Number 17
April 11, 2001

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Pew, SeaWeb shrug off oil to target fishing
by Nils E. Stolpe
(This is the second part of a guest column examining the influence of big money donors and the environmental groups they support on US fisheries policy originally printed in Commercial Fisheries News)
The Pew Charitable Trusts have spent tens of millions of dollars on fisheries and ocean issues and even more on the news media in recent years. This flood of money has had a significant impact both on fisheries policy and on how our industry is depicted in print and on the air. While a large part of the Pew focus is supposed to be representing and increasing the public's interest in fisheries and ocean issues, is it also shifting that interest? 

One of the more active efforts to influence public opinion on fisheries is spearheaded by SeaWeb. On its web site, SeaWeb describes itself as a "project designed to raise awareness of the world ocean and the life within it." Its primary funder is the Pew Charitable Trusts. Early in its existence, SeaWeb commissioned a public opinion survey to determine which ocean issues would best "engage the public interest."

The introduction to the results of the survey, which was conducted for SeaWeb by the Mellman Group, stated "Americans believe the ocean's problems stem from many sources, but oil companies are seen as a prime culprit: In fact, 81% of Americans believe that oil spills are a very serious problem. This is followed by chemical runoff from large corporate farms (75% very serious), improperly treated water from towns near the coast (69%), contaminated seafood (65%), and trash, oil, and chemical runoff from streets (65%)." Overfishing evidently wasn't considered "a very serious problem" and was lumped in with "the loss of critical species" to make the cut as a "meaningful indicator" of trouble. 

But in an article on the poll in SeaWeb's November 1996 monthly update, the only specific threat to the oceans mentioned was overfishing. Along with three paragraphs of vague generalities was this statement: "71% (of respondents) agree that overfishing is threatening the health and stability of the marine environment." Nothing about oil spills, runoff, contaminated seafood, or any of the other "problems" identified in the survey, only overfishing. Is this engaging or is it redirecting the public interest?

Funding, MPAs
It seems that an almost universal groundswell of support has developed spontaneously for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as the solution to problems besetting our oceans and the creatures living in them. It seems as well that much of the focus of the MPA movement is protection from fishing. A widely circulated "scientific consensus statement" by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California at Santa Barbara basically concludes that MPAs and Marine Reserves are one of greatest developments of civilization since sliced bread. The statement, it explained, was the result of a two-and-a-half year effort by an international team of scientists. That effort included a research review and a joint meeting by the NCEAS scientists and other researchers on marine reserves convened by the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) in May of 1998. This sounds like the world of science at work the way it's supposed to work, with objective researchers reaching their own conclusions independently, then coming together behind a consensus position. But is it really?
COMPASS is funded by the Packard Foundation and SeaWeb is a COMPASS "partner." The chair of the COMPASS board of scientific experts received a Pew fellowship in 1992 and is also a member of the NCEAS international team of scientists that drafted the consensus statement. Six of the 15 scientists at the COMPASS meeting were Pew fellows, as were 25 of the 161 scientists who signed the statement. Marine reserves or MPAs were mentioned in the project descriptions, biographies, or bibliographies of 27 of the 58 Pew fellows named since 1996. One might easily conclude that they are strong supporters - if not promoters - of the concept. Few other researchers can maintain either the professional or public profiles that Pew fellows enjoy, thanks to the financial support - some $150,000 each - and connections the fellowships provide. (In addition to these Pew fellowships, the Pew Trusts and the Packard Foundation have spent more than $2 million in grants specifically promoting MPAs since 1998.)
But the Pew connections don't end there. In January of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) named the finalists for its MPA Advisory Committee. The 26-member committee includes representatives of a number of organizations funded by Pew and Packard, including:
• Environmental Defense - $3.4 million from Pew and $1.2 million from Packard in the last five years;
• Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) - $5.5 million from Pew;
• Center for Marine Conservation - $1.1 million from Pew, $1.6 million from Packard; and
• Conservation International - $400,000 from Packard.
A program officer from the Packard Foundation is also a MPA committee member, along with one commercial and one recreational fishing industry representative.

Groundswell? You bet. Spontaneous? Not hardly. Universal? How much of the universe can you influence with 10 or 20 million dollars, particularly the universe of marine and fisheries researchers, who have been dealing with declining research budgets for decades?

Pew and swordfish
Back in August 1997, Pew Environmental Program Director Joshua Reichert wrote in an op-ed article printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer "The root problem is not only the size of the quota, the length of the season, or the number of vessels involved. It is how the fish are caught. Use of longlines must be barred." In January 1998, SeaWeb announced the "Give Swordfish A Break" campaign, centered on a domestic consumer boycott of swordfish. In a 1998 article in the St. Petersburg Times (FL), titled "En Garde for Swordfish," reporter Bill Duryea detailed the SeaWeb strategy behind the "Give Swordfish A Break" campaign. "The first thing (SeaWeb Executive Director) Vikki Spruill did when she went looking for a fish to save did not have to do with fish at all," Duryea wrote.

Having decided that the most effective way to "engage the public interest" in ocean problems was through the food on their plate, Spruill, Duryea wrote, "needed a certain kind of fish. A poster fish, if you will. Shrimp and salmon rank at the top of the most popular seafoods, but half of the shrimp and salmon sold in the United States are farm-raised, tempering their status as overfished. Besides, shrimp lack a certain weightiness. 'We wanted something majestic,' said Spruill. Number 3 on the popularity list, according to Spruill, was swordfish, whose firm-fleshed steaks had become a mainstay of fashionable restaurants across the country."

Good mariners?
In April 1998, Pew Fellow, SeaWeb "spokesteam" member, and National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program Director Carl Safina wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times attacking the swordfish industry and swordfish managers. "Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruise Lines, being good mariners, have announced that they will deftly steer clear of swordfish; they've canceled 20 tons of orders," Safina said. Interestingly, Safina's Living Oceans Program has been on the receiving end of a multi-million dollar grant program administered by The Ocean Fund, which was established by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Also worth noting, Royal Caribbean has been fined millions of dollars for various environmental violations. In a 1999 New York Times article, Steven P. Solow, chief of the environmental crimes section of the US Justice Department, was quoted as saying that "the fact that the Nordic Empress (a Royal Caribbean cruise ship) continued dumping after the guilty pleas showed that the company 'had a culture of crime.''' Good mariners, Dr. Safina?
Objective research?
In June 2000, Pew's Reichert was quoted again on longlining, this time in an article on leatherback turtles in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reichert stated that longlining "is considered a very dirty method of fishing ... These boats pull up everything. They pull up birds, sharks, all kinds of fish and turtles."

On Aug. 1, 2000, NRDC and SeaWeb issued a press release titled "SeaWeb and NRDC Declare Victory for North Atlantic Swordfish" that "applauded groundbreaking action by the federal government to protect juvenile North Atlantic swordfish, one of the two principal goals of the Give Swordfish a Break Campaign" and announced the cessation of the consumer boycott. Industry spokesmen and managers are pretty unanimous in their belief that the Pew boycott inflicted a significant amount of economic damage on the domestic swordfish industry and the longliners in it, while doing nothing for swordfish conservation. The bottom line was that a lot of individuals and businesses in the US were severely hurt because they were in a fishery that millions of Pew dollars could turn into a "poster child" for a troubled ocean.

And, in spite of the Pew "victory," the oft-printed beliefs of Joshua Reichert will keep the Pew dollars flowing for a study by a researcher who apparently shares those beliefs and will keep the people and businesses in the fishery suffering. Last November, Duke University issued a press release announcing a Pew grant of $1.2 million to study longlining. In it, Larry Crowder, research team leader, was quoted as saying "pelagic longlining is one of the most lucrative and perhaps destructive fishing techniques. The recent and rapidly expanding fishery is inherently nonselective. In other words, the gear inadvertently kills both juvenile target species and non-target species, such as sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, and other fish." Sound familiar?

Putting it together
So back in 1996, the folks at SeaWeb commissioned a survey to help them get the public involved in the ocean. The introduction to the survey stated, "The poll is critically important to informing the campaign. The research has given us a strong sense of what will work to engage the public in this issue, but the public still requires educating before acknowledging a problem."

The report indicated that Americans would be most effectively engaged by focusing on their perceptions of what was contributing to the problems of the oceans - oil spills, chemical runoff from corporate farms, improperly treated wastewater, contaminated seafood, and non-point source pollution.

But were they given that opportunity? Not quite. Disregarding everything else, the Pew Ocean Update focused on overfishing. So did SeaWeb's programs. On its web site, SeaWeb's priority issues are listed as:

• Declines in swordfish, tuna;
• Trawling and longlines;
• Shrimp and salmon farming;
• Algal blooms;
• Marine sanctuaries and marine zoning;
• Shark finning;
• Florida Bay as the problem in microcosm (with an emphasis on estuaries); and
• Land-based toxic pollutants (as contrasted with oil spills).
Fishing - or overfishing - was accorded little attention in the public opinion survey relative to all the other threats. Yet today, fishing and aquaculture "problems" comprise at least half of SeaWeb's workload. Oil spills, which were identified as the number one problem in the poll and which seem to be going on at the same rate they were pre-Exxon Valdez, get virtually no attention at all.

It's obvious to anyone with any exposure to the print or broadcast media that the public's focus has shifted from "blame it all on the oil industry" to "blame it all on commercial fishing." Every major fishery is under stringent management and every fisherman is working with severe restrictions today, but that isn't enough for the organizations funded by Pew.

Perhaps more people should start asking "why?"

Pew and the media

Since 1995, the Pew Charitable Trusts have awarded some $80 million in media-focused grants. These grants have been in areas including training, equipment, support of journalism projects, improving news coverage, and production of programming.

Some of the recipients and the total grants awarded to them are:

Columbia University  $19.2 million
WHYY (Philadelphia Public Radio Station) $ 2.9 million
The Tides Center $10.2 million
Greater Washington Educational Telecommunications Assoc. (McNeil/Lehrer Productions) $ 5.8 million
Radio & Television News Directors Foundation $950 thousand
National Public Radio $3.3 million
Johns Hopkins University  $6.8 million

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