Go Fish

Have reporters paid sufficient attention to the Gulf spill’s impact on marine life?

On Tuesday morning, Agence France-Presse reported that “Louisiana’s charter fishermen are slamming media coverage of the Gulf oil spill for doing more damage to the tourism industry than the slick itself, with livelihoods at risk.”

Waters east of the Mississippi River have been closed to recreational and commercial fishing since April 30, but this week both federal and Louisiana state officials extended closures to the west of the river as well. As of Wednesday morning, “Roughly a quarter of Louisiana state waters are now off limits to fishermen, in addition to more than 16,000 square miles of federally regulated waters closed farther offshore,” according to The New York Times.

(An up-to-date map of state of federal closure is available at the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife. NOAA reported Tuesday that 93 percent of Gulf waters remain open.)

One of a handful of fishermen at the nearly deserted marina in Venice, Louisiana (which calls itself the “Fishing Capital of the World”) told Agence France-Presse that he believes that 95 percent of the Louisiana’s waters were “still fishable,” however.

“The negative media is positively doing more damage to the industry than the oil,” said Dave Ballay, the marina’s former owner. “The coverage is essentially just about ‘put these men of business.”

That criticism prompted a very interesting bit of media reporting Tuesday from The New Republic’s Bradford Plumer. He asked Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University who focuses on environmental issues, for his thoughts; Brulle put together two graphs charting the number of stories and the number of minutes that NBC, CBS, and ABC have devoted to oil spill coverage from 1970 until the present.

To his apparent surprise, the data led Plumer to ask this question: “Is the press undercovering the oil spill?” While the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 “obviously got an enormous amount of coverage … it’s striking that even incidents like the 1978 Amoco Cadiz accident off the cost of France got far more media attention than the current BP spill,” he observed.

Of course, while distant, the Amoco Cadiz spilled 68 million gallons of oil into the sea— six times more than did the Exxon Valdez—and caused widespread environmental damage. But it is true that more than a dozen incidents in the last forty years have inspired similar or greater levels of coverage from the big three networks than the current spill, including the 58,000-gallon spill in the San Francisco Bay in 2007, to which they devoted almost twice as many stories.

One of the keys to high levels of coverage in all these cases, Plumer rightly surmises, is “imagery.” The Exxon Valdez, Amoco Cadiz, and San Francisco Bay spills provided photographers and videographers with ample opportunities to shoot oil drenched coastlines and wildlife. Oil from the current spill, on the other hand, has yet to impact Gulf Coast shores in such dramatic ways. Hence the relatively low levels of coverage. Hence the angry fishermen who say the media have hurt their business.

Is their ire misplaced? Last week, I lambasted a front-page New York Times article that sought to put a damper on fears engendered by experts that had “been quick to predict apocalypse.” But the attempt to mitigate hyperbolic prognostications didn’t bother me as much as the fact that the reporters were acting as apologists for government and industry rather than holding them to the fire. The whole affair is set against a history of lax safety standards and poor oversight, and the reporters’ attempt to tamp down on the disaster hype seemed a little too blasé.

An article in the Times the next day about “concerns up and down the food chain” did a much better job of reporting the potentially “devastating effects” of the spill—some of which may be invisible—while carefully emphasizing that:

So far, there have been few documented animal casualties of the Deepwater Horizon spill, though rumors of dead manatees and whales abound. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] said that its planes had spotted numerous species of dolphins and turtles in areas now covered by the slick.

Other news outlets also did their part to dispel the rumors. After thirty-eight dead sea turtles washed up along the Gulf Coast in early May, blog posts at Web sites like The Huffington Post proclaimed that “endangered sea turtles have emerged as the flag species of the BP Gulf Mexico oil spill.” But many in the “mainstream” media quickly refuted such claims by reporting that a series of necropsies performed by NOAA found no link between the turtle deaths and the spill.

That doesn’t mean Gulf Coast fishermen don’t have a right to blame the media for some part of their troubles, but the most important question is whether or not the state and federal authorities are making wise decisions about when and where to prohibit fishing. Yet another Times article told of a charismatic shrimper who felt that “It’s not oil that is keeping his boats docked – it’s the state.” The man said he would defy a state ban on collecting shrimp in his area because there was no oil there—a seemingly frivolous ban—but the state reopened the area before he had the chance to do so.

Indeed, the state and federal authorities seem to be actively monitoring the spill’s impacts, closing and opening large and small swaths of water as the slick moves. As I finish writing this column, the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife is partially reopening areas to the west of the Mississippi River that were closed when I started. The impacts of the closures and media coverage on the livelihood of fishermen must not be taken lightly, however, and it would be nice to see more thorough and critical analyses of how well fishing authorities are handling their job.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.