Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Science increasingly must make its most important cases to nonscientists"

I wrote earlier that I was tired of seeing so many tags on just about every animal in the sea.

Grant Johnson wrote:
"...Regarding the tags, just recently, the Great Hammerhead missed being protected under the Endangered Species Act in large part because data on the species is "severely lacking." Objectively speaking, what is more likely to result in better protections for this species, thorough data on their life history, habitat usage, and migrations, or beautiful photographs and videos of unmarked individuals? I think it is the former.

"No disrespect intended, I just find this divide between researchers and divers to be very bizarre when the ultimate goal of both groups is often so similar.  "

His complete comment is in the original blog post, below.
I, too, find the "divide between researchers and divers" to be bizarre.  But it's not all the public's fault.   Scientists know that they are terrible at publicizing science, but I've been involved in Pew meetings where the researchers sit around and complain endlessly about being misquoted by the popular press; and then complained that they did not have the time to talk to the media.  Many scientists who talk to the media are indeed misquoted, their explanations simplified -- but that's part of getting the message out.  Their peers often vilify scientists who try to get the word out to the popular media.

Mr. Johnson's attitude, that research studies are more important than images and video of animals, is undoubtedly shared by most scientists.  I tend to disagree with his attitude, but I have no doubt that the vast majority of researchers believe that their work and research is far more important than getting the word out to the popular media.

In fact, I vehemently disagree.  I'm a member of that popular media -- and the "general public" -- and believe that the films and photographs that wildlife photographers, filmmakers, and writers have produced have been vastly important to the movement to save the marine environment and marine species.  Ideally scientists and the media can work together, but given the disdain that scientists have for the media and general public, I don't see that scientists can complain when their work is misinterpreted.

As a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, one of the things that I wanted to photograph was shrimp farms.  It was just me, a single and lowly photographer.  I went to Thailand and other places in Asia and finally got some folks to show me around; most of the folks involved in the business did not want to help me since they did not want to be portrayed in a negative light.  It was depressing work, and I asked for help from folks in the Pew program.  The impression I got after attending a couple of meetings of these eminent scientists was that the talk was mostly about who was boning who -- just like high school.  The last straw was when I learned that there was a field trip to head out to some shrimp farms -- and the Pew person in charge of connecting scientists to the media had not thought to invite me -- even though I had asked her for help several times.  She was far more interested in whispering with another female scientist about her love life, which seemed to be blossoming during one of these meetings, with a famous male scientist who was a popular media darling at the time.  

When my fellowship ended, I wrote the program the letter below.

Sometime in 2004:
Dear Pew Fellows:

I am writing this to a few of you who seem to have an interest in working with the popular media to get marine conservation messages out. 

The overwhelming messages that I heard at the recent Pew Fellows meeting were:
1.  Things are getting worse, not better. 
2.  Scientists need to get their message out. 
3.  Scientists are terrible about getting their messsage out.  They need help. 

If the Pew Fellows program is serious about solving marine conservation problems and recognizes that the popular media is an important part of the solution, then it needs to enlist the help of the popular media in a fundamental and integral way.  It needs to marshal the expertise of the few Pew Fellows that have experience or interest in working with the popular media.  It needs to enlist the participation of freelance filmmakers,  photographers, writers, film producers, directors, and programming executives.  It has to extend its effort well beyond the selection of scientists who are understandably absorbed in their culture and their areas of expertise and cannot direct their attention and energy to effective communication in the media.

The Pew program and its Fellows need to develop a mutual working respect for those in the popular media.  Perhaps most importantly, it needs to recognize that getting stories in the popular media takes a professional, committed, time-consuming approach.  Getting the message out will not be effective if  delegated to "afternoons after I've finished my morning writing."  The Pew program needs to fund and support those Fellows who can tell or present media stories, and the Pew Program should make "getting the message out" a top priority.

Here's an example.  A recent article in Time magazine discusses how the hit CBS drama, CSI, has dramatized and popularized forensic science.  Forensic scientists are rolling their eyes about the dramatic license taken in the series, but this show has increased awareness of forensic science.  Forensic science schools report a dramatic increase in interest and enrollment.  This is part of what we need: a new series about the oceans, with compelling characters.  The series will certainly will hype and over-dramatize science. 

Any scientist watching such a series will roll their eyes and cringe in embarassment, as DNA is analyzed in minutes rather than weeks, and the characters encounter adventure after adventure and make definitive statements like "the bluefin tuna fishery is crashing!" rather than "if we look at the attached reports and graphs, there is a 90% probability that tuna stocks are in serious decline.  We recommend further study."

There needs to be a push to get marine science into all aspects of the popular media.  There should a computer simulation game called "SIM Coral Reef," just as there is a "SIM City."  There should be several television series on marine science, featuring buff women and men who would otherwise be on Baywatch, and having plots that are only a small cut above Baywatch (which was the world's most-watched series in its day).  We need to continue to preach to the converted, continue to hook up scientists with the media, but we need to take a far more proactive approach to getting our stories out in far more outlets.  We need to realize that we have compelling stories to tell and sell to the popular media.  The Pew program is ideally situated to help marine conservationists do this.  In my opinion, however, it has failed miserably and spectacularly so far in getting any kind of message out to the masses. 

I could say a lot more, but this is sufficient for an initial communication.  I am happy to discuss these issues and ideas with anyone.

As a final note:  At the end of my Pew project, I anticipate having a library of still images (probably 700 "prime" images) and 60 hours of high-definition television footage depicting good and bad marine scenes.  I am seeking funding or some way to administer this library of images.  If any of you know of entities that might be interested in working with me to obtain funding to administer this library, I'd like to hear about them.  I and Larry Minden at Minden Pictures (the world's best natural history picture agency, representing photographers like Frans Lanting, Jim Brandenburg, Flip Nicklin, Mark Moffett, and others) agree on the need to develop an infrastructure to post and administer high quality images on the web for use by nonprofits and other entities.  We have experience running photo licensing businesses and know the amount of work and the intricacies of running such a business.  We are the people to make this sort of thing happen.  We just need the funding in order to make a library of images available to nonprofits, among other things. 


Norbert Wu
Norbert Wu Productions

A web gallery of some of the images that resulted from my Pew fellowship can be seen at:

Lastly, the June 2010 issue of WIRED magazine had a great commentary on this issue:

“Scientists hate the word spin. They get bent out of shape by the concept that they should frame their message,” says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that helps connect the entertainment industry with technical consultants. “They feel that the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.” By and large, Dash says, “scientists have withdrawn from the sphere of public culture. They have contempt for the lighthearted fun of communication.”

It didn’t even occur to the AAAS panelists that someone might find that here’s-the-data-we’re-right attitude patronizing—and worthy of skepticism. “Until scientists realize they need us, we can’t help them,” Bush says. “They have to wake up and say: ‘I recognize it’s not working, and I’m willing to listen to you.’ It’s got to start there.” Science increasingly must make its most important cases to nonscientists—not just about climate but also evolution, health care, and vaccine safety. And in all of those fields, the science has proven to be incapable of speaking for itself. It’s time for those with true passion to get over the stigma, stand up, and start telling their stories.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Is Tagging of Wildlife Always Justified? What If Tagging Studies Disturb Animals So Much That They Die or Leave Their Nests?

I wrote in a previous post that I had seen great hammerhead sharks at Bimini with tags all over them.  I wrote:

The older hammerhead sharks all had numerous tags on them; one or two had 4" squares of flesh ripped off behind their dorsal, probably from "researchers" who had caught them and glued tags on them, which then ripped off. I used to study marine biology, even was in the PhD program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But I am now sickened and opposed to the constant, unending tagging of large marine animals.

I went through my video footage and have posted a couple of frame grabs showing one of the sharks.  I wish I had a better shot of the wound of the shark, looking down on it.

Since that post, I've received a few comments from researchers. 

Here's the comment from 182436hike:
"the shark he is talking about is an animal we have known for a year it has a nasty patch on his back. This animal was only tagged with a Casey external national marine fisheries service tag. That would never have produced such a mark. My guess is prop scar turned bad due to shark suckers. I guess this guy had no idea great hammers are endangered and the station founded the (dive) site."

Here are my thoughts on this comment: 
The open wound on the shark was rectangular, with straight edges.  I have strong doubts that a prop would have caused such a rectangular wound, with such straight edges.  As for the comment that the station found the dive site -- great, but what does that have to do with the issue of tagging and this rectangular wound?  Same with the issue of great hammers being endangered.  OK, so great hammers are endangered.  Does that mean they need to get stuck with three or more tags?  There's really no other way to count and identify them?  What about photo studies, like Rachel Graham suggests (her comment below). 

I  always hear researchers say things like "the only way we can get rid of lionfish in the Caribbean is by studying them."  Really?  I doubt that any amount of study of the lionfish population in the Caribbean is going to stop their spread.  If you really want to get rid of all lionfish in the Caribbean, then just put out the word that they taste great and they will help with erections, cure cancer, etc to the 1.3 billion people in China.  Those lionfish will be quickly exterminated, believe you me.  So will all the lionfish in the Pacific too.  Yes, I am of Chinese ancestry and yes, I am opposed to shark fin soup as well as a lot of other things.  

As for tagging: Like anything else, too much of something can make that -- not a good thing. My strong opinion is that there's been too much tagging now.  The acclaimed underwater filmmaker, photographer, and writer  Howard Hall wrote a good piece about the subject of tagging at:

Here's the concluding paragraph and a later comment from Mr. Hall after his article:

"A post-graduate credential often qualifies marine biologists for permits allowing the tagging of endangered animals as well as species in marine protected areas. As sport divers we generally celebrate these programs and accept the damage done to wildlife as a justified sacrifice in an effort to conserve ocean habitat and species. And I am sure many of these programs are critical in that regard. But I also suggest that, as members of the sport diving community, our acceptance should not be blind."

"Thanks for all your comments. After forty years watching the decline of wildlife in our oceans, this particular hypocrisy has become especially irritating for me. I read the report Melvin mentions about sea lions targeting salmon that are tagged with transmitters. An unforeseen consequence of tagging. And I would love for Tony to write about humpback fatalities due to tags. That should get the blood pumping. And it is great to hear the Rachel has moved from tags to photo IDs.
I'm presently at Tiger Beach. Earlier this year researchers caught and landed over forty tiger sharks, cut them open, and installed transmitters in their peritoneal cavities. A few of these sharks still come back to Tiger beach and you can see the stitched up incisions. Other sharks have disgustingly infested holes in their dorsal fins from bolt tags implanted years before. Just lovely."

Back to my thoughts: 
Tagging of marine life has reached ridiculous levels. I've seen images of researchers fishing and landing great white and tiger sharks, then lifting them on small boats to tag and otherwise manhandle them -- in the name of science. Who knows how many of these animals die after being so severely stressed? 

A bird biologist told me a story about researchers counting roseate spoonbill nests in Florida. Roseate spoonbills suffer from reduced/changed habitat. They are easily stressed and will leave their nesting areas. Researchers are concerned about their population. A study was proposed and funded, and researchers studied a population in one roosting area by rousting the birds off their nests, banding the parents, counting eggs and chicks, etc. They stressed the birds so much (not hard to do at all) that all the birds left the nesting area, their nests, and their eggs and chicks. In the name of science, these researchers managed to very quickly destroy one of the few remaining roosting sites preferred by these roseate spoonbills.

I am not a bird expert so some of my facts may be off-course, but I believe the basic premise that researchers disturbed a bird species enough that they left an uncommon nesting site. Here's what I found from a quick read of Audubon's archives:

"But a great many nests have failed on the other keys. Since the late 1970s spoonbills in the bay have re-nested if things have gone wrong, and I see signs that some failed nesters have moved over here to try again. Let's hope."
Attempts by many of the bay's breeding pairs to nest or re-nest often fail, as (despite Lorenz's hopes) they did this spring. 

Here's the more reasoned comment, from Sean:
Anonymous Sean said...
Your blog post seems to have made its way around, and unfortunately not for the better. I'd like to make a few comments. Bimini is like most of the other Bahamian Out Islands. It can be frustrating coming and going at times but those of us used to traveling here have very few issues. It isn't like traveling to Nassau (as you've mentioned) or Freeport. They don't land 747s here and I think that is a great thing. The real Bahamas are places like Bimini, Cat Island, Andros, etc. Not exactly remote, but not exactly urban centers either. Bimini is easy to travel to, situated just 48 miles from Miami and 52 miles from Fort Lauderdale, you can come over by boat in a few hrs with good weather. Something you can't easily do in Nassau. Besides Florida, you can also catch flights daily from Nassau on Western Air or Sky Bahamas. I highly recommend this option. With a 9am flight and a 4pm flight on Western you can often travel from home to Bimini in the same day. Flamingo Air makes daily trips from Freeport making it another travel option. In reality Bimini is one of the easier islands to come and go from, by boat or plane. You just have to know where to look or have guides that actually know the islands.


You mentioned that you were in a PhD program. I would expect someone with your education to research something before posting utter nonsense. I hate to say this but many of us got a good chuckle out of your comment. We all know exactly the shark you are talking about, or at least a couple that fit your description. The holes you are referring to are clearly bite marks from other sharks. They have been well documented this year and there are many pictures of them in various stages of healing. There are no tags being placed by "researchers" that are being glued on their backs. The actual tags have been placed by the Bimini Biological Field Station (SharkLab), who are the ones responsible for discovering this amazing site. They do this in the water, free diving, so as to not have to physically catch these relatively delicate animals. They have been placing tags on these animals long before any commercial dive boat came to Bimini. Thankfully many of the boats and divers support the research efforts. A number of them donate to the lab and have even purchased tags. One dive boat provides all the dive gear for the Shark Lab to deploy and collect the array of underwater receivers that is listening for and recording the presence of these animals.

The PEW Trust and BNT were both driving forces behind creating the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary and both support the Shark Lab. PEW just held an important shark meeting at the Big Game Club, because of the Shark Lab's role here in Bimini. It involved other Caribbean nation governments in the initial stages of a push to widen the protection of sharks from the Bahamas to a larger Caribbean wide area. International agreements like CITES, which we all hailed as a success with their recent additions, including hammerheads, rely heavily on scientific information and stock assessments. Without this information species listings are doomed to fail. It would be nice to see more people like you support the research efforts, especially in this case as you are diving in an established research site. I understand that the tags are often unsightly and I can respect that as an amateur underwater enthusiast myself, but there are bigger issues out there then your own personal images. I have no issue photoshopping out tags (and sometimes I do) so I would think someone of your reputation would be vastly better than I.

My comments:
Sean, thanks for the suggestions on how to travel to Bimini.  For some reason, everyone I spoke to recommended Silver Airlines as the best way to get to Bimini.

I am always happy to provide amusement.  But I don't believe that such a rectangular wound was caused by bite marks.  Are you sure that other researchers have not been pulling "your" sharks out of the water and gluing stuff on them?

As for photoshopping out tags, I am incredibly unskilled at using Photoshop.  I spend enough time at the computer already, and have never found the time to become very good at using Photoshop.

I was a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation about 10 years ago, and I met many of the folks who are now involved in policy-making.   Therefore I understand the importance of research efforts and stock assessments, but I don't agree that tagging and intrusive methods are always the best way to do such research.

Rachel Graham has a relevant comment after the Howard Hall article.  Here it is:

Excellent article Howard. Thank you. As I incorporate tagging into my research I always ask myself if the tagging is necessary to advance our understanding of the species or its conservation. In the case of whale sharks, I started out using conventional tags in 1999 but realised after 3 years that the tags often got fouled and broke and therefore were useless for inter-annual population and even long term migration or site fidelity studies. Around 2002-2003 the unique fingerprint of its patterns of dots was clearly providing an alternative to conventional tagging ( I had started taking ID shots in 98) and I stopped all conventional tagging thereafter and focused primarily on satellite/acoustic tags to provide information that the spot patterns could not provide, e.g. behavioural, migratory, environmental preferences. The knowledge gleaned from the tagging gave us incredible insights into whale shark movement patterns, environmental preferences, site fidelity, population size and more that underpinned management and conservation strategies necessary in the context of a burgeoning tourism. I agree that tagging has its place but there must be a strong justification for using it and only if it will provide key information for conservation that non-invasive methods cannot provide.