The Sordid Trail of an AFS Response to New York Times Op-ed Piece

Douglas Austen, AFS Executive Director Back on April 11, 2015, the New York Times (NYT) published an op-ed by Douglas Thompson on trout fishing and hatcheries that some AFS members found to include some truths but also a troubling amount of erroneous information and misrepresentations of facts. Until relatively recently, AFS has not been actively involved in placing articles or responses in major media outlets such as the NYT or focusing any significant attention on ensuring that the science of AFS members is appropriately linked to current policy decisions. That has been changing with the development of an AFS policy position (Tom Bigford), policy fellows, and interns. AFS has hosted several recent congressional briefings and is actively involved in the policy committee and working groups of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. So it was only reasonable that AFS construct a response to the Thompson op-ed to ensure that the readership has a correct presentation of the facts. That response was more difficult than we had thought, but the process provided some insights and a good learning experience for AFS as we determine how to engage better in such discussions. The first lesson learned is that AFS is a deliberative body, in a manner akin to the constitutional construction of the U.S. Senate, and as such, is not quick at doing anything. The AFS process of defining a position is based upon the fundamental philosophy of ensuring that we present the best available science. Of course on any issue worthy of a policy debate, particularly one as broad reaching as hatchery fish production, the development of a position requires obtaining input and viewpoints from a broad spectrum of experts. So we did. We involved the Fish Culture Section, the Fisheries Management Section, the Fish Administration Section, and an angelic host of Officers, Management Committee, and others to develop a concise response that we submitted as an op-ed to the NYT. Keep in mind that we had to do this within the proscribed 400–1,200 word limit (nytimes. com/content/help/site/editorial/op-ed/op-ed.html), and we figured our response needed to be somewhat timely. We also realized that the likelihood of getting an AFS response published in the NYT was rather slim given the immense amount of material submitted daily to the paper. Nonetheless, by April 24, we had a final response that was submitted to the NYT, and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves for setting the record straight. Not so fast. The response from the NYT was blunt and unexpected. It turns out that it has a policy, which I might add is not on its website, of not printing op-ed type responses to op-eds. As it turns out, the only response that it accepts is a letter with a limit of 150 to 175 words. Also, the letter needs to be submitted within seven days of the article of reference being published. Missed that one. Using some connections that a staff member had with the NYT, we tried a submission on April 30 but were unsuccessful. Timeliness is critical. If the AFS leadership chooses to be engaged at this level we need to find more streamlined processes for defining positions. The second lesson is that AFS could and possibly should consider actively identifying issues that we’d like to convey to a broader public through pre-emptive op-ed’s in outlets such at the NYT, Washington Post, or whatever would be appropriate. The membership, as indicated by multiple surveys, values the role that AFS can play in pushing fisheries science into public policy debates. Articles in Fisheries and on our Facebook page and website are nice, but they are simply preaching to the choir. If we want fisheries science to affect public opinion, it needs to be placed where the public can access it. This can be done through Bethesda or through the work of our 7,300 members and our Chapters, Divisions, and Sections. Finally, we need to improve our relationship with the news media. Our current work with Potomac Communications Group and a special communications committee chaired by Gwen White on developing a new communications strategy specifically identifies this as an area of value and priority. AFS and its members have information that the public wants to know about, and their work is interesting and makes for great stories. We need to position AFS better to be a vehicle to help our members get out those stories in a way that will capture the interest and attention of the public as well as make a difference when it comes to improving the policies and laws that affect our aquatic resources. Stay tuned as the Governing Board grapples with these communication issues and others during its day-long meeting in Portland.