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New York Times Hides Ignorance and Poor Research Behind Opinion

September 21, 2011

John Geddes
Managing Editor
New York Times
VIA Email

Dear Mr. Geddes,

Today New York Times blogger Mark Bittman asks the question, is it Time to Boycott Tuna Again? His column was based entirely on information provided by the activist group Greenpeace. While we recognize his work was presented as his view, we challenge the New York Times not to let ignorance of subject and a lack of research hide behind the cloak of opinion. It is recognized and appreciated that the Times should maintain strict separation between editorial and opinion content; however, the standards under which both are produced should be universal.

Mr. Bittman writes about the current state of canned tuna sustainability.  He apparently failed to do much research (at least he presents none in his piece) other than repackaging Greenpeace talking points.

Nowhere does he mention the work already being done by responsible, mainstream environmentalists through the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a group created through a partnership between WWF, the world’s leading conservation organization, and canned tuna companies from across the globe. Nowhere does he mention the commitments these companies have made, the global recognition they have earned, or the millions of dollars they expend in sponsoring research for conservation groups and the tuna community. This appears an odd omission when opining about tuna sustainability.

Does Mr. Bittman even know about this group or the stakeholders from throughout the environmental community who work with them?

Is Mr. Bittman unfamiliar with Ray Hilborn a renowned professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington whose own New York Times Op Ed stated, “the albacore, skipjack and yellowfin tuna and swordfish on American menus are not threatened.”

Mr. Bittman, a food blogger, has not been a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel for the President’s Commission on Ocean Policy.  Nor does Mr. Bittman serve on the Editorial Boards of seven journals including the Board of Reviewing Editors of Science Magazine. Dr. Hilborn does. Would not it stand to reason that an informed opinion on this topic in your paper might consider previously published information?

Mr. Bittman’s column goes as far as to suggest it might be time to boycott tuna. Mr. Bittman may claim he never overtly calls for a boycott, but from stem to stern, the article intimates that that is the step he suggests. Does he know he is suggesting boycotting the companies who are partners in the very organization that is spearheading the sustainability efforts he calls for?

The Times is a better paper than to publish pieces – even opinion pieces – that blindly follow the talking points of one, marginalized group.  Don’t your readers deserve to know that Greenpeace has been repeatedly invited to join conservation groups in solving sustainability challenges but has rejected all those invitations?  Some simple research would have uncovered this fact. 

Using Greenpeace as the sole source, for even an opinion piece, flies in the face of the current mainstream understanding of tuna sustainability. Such an effort is contrasted by acclaimed science writer Wilson da Silva who pens, “Greenpeace was once a friend of science, helping bring attention to important but ignored environmental research. These days, it’s a ratbag rabble of intellectual cowards intent on peddling an agenda, whatever the scientific evidence.” Its current campaign against canned tuna is another effort in which it ignores the science and refuses to participate in sustainability work with other responsible, environmental organizations.

Mr. Bittman begins his piece by harkening back to the days before dolphin safe tuna, then launches into an attack on Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs).  Perhaps he should have contacted Earth Island Institute before he went to press and asked them what a ban on FADs could potentially do to dolphin mortality. The fear from the informed environmental community is that fewer FADs could lead to more dolphin deaths. This fundamental lack of understanding by the author is unfortunately a hallmark of this piece.

Mr. Bittman gleefully writes that he wished he could have seen the Greenpeace blimp mocking tuna brands “in La Jolla a couple of weeks ago.” In endorsing this tactic does Mr. Bittman also endorse Greenpeace’s use of disturbing, violent cartoon videos aimed at children, harassing phone calls and cyber attacks?

Throughout, Mr. Bittman cites bycatch statistics that deftly parrot Greenpeace’s rhetoric but are in fact alternately riddled with hyperbole or just plain wrong. Again, simple research would yield the facts.

Mr. Bittman lauds adoption of pole and line tuna fishing, openly questioning why all tuna companies can’t switch to that method. Does Mr. Bittman know that scientists have studied this? Does Mr. Bittman know they have identified the devastating impact such an unrealistic wholesale switch could have on the sustainability of bait fisheries? Does Mr. Bittman know the increase in carbon output such a move would create? Does Mr. Bittman know that of the 200 million cases of canned tuna consumed annually worldwide only 4 million are pole and line? These are important questions that he and Greenpeace have not addressed. Greenpeace has spent no time and zero dollars researching the impacts of the operational changes they cavalierly demand in the name of sustainability.

Greenpeace’s myopic view of this issue is out of step with science, and Mr. Bittman’s lack of research only promotes a misguided agenda. Such an opinion piece is not in keeping with the New York Time’ standards.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Gavin Gibbons
National Fisheries Institute

CC: Snigdha Koirala
      Online Opinion Editor
      Arthur Brisbane
      Public Editor

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