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NBC Nightly News Airs Seafood Sustainability Scare-Story

Last night NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson aired a story titled “Sea Change-- Seafood Choices Key to Saving Troubled Waters.” Unfortunately it was a one-sided diatribe about how badly ocean resources are being depleted that relied solely on faulty, distorted data and rhetoric supplied by eco-activists. Her report began with an introduction from Brian Williams announcing that half a billion pounds of seafood is harvested from the oceans daily -- a statistic repeated in the story but never put in its proper perspective. Estimates suggest there could be about a trillion pounds—that’s a 1 followed by 12 zeros—worth of biomass available in the oceans. Here’s some perspective on what I am talking about; in Alaska they take about 4 billion pounds of ground fish annually. But the available biomass is more than 35 billion pounds -- hardly cause for alarm.  With blatant disregard for the journalistic tenets of balance and objectivity, Thompson did not contact the seafood community at large when producing this story. Instead she interviewed representatives from Oceana and the Monterey Bay Aquarium before profiling a small pole & line tuna fishing operation in California. The company featured caught aboyt 1,800 tons of tuna last year, while the global tuna catch is roughly 4.3 million tons—hardly representative of the industry.  

 What’s worse, she not only bought their sky-is-falling and oceans-are-failing histrionics, but USED OCEANA-SUPPLIED VIDEO TO ILLUSTRATE IT.  That means the menacing bottom trawling video and other seemingly disruptive fishing scenes are not a product of NBC News but of “Oceana.” When a major news organization accepts video from an eco-activist group without questions, it raises a huge red flag—when was the video shot? Who shot it? Where was it shot? Not to mention Oceana’s spotty track record when it comes to activism. A similar food scare story they peddled back in January about mercury in tuna has been thoroughly discredited — a mere speed bump of truth on the road to sensational spin for Chicken Little.    

 

Furthermore, Thompson’s package also used a Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesman to profile the plight of the bluefin tuna. But nowhere does she mention that per capita the average American eats about the weight of a paper clip in bluefin tuna each year.  Nor does she mention that the American seafood community has signed on to a moratorium on bluefin fishing in the Mediterranean. Thompson takes the industry to task for over-fishing and uses bluefin as an example—but never mentions that those she is chastising agree that the Mediterranean bluefin stocks are in poor shape and need attention. This egregious omission again raises the question—why not contact the very industry you are profiling? Perhaps she didn’t want to hear about the successful sustainability stories like Alaskan Pollock or Atlantic Sea Scallops, both considered shining examples of proper fisheries management. Instead, Thompson takes eco-activist rhetoric and repackages it as her own detailed analysis on the state of the oceans. If she was so opposed to contacting the seafood community directly, why not contact a truly independent source like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has a whole division of scientists and fisheries experts devoted to the very sustainability questions her report raised. NOAA even has a web site called FishWatch designed to help consumers make informed decisions about seafood by providing accurate information on sustainability.

 

Because this reporter did not do her homework, she leaves the viewer with the impression that perhaps eating fewer fish is the only way to help the oceans. She completely ignores the success stories associated with aquaculture (fish farming) and its ability to take pressure off ocean stocks. She doesn’t mention that the #1 most consumed seafood specie in this country is shrimp, of which about 75 percent comes from aquaculture.

 

Seafood is an important part of a healthy diet and its sustainability story should be told along with the story of its impact on health. One affects the other. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, is quoted in Time magazine as saying, “we are experimenting with people’s lives when we give recommendations or write stories or reports that make people eat less fish.”

 

The seafood community is deeply involved in sustainability efforts and to suggest otherwise, by omission, is not only unfair but constitutes negligent reporting.  If NBC’s own chief environmental affairs correspondent fails to even contact the industry about which her environmental reporting is based, how are we to trust her work on other stories? As a respected and award winning journalist, whose beat is essentially sustainability, you would think she would know that any sustainability story should have the following three components: economic, environmental and social. To report on just one, in a poorly sourced piece, is a failure that cannot go unnoted.

 

We have written to NBC about these concerns and will let you know what... if anything... they say.

 

Our Letter Below:

 

June 6, 2008

 Alexandra Wallace, Vice President, NBC News

30 Rockefeller Plz
New York, NY   10112

 

VIA Email

 

Dear Ms. Wallace,

 I am writing with regard to a story that aired last night on NBC Nightly News. Chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson produced a package titled “Sea Change-- Seafood Choices Key to Saving Troubled Waters.” Unfortunately it ended up being a one-sided dissertation about how badly ocean resources are being depleted that appeared to rely solely on distorted data and rhetoric supplied by eco-activists. Her report began with an introduction from Brian Williams announcing that half a billion pounds of seafood is harvested from the oceans daily -- a statistic repeated in the story but never put in its proper perspective. Estimates suggest there could be as much as a trillion pounds worth of biomass available in the oceans. With that in mind half a billion pounds is not as staggering a statistics as you would have your viewers believe. Here is some more perspective; in Alaska they harvest about 4 billion pounds of ground fish annually. But the available biomass is more than 35 billion pounds -- hardly cause for alarm. 

With blatant disregard for the journalistic tenets of balance and objectivity, Ms. Thompson did not contact the seafood community at large when producing this story. Instead she interviewed representatives from Oceana and the Monterey Bay Aquarium before profiling a small pole & line tuna fishing operation in California identified as American Tuna. The company featured caught about 1,800 tons of tuna last year, while the global tuna catch is roughly 4.3 million tons—hardly representative of the industry.

 

 What’s worse, she made extensive use of Oceana-supplied video to illustrate her piece.   That means the menacing bottom trawling video and other seemingly disruptive fishing scenes are not a product of NBC News’ work exposing the fishing industry but of an environmental activist group whose stated goal is to curb fishing. When a major news organization accepts video from an eco-activist group without questions, it raises huge red flags—when was the video shot? Who shot it? Where was it shot? Not to mention Oceana’s spotty track record when it comes to activism. A similar food scare story they peddled back in January about mercury in tuna has been thoroughly discredited.

 

Furthermore, Thompson’s package also used a Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesman to profile the plight of the bluefin tuna. But nowhere does she mention that per capita the average American eats about the weight of a paper clip in bluefin tuna each year.  Nor does she mention that the American seafood community has signed on to a moratorium on bluefin fishing in the Mediterranean, where it is in fact endangered by poor fishery management. Thompson takes the industry to task for over-fishing and uses bluefin as an example—but never mentions that those she is chastising agree that the Mediterranean bluefin stocks are in poor shape and need attention. This egregious omission again raises the question—why not contact the very industry you are profiling? Perhaps she didn’t want to hear about the successful sustainability stories like Alaskan Pollock or Atlantic Sea Scallops; both considered shining examples of proper fisheries management. Instead, Thompson takes eco-activist rhetoric and repackages it as her own detailed analysis on the state of the oceans. If she was so opposed to contacting the seafood community directly, why not contact a truly independent source like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has a whole division of scientists and fisheries experts devoted to the very sustainability questions her report raised. NOAA even has a web site called FishWatch designed to help consumers make informed decisions about seafood by providing accurate information on sustainability.

 

Because this reporter did not do her homework, she leaves the viewer with the impression that perhaps eating fewer fish is the only way to help the oceans. She completely ignores the success stories associated with aquaculture (fish farming) and its ability to take pressure off ocean stocks. She doesn’t mention that the #1 most consumed seafood specie in this country is shrimp, of which about 75 percent comes from aquaculture.

 

Seafood is an important part of a healthy diet and its sustainability story should be told along with the story of its impact on health. One affects the other. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, is quoted in Time magazine as saying, “we are experimenting with people’s lives when we give recommendations or write stories or reports that make people eat less fish.”

 The seafood community is deeply involved in sustainability efforts and to suggest otherwise, by omission, is not only unfair but constitutes negligent reporting.  If NBC’s own chief environmental affairs correspondent fails to even contact the industry about which her environmental reporting is based, how are we to trust her work on other stories? As a respected and award winning journalist, whose beat is essentially sustainability, you would think she would know that any sustainability story should include the following three components: economic, environmental and social. To report on just one, in a poorly sourced piece, is a failure that cannot go unnoted. With these issues in mind we ask that you remove this story from your website and consider producing a balanced, objective package on seafood sustainability.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc: Brian Williams, Managing Editor NBC Nightly News

      Bob Steele, Poynter Institute

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