We Must Be the Change

Policy Column

Drue Banta Winters | AFS Policy Director

As fall approaches in the Nation’s capital, the air gets crisp, the leaves change to brilliant shades, and in a mid‐term election year, the political climate crackles with electricity. The potential for change on the horizon makes everything more dramatic especially in a year like this when the prospects of a “blue wave” threatened to upend Republican control of Congress.

This year’s election cycle brought unrivaled political theatre, disheartening dialogue, and a frenetic pace on Capitol Hill.

Hold on to your pumpkin spice lattes and keep your feet firmly planted on the ground—sweeping policy change will be unlikely even with the left taking control of the House. Large‐scale policy change is tough to accomplish under ideal circumstances, but when partisan politics is the name of the game and the White House is controlled by the opposing party, the chances for big shifts are slim. Look for lawmakers to tinker at the edges. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that elections do have consequences, but I think, at least on the conservation front, the best we should hope for in the near term is maintaining the status quo.

But do not lose heart! There is good news. The journey towards a conservation culture has been underway now for over 100 years. It’s a work in progress—big problems require big solutions and work over many decades. Theodore Roosevelt first provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, created national forests, federal bird reservations, national parks and monuments, and the first four national game preserves in the early 1900s. In 1962, two generations later, Rachel Carson, famed marine biologist, author, and conservationist, penned Silent Spring and inspired the modern environmental movement. Since that time, there have been great strides in recovering endangered species, restoring habitat, and improving water quality. Indeed, some great conservation successes have resulted from federal funding that AFS advocated for decades prior, through the Dingell‐Johnson act and subsequent Wallop‐Breaux expansion. These funding sources have allowed state fish and wildlife agencies to sustainably manage fisheries, make habitat improvements, and recover imperiled species.

We are making progress, but there are great challenges before us. I have seen firsthand the good work of dozens of organizations being led and staffed by talented, highly skilled individuals who are working to advance conservation policies that result in better outcomes for fish and the communities that rely on them. AFS is proud to work side by side with these friends and partners. There’s still much work to be done to change attitudes, influence and educate the next generation about the most important environmental issues of our time.

Fisheries scientists have an important role to play in continuing to work towards sustainable fisheries. A key area where our members can focus their efforts is climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, released in October, concluded that climate change is unequivocal, and human activities, particularly emissions of carbon dioxide, are very likely to be the dominant cause and that the effects will arrive by 2040 with temperatures at the lower end of anticipated warming. The report was written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies. In Atlantic City this summer at the AFS Annual Meeting, plenary speaker Christine O’Connell from Stony Brook University and expert in science communications noted that the scientific community has been in consensus for decades, about the causes and expected impacts of climate change, yet some segments of the American public are still unconvinced. There has never been a more important time to use your voice as a fisheries scientist to increase understanding and advocate for change.

Pew Research Center released a report 2 years ago entitled “The Politics of Climate” highlighting the deep divide in our country around climate change. Their research found that “Polarized views about climate issues stretch from the causes and cures for climate change to trust in climate scientists, but that most Americans support a role for scientists in climate policy.” They also noted that while Americans view climate scientists with skepticism, scientists in general are viewed as trustworthy by the general public. So, there’s a value in fisheries scientists, particularly ones that study the impacts of climate on fish, to help Americans understand the immense changes that we can expect to our aquatic resources.

Therefore, I challenge you, as always, to continue to fight the good fight and work towards helping the public to recognize the coming change, mitigate for it and plan for adaptation. As fisheries professionals you have three key characteristic elements that can help in one of the most important environmental issues of our time. Use your standing as a scientist to help young and old better understand that the scientific community is aligned on the threat and causes of climate change. Second, help people to understand the impacts to climate change from more drought, increasing water temperatures, more frequent and severe storms, harm to plants and animals and in particular fish, and damage to shorelines, communities, and economies from rising sea level. Third, use modern communications platforms to convey your message to a broader audience and make your science relevant to solving the issues of our time. There is an abundance of material available to help with finding the best way of communicating these messages. For one fun and helpful webinar on this, check out Scott Bonar’s webinar on “Verbal judo” at https://fisheries.org/2017/12/verbal-judo-a-method-to-improve-your-ability-to-talk-to-those-hostile-to-conservation. There just might be a Teddy Roosevelt or a Rachel Carson in our ranks. And finally, support AFS’ policy program as we help to bring the best available science to policy makers in concert with our partners.