16 Jun 2014

Policy Commentary—May 2014

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Thomas Bigford edited

Shall We Advocate?

The question of advocacy is burning up the Society. In every survey we take, the vast majority want AFS to be an advocate for fishery resources. The points of fire are where to place ourselves along the continuum between fervid and apathetic, who we join forces with or whether we should act alone, and how far we stray from the science base, if at all!

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Advocacy in its simplest construct has two components—an issue and a voice.  Life is rarely so simple, as is definitely true about advocacy. AFS is actively engaged in that debate as we consider roles that may position us to be a stronger advocate for our needs and for the fish. So how do we proceed? Can debate lead to a decision in our near future?

Fortunately for our collective interests, AFS can call on more than 8,500 members, dozens of units arranged by geography and specialty, and connections to literally hundreds of universities, businesses, and government agencies throughout North America, with more overseas. Many of those potential partners are well versed in timely issues as disparate as recreational fishing, population dynamics, or resource economics. Together, AFS is well positioned to identify the issues, prepare spokespeople, and be powerful advocates.

We must not underestimate the importance of this opportunity. To advocate or not will occupy us for months. And that will be time well spent. We can construct a list of priorities by reviewing recent AFS publications or the Annual Meeting programs from Little Rock or Québec City. If we choose to advocate, the top 10 issues, which usually shift slightly each year, could occupy us for years as we analyze the best available science, develop solutions, seek public acceptance, and take action. Advocacy can strengthen our voice, which is imperative given the gravity of our work.

Advocacy also can be divisive. Some AFS members may feel it’s not our role. We provide information, whether science or management. Others can focus on the communications end of our fields. One point worth noting: advocacy need not have the tainted reputation ascribed by some. We can advocate for fish, for natural and social science, for an ecosystem approach. To me, being an advocate means using our knowledge to best advantage. One antonym would be spectator, and that is unlikely to serve us well.

AFS has contemplated an advocacy role before. We approached the issue in 1991–1992 when then-AFS President Richard Gregory established a Task Force on Advocacy, chaired by Jerry Clark. Gregory’s timely effort was frustrating, as revealed in a memo from his successor, AFS President Carlos Fetterolf (1992–1993). Other writings associated with that effort suggest a strained process and perhaps complacent members, but they tried. AFS made little progress in those first 2 years. Hopefully we’ll have a more robust debate this time around.

With a touch of incredibly good fortune, I was handed a copy of Fetterolf’s memo as I was writing this column, recently freed from the AFS vaults by Howard Williams in the Society’s office. One excerpt from the 22-year-old memo struck me:

That effort in the early 1990s, with support from two Presidents, didn’t shake our priorities as much as some expected. At the same time, it probably met the desires of others. The Task Force on Advocacy continued its work in 1993–1995 but didn’t result in lasting change. No doubt some individuals were out- spoken advocates, and perhaps some members fled when their Society took a strong position, but AFS doesn’t appear to have rallied around any unifying topics or asserted a central role commensurate with our membership and leadership.

Then-President John Boreman (2013) raised the issue again with his final “President’s Hook” last August. He challenged us to reopen the discussion. Perhaps now is a better time. Our Governing Board dedicated much of its January 2014 meeting to the issue. For me, listening to the debate in the weeks before I joined the AFS staff as Policy Director was nothing short of inspiring. I couldn’t help but see many parallels between our situation and another faced by one of the greatest advocates for our issues.

 

I find it interesting that our Society’s consideration coincides with the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s death. Although ecological advocacy was still nascent when Carson emerged as a biologist/writer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1947, I have been struck by her early commitment to “conservation in action” through informed science and appropriate persistence. Threads of environmental activism, deep commitments, and precautionary principles have matured to varying extents since Carson’s day, leaving ample inspiration for all of us, especially those of us contemplating our role as budding advocates. Recall my simple recipe for successful advocacy. Not every Society member need be a world-renowned expert or riveting public spokesperson, but with the assets of our Society, we can create those pairings and increase our impact. Your Governing Board continues to contemplate the challenge of that commitment. You can contribute through many channels to help AFS make an informed decision.

There are roles for each of us in the advocacy realm. In a perfect world we’d have top-notch experts poised to address each issue, but not all experts are adept advocates. The most compelling stories about our most vexing issues will remain untold if we can’t match the voice to the issue. If the silence continues we may suffer avoidable consequences.

It would be surreal if we could match member skill sets with our priorities, develop messages, and identify voices. If we decide to proceed, those crucial next steps will take time and must be strategic so that we move forward carefully but with conviction.

In my still-new new AFS, I’m reminded often that we could structure this debate in many ways. Regardless of the issue, we could start by reviewing the science, perhaps follow the AFS Governing Board’s vision on priorities, seek to match our priorities with our charismatic strengths, script our primary messages, or focus on some other angle.

Regardless of where we start, and after months of rousing debate, I believe we will come to realize that advocacy is an appropriate role for AFS and its members. We will become comfortable working with the range of outlets, including but not limited to refereed journals and annual conferences. What John Boreman (2013) described as the “dynamic tension” between members on different sides of this issue will become a strength, as it was when I sought comments on earlier drafts of this column. While on that path I trust we’ll grow more comfortable with advocacy and not view it as a secondary role. But my opinion needs to be challenged by the Society and its members. Only then will AFS come to a decision.

And not all advocates for fish need an advanced degree in ichthyology, resource economics, or any other profession represented in our Society. Just as a preeminent ecologist such as Rachel Carson may find comfort as an advocate, so might a talented journalist find a new mission in the fish world. Remember that there are two ingredients in my simple recipe for successful advocacy. Let’s keep an open mind as we match the issues to the voice, all aimed at the benefits we select. My point is to be open-minded, creative, and flexible. I sense the majority of AFS members and leaders are growing to embrace advocacy, but not everyone is in that same spot. Continued dialog will ensure that we make a reasoned decision that will strengthen our Society.

REFERENCE

Boreman, J. 2013. “President’s Hook”: On behalf of the fish. Fisheries 38(8):343.

Available: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03632415.2013.813484#. Ux8SZv2PKM8. (March 2014).

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