asked Dr. Rhyne if I could publish it.

The May 18th Morning Mix piece on ‘Finding Nemo’ wasn’t worthy of a national newspaper. Scientist do worry a bit about ‘Finding Dory,’ and some advocate to “leave fish in the ocean, where they belong.” However, Mr. Andrews’ story is full of inaccuracies. Those that actually study the aquarium trade are concerned about over collection for some species. After extensive study, however, the reality is that clownfish and specifically ‘Nemo’ has little to worry about with respect to the aquarium trade. Clownfish occur over very wide geographic areas and they have been reared in captivity since the 1960s. They are produced in captivity in excess of a million fish per year and captive bred clownfish supply the majority of the trade. We have seen a decline in wild collection since the early 2000s.

Much of Mr. Andrews’ story comes from a press release and fund raising website of biologists in Australia (…/world-found-nemo-can-we-save-him). If Mr. Andrews were to have fact checked their claims he would have come to a very different conclusion. The trade in reef fish has risks but also benefits both to the exporting (rural economies, employment) and the importing (teaching basic science to children, a physical link to remote ecosystems) countries and this is the nuance called for by this story. The reiteration of a simplistic message in a press release does a disservice to better understanding how we add value to reef-side economies in this era of onslaught from massive impacts such as global climate change.

As Dr. Rhyne says, this spate of poorly reported ‘Finding Dory’ media pieces threatens to distract from the real issues. These articles set up an us-versus-them mentality and polarize complex issues where we, as journalists, must deal in nuance. When I spoke with Dr. Rhyne about this, he jokingly said we need to use both the hashtags #FindingDory and #FindingJournalism.

I couldn’t agree more.


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 Aquaculture, Indo-Pacific, Ornamental Fisheries and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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