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An apology for my post on activists’ response to hotel guests eating a shark

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Last week, in response to a viral image of hotel guests eating a shark, I wrote a post explaining why I felt that the response from many in the activism community was disproportionate to the degree of the problem represented by that photo (and how other more serious problems got much less attention). Based on feedback I received from people who have read the post, the points I was trying to make were lost among my exasperated, and sometimes hostile, tone. This is my fault as a writer and not yours as a reader. I am writing this follow-up post to both briefly explain what I was trying to say and to apologize for not saying it well. Additionally, like all blog posts, this represented a personal opinion and not any sort of official consensus statement  from the scientific community, though I often consult with leaders of the scientific community when writing posts.

This was the first blog post in a very long time that I wrote in the proverbial “heat of the moment,” in the midst of a long argument with activists on Facebook and twitter. The discussion went way outside of the boundaries of polite conversation, and I received numerous personal attacks and a few threats. The hotel owners and the people who ate the shark in the photo also received plenty of threats, though all of the threatening tweets seem to have now been deleted. In short, I was exasperated.  I was in “argument mode” and not “educator mode”.

This was also the first blog post in a very long time that I published the day it was written. I normally like to leave a post alone for a day or two after writing it before looking it over again. I will often have other Southern Fried Science writers or scientific colleagues read posts before I publish them. That did not happen in this case.  I say all of this not to excuse my error, but to explain it.

Additionally, I was not saying that people eating a large Threatened species is totally insignificant. Many shark populations are being overfished, which is a big problem, and consumption is part of that problem. The point I tried to make was that he level of attention that this incident received was disproportionate to the level of threat it represented, that other issues  that are much more serious get much less attention, and that some of the tactics that activists used in this case were inappropriate and even harmful.

People felt that I was mocking, belittling, or insulting activists who felt that a photo of resort guests eating a shark represented a major conservation issue. That was not my intent and I truly apologize for presenting myself in that way.

I don’t believe that activists are stupid (as some people told me that my post seemed to suggest).  In my role as a scientist, science communicator and educator, I try to correct misinformation shared by activists. In this case, I feel that digitally harassing a hotel chain with complaints (as well as insults and threats) to the point that they had to close down their Facebook page were harmful to the overall cause of conservation by making people associate caring with the environment with extremist views and tactics. As someone who works directly with extremely threatened species, the fact that a petition demanding that this hotel stop serving thresher shark (which had already happened a year before the photo and petition went viral) got twenty times the number of signatures as a petition to list hammerhead sharks under the Endangered Species Act was both baffling and frustrating to me. Despite this, I do not believe that activists are stupid and never meant to imply otherwise.

One quality that the online shark activism community has in spades is passion. I want to channel this passion into educating the public with facts and helping responsible NGOs, scientists, and managers to create effective science-based conservation and management policy, something that I try to do here on the blog and with my twitter account.

Though the post inspired a now-closed spirited discussion, one comment in particular summarizes the gap between what I was trying to do (indicated in bold) and what I actually did perfectly:

“You really missed the opportunity to be an educator here. Rather than stepping back and discussing some really important issues regarding food ethics and the value of understanding where our food comes from and how it connects to living things and, as a consequence, how rarely we, as westerners from developed countries, actually come face to face with the faces behind our food; rather than talking about how sharks are normally consumed — as anonymous meat breaded and fried or so processed as to be unidentifiable; rather than take a moment to reflect on how single images can be powerful motivators and galvanize people around an issue; rather than all that, you took the low road, and dismissed uninformed agents’ concerns as silly, trivial, and ignorant. You had an opportunity to educate, and instead of taking it, you used it as an excuse to insult people for caring about sharks.”

There were legitimate and important points to be made regarding the online activism community’s response to the photo of hotel guests eating a shark, but my post did not successfully make those points. I apologize for publishing a blog post that did not live up to the standards you’ve come to expect from me and from this blog.