Communication is the Key to Understanding and Change

President’s Hook

Brian Murphy | AFS President. Email: [email protected]
Drue Banta Winters | AFS Policy Director
Julie Claussen | Director of Operations, Fisheries Conservation Foundation

Ultimately, the goal of science should be to serve society as it strives to solve problems such as a changing climate, food insecurity and numerous public health issues. By getting better at communicating research, we scientists can empower and inspire the public— while simultaneously improving the public’s perception of science and scientists.
(Ngumbi 2019)
As a volunteer organization, AFS is its members. We have a small, dedicated staff that offers invaluable assistance in executing AFS programs, but it is the members’ ideas and actions that drive our community’s direction and progress. This column tells a story of how members are once again putting ideas into action on an issue of extreme importance for fisheries conservation. First some background. Saying the words “climate change” can invoke a range of emotions, depending on your listener: denial or acceptance, hope or despair, global or local, damage or resiliency. Even though the terms global warming and climate change have been part of mainstream terminology for decades, the varied responses remain. Despite scientific consensus, climate change long has been a divisive political and social issue. There are entire books written on why climate change remains a controversial subject, but along the trail of failed strategies lies the inability to turn the vast amount of compelling climate data into a story the public receives as truth. We now must try to engage a confused public who has been bombarded with an avalanche of both scientific data and a vitriolic disinformation campaign that sows doubt about the existence and causes of climate change, and what might be effective approaches to solutions (Wong‐Parodi and Feygina 2020). To quote the famous line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” It now is more important than ever to build bridges to a range of fisheries constituencies based on shared values regarding the resources impacted by climate change. Uniting citizens around the goal of protecting aquatic resources has never been more critical, while we still have the opportunity to avoid the projected worst‐case scenarios by taking real, positive action.Elevating the discussion on climate change is a central component of our policy work at AFS. Scott Bonar made outreach on this issue a central plank of his plan of work as AFS President (Bonar 2019a), challenging members to reach out to constituents and personal acquaintances to communicate the impacts of our changing climate on aquatic environments (Bonar 2019b). Despite a sincere desire on the part of our members to meet this challenge, most have indicated that they feel ill‐equipped to do so. While science seeks facts to expose underlying truth, typical scientific arguments often are distrusted and ignored when they seem to run counter to deeply held personal or group values and biases. Communicating with broader audiences requires messages to be framed in an engaging and relatable manner. Reams of data (particularly from a distrusted source) are often ignored, as emotion can overcome logic. But starting with stories of climate effects on the lives of real people can engage empathy and stimulate more thoughtful consideration of underlying scientific facts (Murphy 2020).The ability to craft science stories that engage public audiences is not always developed as part of formal fisheries education, so AFS is designing practical training that will arm fisheries scientists with this special skill. One component is the new Climate Ambassadors Program (CAP), the brainchild of AFS Policy Director Drue Banta Winters, Executive Director Doug Austen, Science Communication Section officers Julie Claussen and Katie O’Reilly, Carolyn Hall (communications consultant at Works on Water, and Exact Communication), and Roger Griffis (NOAA Fisheries Climate Coordinator). American Fisheries Society members showed an overwhelming interest in this 2‐year, climate‐focused science communications program, with nearly 100 applying for the 30 slots available in the inaugural class. The cohort chosen has committed to learning methods and communication tools to improve outreach to our fisheries stakeholders. Climate Ambassadors will benefit from monthly in‐depth, interactive sessions that will provide them with techniques to effectively communicate with thought leaders, journalists, media, policy staff, lay audiences, anglers, and other stakeholders on issues facing our climate‐impacted fisheries. By starting with a cohort of passionate and enthusiastic scientists, CAP aims to build a versatile, agile, and effective team confident in their communication abilities.

The current class of Ambassadors began formal training in January 2021, partially supported by seed funding from NOAA Fisheries (U.S. Department of Commerce). Another round of CAP training specifically designed for state agency fisheries biologists is pending final approval from the Multistate Conservation Grant Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The current CAP training kicked off with a half‐day workshop provided by COMPASS Science Communication ( These consultants used their signature Message Box tool to teach our Climate Ambassadors to distill and hone their key messages. This process gives them a foundation for developing their stories with journalists, meeting with policymakers, and presenting to anglers and other target audiences. You can meet the first CAP cohort at the AFS Climate website (

The CAP is a great start, but we realize that many more AFS members would appreciate similar training than can be accommodated in CAP at this time. So AFS volunteers are working to develop helpful communications resources for all members. You can start your own journey to becoming a better science communicator with the growing body of resources shared at the AFS Climate website mentioned above. An excellent starting point is the whitepaper authored by the Climate Change Outreach Committee, “Best Practices for Communicating Climate Science for Fisheries Professionals” (Neal et al. 2020). Also, AFS volunteers are developing more resources for self‐guided learning that will be posted on the Climate website, including recorded presentations from communication experts. Another great resource for AFS members is the Science Communication Section itself, which provides a platform for science communication training and practice in AFS.

In his campaign for the United States Presidency, John F. Kennedy said, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.” Linguists say that “change point” is likely a better interpretation of the second character than “opportunity” (Wikipedia 2021). Regardless of which interpretation is more accurate, they both encapsulate our situation today regarding climate change; we are at a potentially catastrophic turning point in global climate, but as scientists we also have the opportunity to promote wider understanding of the climate crisis. Join with fellow AFS members as we seize the opportunity to improve the world through better science communication.

The views expressed here are ours alone, and are not intended to represent any official view of AFS or its members.