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Oceans and the Media

Press coverage of oceans issues is getting better, but there's plenty more room for improvement.

MJ: What are some major issues that are not being written about or are being covered inaccurately?

CR: More stories could be done on coastal erosion and pollution. It's not just oil spills we have to worry about, but also plastic, fertilizer, pharmaceutical drugs, and cut fishing lines. There was an expedition last year to the southwest Pacific, and researchers in the submersible Pisces V were in danger from fishing lines that had wrapped around this volcano they were studying. Not only do they have to worry about the hazards of diving on a volcano, but now the pilot had navigate around dangerous cobwebs that could snag the sub.

Many of the stories that you're covering here in Mother Jones are ones that need better reporting, so it's great that you're focusing on them. The cry of overfishing, for example, is one that's been heard since before the 1900s, basically ever since refrigeration allowed fish to be marketed inland. But it's a difficult issue to address because so many cultures and populations are dependent on fishing. So it is important to consider the Malthusian aspects of how fishing industries become more and more at risk to overfishing the stock. Typically, scientists look at the increase in population and customer demand, the increase in competition amongst fishing vessels and then the rise in technology that allows for increased fish catch along with non-targeted catches or bycatch to happen.

Frequently, when environmental issues including those in the ocean come up, there is this hand-wringing from the industry perspective of how humans could possibly manage otherwise. I think the best reporting addresses the technological and research improvements to the industry that allow for fishing to continue at a sustainable level. Marine protected areas are a prime example of what works.

MJ: Oceans can be an abstract thing to many people who don't see them every day. How can the media make those issues immediate and important to those readers?

CR: The ocean is this huge blue mystery to so many people. I was in Colorado in January and while I was at lunch, I fell into conversation with my waiter. I ended up explaining to him plate tectonics and how some very exciting research was being done on the bottom of the ocean studying these amazing chimney structures that had their own chemosynthetic community of life thriving, without the need of sunlight. He was surprised. He had lived in Colorado all his life and didn't think too much about the ocean. I said he should keep in mind all the rivers that run from the mountains here eventually make their way to the ocean. Trying to keep the ocean clean starts miles and miles away from the beach.

I think the ocean fascinates much of the public. There is so much being done at sea that impacts our lives everyday. Most of the imported goods around the world come off of shipping containers, including the oil and gas we use. Even if you don't eat seafood, you have a stake in the fishing industry. Indeed, people don't directly consume a third of the world's landed fish catch, the catch that fishermen keep or sell. Instead, this catch is used as fertilizer or fed as fish-meal to pets, hogs, chickens and fish raised in fish farms. So a good understanding of what is being caught is important to every member of society. This is where media coverage can help.

MJ: Which journalists and newspapers are doing a good job of writing about oceans?

CR: The New York Times is an example of a large newspaper with a dedicated staff of science writers and editors who have an inherent desire to cover stories about the ocean. Former editor of the Science Times, Cornelia Dean wrote a book on the impact of coastal erosion, Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches. Now that she's working again as a science writer for the Times she's been coving a number of ocean stories. Bill Broad, also at the Times is a Pulitzer-prize winning writer whose new book is titled The Universe Below: Discovering The Secrets Of The Deep Sea.

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