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Opinion
​Shared ignorance


July 27, 2015
By Bob Tkacz

Years ago, when I was a graduate student, a group of us students requested faculty endorsement, and college credit, for a seminar that would be organized and conducted by students without any faculty involvement.  We thought it would be a great learning experience, until a senior, world-renowned faculty member commented: “Ladies and gentlemen, I fear that what you have proposed is an exercise in shared ignorance.”

The concept that seemed so interesting and fun to us, was indeed an exercise in shared ignorance; not supported by evidence and quite divorced from reality.  We picked up our papers and quietly retreated to a pub near campus, never to bring up the subject again.  That lesson about “shared ignorance” has stayed with me, especially as I see media outlets scrambling to present “both sides of the story” and “all points of view”.  A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times showed that even iconic publications that claim to have high standards can fall prey “shared ignorance”.

We are living in an era of instant communications, such as social media, where everyone considers their opinion to be worthy of widespread dissemination and serious discussion.  Not just “both sides of the story”, but “all sides” must be told, even when facts and evidence rest with only one side.  Newspapers and television attempt to maintain “balance” by providing space and time to all points of view whether or not the points of view are based on fact and have any supporting evidence.  Neoscience and pseudoscience are given equal consideration with evidence-based science in the name of fairness and balanced discussion.  Exercises in “shared ignorance” seem to have become the norm.  Fish, fisheries, and aquaculture have not been exceptions to this new norm; often becoming the target of individuals presenting passionate beliefs that are in fact, “shared ignorance”.

A recent (early April) op-ed article in the New York Times, The Cost of Trout Fishing, quickly became the most searched item in the newspaper over the 10-day period following its publication.  The author, a geologist at a small Connecticut college, did not present any new brilliant insights but the article still attracted considerable attention.  His comments were based primarily on “conventional green wisdom” that “hatchery fish” are innately inferior, plus whatever observations he had made as an angler – a sport he had abandoned 10 years ago.

Clearly he was not speaking within the limits of his scientific expertise as a geologist.  Why did the New York Times deem his thoughts to be sufficiently important and insightful to warrant publication?  He was speaking as an angler and an environmentalist, not as a scientist.  After reading the article, I can only comment, “Darned if I know why this thing attracted so much attention or even why it was published?”

The op-ed author presented primarily “conventional green wisdom” and common angler complaints.  His point of view seems to start from a belief that fish hatcheries and the fish they produce are “bad”.  “Conventional green wisdom” typically holds that nature was perfect until humans messed it up.  Natural history is filled with catastrophic events that almost eradicated life on Earth, but “green wisdom” considers nature to be benign and focuses on the changes caused by humans.  In the case of North America, this set of beliefs this means that nature in America was perfect 600 years ago; until the Europeans arrived. Fast forward to the 21st century and fish hatcheries, fish farmers, and propagated fish are just one more set of insults to natural balance in the opinions of environmental purists.  If we would just let nature manage our resources, such as recreational fisheries, all would be well according to these self-appointed experts.

The op-ed author-geologist did not focus direct criticism on food production aquaculture.  Never-the-less, his criticisms of “hatchery fish” apply to all propagated fish.  Their presumed effects on wild fish populations should be noted.  Not all fish reared by commercial fish farmers end up on dinner tables.  Some are sold to owners of private ponds and some go to resource management agencies. A few escape and become part of the free-ranging wild population.  Opponents of aquaculture tend to be “equal opportunity critics”. The same criticisms of the fish produced in publicly owned hatcheries are applied to private commercial operations.

“Hatchery bashers”, including the op-ed author, believe that “hatchery fish” are innately inferior; the inevitable consequences of being reared in a hatchery.  Some geneticists and many ‘would be’ geneticists believe that the absence of survival pressures in hatcheries lead to losses of critically important genetic characteristics. Modern molecular procedures have even demonstrated that there are detectable genetic differences between “wild” fish and their hatchery siblings.  However, these “differences” have not been shown to be important.  The genetic constitutions of all living creatures contain large amounts of “non-coding” genetic material.  These differences are often called “genetic noise” because they do not relate to differences in appearance, behavior, and survival.  In addition apparent differences can be caused by differences in rearing conditions and feed composition that have nothing to do with genetics.

“Hatchery fish”, whether from public facilities or private farms, are also portrayed as carriers of numerous disease agents.  “Bashers” contend that all propagated fish are loaded with antibiotics.  They seem impervious to the fact that antibiotic use is very limited and tightly controlled.  I have shocked critics by pointing out that all common disease agents originated in wild fish populations, not hatcheries.  The crowded conditions of hatcheries may facilitate the spread of a disease, but the diseases do not originate in hatcheries.

Although the op-ed article in the New York Times focused on perceived problems related to fish populations that support recreational fisheries, critics of aquaculture claim similar problems related to aquaculture systems that produce food for human populations.  Aquaculturists must be aware of their critics and take continuous action to dispel the misguided criticisms by knowing what is being said and providing information about the quality of their products.

I suggest further that it is acceptable to even be a bit “snarky” when an opportunity presents itself.  We know the excellent quality of our products, but do our critics “know where their wild fish have been” and what they may have picked up in their travels.  Wild fish and the systems that produce them are not perfect.

We must not allow our critics to go unchallenged when they attempt to “share their ignorance.”

— John G. Nickum


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