Friday, April 24, 2009

The Deadliest Catch - Fan conventions, ocean acidification and science framing

Just when you thought it was safe to venture forth and enjoy spring, comes this word from Seattle: There is now a Deadliest Catch annual fan convention. Yes sir, no longer are fan conventions limited to the likes of Star Trek, Japanese Manga collectors, or even model train enthusiasts. Nope, now you can (if you were lucky enough to get a ticket) sit down and listen to the real life fishing boat crews from this Discovery Channel reality show.

Which makes me, as an oceanographer and ocean policy wonk ask this question – how does the ocean community leverage such phenomena to help educate the public on ocean issues? Are there ways we can, for instance, use a convention like this to help people understand the economics of commercial fishing? Or how about the intersection between king crab biology and ocean acidification? What would the impact be of Capt. Sig Hansen giving a talk not just about how he runs his boat, but about how climate change could drive his fishery to extinction?

I asked this question this morning to some of my federal ocean science colleagues. As you might imagine, I’m still getting an earful. The best crafted response so far, however, comes down on the side of not leveraging this opportunity:

“{Our Agency} is not a professional wrestling or football team, and we should not try to emulate what Discovery does. Most people don't know what an ecosystem is and won't care what {we} does. PBS viewers probably would--and this is the audience we should be targeting-- not the mindless masses who watch the other stuff (sorry if you're one, but I just can't abide them).

so--- most people just really aren't interested in the science {we do} or want to know that the world is falling apart. Stupid TV shows have replaced church as the opiate of the people, and most folks wouldn't be interested unless you can put in lots of shots of sharks eating someone. Neil Postman got it right in "Amusing Ourselves to Death".”

In many respects, I can’t say that I am surprised by the response. I know many really well educated scientists, policy analysts, economists, etc who would agree. And in a perfect world, they’d be right. PBS, for all the political bashing it does, is really the best “reality TV” out there. It is one of the things that got me hooked on ocean science as a career (Portuguese Man o’ War being another). And since I don’t have cable anymore, I haven’t seen a Deadliest Catch episode in a long time.

But where I and my colleague part ways is this – those opiated masses are the ones who want to buy steamed king crab by the pound at Giant or Red Lobster. They are the demand creators for this fishery. They are also the ones driving SUV’s, buying coal fired electric power, and doing a host of other climate change enabling things. As long as no one draws the link for them, in clear terms, between their actions and the long range consequences, there will be no groundswell politically to tackle these issues. And as any good framer of science knows, you have the best chances with the public if you get to them through existing information channels that they already access.

Does Capt. Hansen know that increasing ocean acidification might imperil his catch? If he did, would he speak to his legion of fans about it, and how they might be causing it (however indirectly)? I don’t know, but I’m hoping one of the convention goers this year will find out.

P.S. One of my other colleagues suggested that we start working on Somali coastal and fisheries restoration projects as a way to inject the needed action sequences into the program. I'll give him props for thinking WAY OUTSIDE the box!

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