“Green Gone Wrong”



Most individuals who read this publication are aquaculturists.  Do you consider yourself to be a “conservationist”?  An “environmentalist”?  An “ecologist”?  Do you believe that, at a practical level, you must be a “conservationist” and an “environmentalist” to be an aquaculturist?  Many members of “big green” organizations would argue that you cannot be an “environmentalist” and an aquaculturist.  Aquaculture has become the target of several “big green” organizations, with some of their members arguing for nothing less than total elimination of all aquaculture facilities that are not totally contained.  It seems only yesterday that aquaculture was being hailed as the “wave of the future” and the best hope for feeding the earth’s burgeoning human population in an environmentally sustainable manner.


What happened?  I think that the answers lie in the changes that have befallen the environmental movement.  Not so long ago, the terms “conservationist” and “environmentalist” were synonymous; and both were founded and based in the science of ecology.  Now many conservationists and ecologists, including myself, choose not to be called “environmentalists”.  We have come to the decision, reluctantly in most cases, to separate ourselves from the “The Green Monster” of modern environmentalism (see series authored by Tom Knudson in the Sacramento Bee, April 2001).


The environmental movement has changed greatly over the last 30 years.  As a young professor of fish and wildlife conservation, I was an organizer of activities and programs for the first Earth Day celebrations.  I gave impassioned speeches advocating “ecological conservation” and I exhorted my students to “to appreciate nature”, “to be a part of nature, not apart from it”, and “to use natural resources with care and understanding”, so that these resources would still be there for the next generation, and the next, and the next..........................  I still hold those beliefs and values; and hold them with considerable passion.  I call myself a conservationist, an ecologist, a resource manager, and an aquaculturist; however, I never call myself an environmentalist.  I would like to be an environmentalist, but, I have given up on “environmentalism” as it is practiced today.


Thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred years ago the creed of conservationists was that resources could be used, and should be used, so long as they were used wisely and passed on to the next generation for their care and use.  The extent to which each resource would be used was based on the capacity of that resource to remain sustainable for future generations.  Conservationists recognized that ecosystems were both dynamic and resilient.  To use resources wisely, one needed to understand ecosystem dynamics and to know the limits of resilience for each system.  Non-renewable resources needed to be used expeditiously, so as to obtain the maximum value, for the greatest number of people, for the longest time.  I suggest that conservationists still adhere to these precepts, but, environmentalists are no longer satisfied with these simple, science-based principles. 


Tom Knudson, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter recognized for objective investigations and reporting, found that the big environmental movement is now characterized by high-powered fund raising, litigation, and public relations machines.  The “name of the game” primarily is “hype”.  The standard operating principles are based on the well-established knowledge that “a claim repeated frequently and publicly, will be perceived as fact”.  Such claims, based on “PR truths”, then become the basis for litigation, which, in turn, serve as the foundations for fund-raising to “help the organization protect the resource from those who would exploit it for personal gain”.  In my own experience, I have found that many (most?) environmental organizations have abandoned science and the known certainties or uncertainties of scientifically valid information for exaggerated claims, fear-mongering, and public relations hyperbole based on what “could, might, or may happen”.  Little, or no, concern is shown for what is most likely, nor to most probable cause and effect relationships.  Fuzzy, “politically-correct biology” (a very deadly “PCB”) serves as the focus of an array of claims that are, in fact, false or at best, pseudoscience with little support from valid scientific information.  Sympathetic scientists, speaking outside of their area of expertise, are quoted to add “authenticity” to the exaggerated claims of impending doom.  (Remember, “a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist.”) When challenged over their “hype” and the methods employed, the “big green folks” respond that “the means are justified by the end that is served”.  Such tactics are justified because their opponents “play dirty”.


I suggest that such approaches are extremely short-sighted and, ultimately, increase the vulnerability of the resources that supposedly are being protected.  As big as some environmental organizations have become, they simply do not have “the muscle to play games with the big boys”.  An opponent with an annual budget of one hundred million dollars would not cause much concern for any corporate giant who really wants to “rape, plunder, and pillage” the environment. The strength of “little folks”, including environmental organizations and professional resource management societies, must be based in their professional and scientific credibility.  The groups must adhere to the strictest standards of honesty and base their policies, positions, and public statements on scientifically valid information.  If a position is based on personal beliefs, values, or ethics, say so, and do not attempt to cloak misinformation in pseudoscience.  Credible information, complete with known levels of certainty or uncertainty, is the only effective strength of those who would conserve, manage, and protect the natural environment.     


Aquaculture has become a “whipping boy” for several environmental organizations.  An array of “sins against nature” have been placed on the doorstep of aquaculture.  (Most readers are familiar with the claims.  I’ll not repeat them here.)  The “blue wave of the future” has become the “brown tide of aquatic destruction” according to these critics.  Is there any scientific truth to the accusations?  In most cases, the answer is, “no”.  At best, most of the criticisms are founded in misunderstanding of nature and aquaculture; at worst, they are pseudoscience, outright lies, or  misrepresentations designed to inflame the gullible public and stir their “true believer” supporters to action.  Is there anything that can be done to combat these unwarranted claims and challenges; challenges to the basic right for aquaculture to exist?


First, we must be sure that “our house is in order”.  Certainly, we need to examine our practices and search continuously for improvements.  (Such improvements can do wonders for the “bottom line”, as well as, silence our critics.)   Next, we need to understand the ecosystems within which we work and the inter-relationships of aquaculture and natural aquatic systems. Know the facts about pathogen and parasite origins and transmission.  Know the sources of the ingredients in fish feed.  Understand the real relationships between wild fish and fish farm escapees.  I suggest that these understandings must be based on scientifically valid information and that they should emphasize the functional ecology of the ecosystems (as opposed to biological structure only).   Does this mean that every fish farmer must be a scientist; or that only scientists should speak out for aquaculture?  Not at all!  “Junk science”, pseudoscience, and similar misrepresentations have characteristics and usually contain words that identify them as less than valid science.


Watch for the words “could”, “might”, and “may”.  Real science does not deal with such vague uncertainties.  Does the speaker/author appear to have “an agenda” that is supported only by personal opinions and beliefs?  Does the speaker/author present information as to the methods used to develop her/his beliefs?  What assumptions were accepted at the start of the investigation?  “Junk science” usually attempts to establish sensational headlines and to promote specific social and political agendas.  “Pseudoscience” typically blames someone else and the actions of others for a series of perceived problems.  Finally, watch carefully for “scientific materials” that seem primarily to promote the scientist’s career, or in which the scientist is speaking on subjects not related to her/his area of expertise.  If you see the hallmarks of pseudoscience in any statements, speak out and demand clarification and elaboration. Place the burden of proof on the accuser.         


We must be willing, and able, to challenge our critics when they accuse us wrongly.  Misinformation, disinformation, and pseudoscience can be challenged; must be challenged. Simple application of basic processes of science place the burden of proof on the accuser..  Ask the questions:  “How do you know that?”; “What assumptions did you accept when you developed your beliefs?”, “What is the scientific basis for that statement?”; and ”How certain are  the data you are using?” (or,  “Show me the numbers”).  If the criticism is based on claims of what might happen, demand to know the probability that what is claimed will happen.  “Big Green” makes great misuse of the so-called “Precautionary Principle”, which is not a biological principle at all.  (It’s origins are in law and it has no legitimacy in science, at least as currently used by “Extreme Green”.)


There is no need for conflict between environmental organizations and aquaculture.  Aquaculture depends upon clean, functional aquatic ecosystems; not necessarily the historic, structural ecosystems of the past; but, functional, resilient, sustainable systems.  Traditional conservation and the science of ecology are compatible with aquaculture, but, the “extreme environmentalism” of the “Big Green Monster”, the environmentalism that departs from its roots in ethics and values, understanding of nature, practical common sense, and scientifically valid information, should, and must be challenged.  The scientific evidence favors aquaculture.  Use it to defend your right to exist.  Even more importantly, don’t wait to be attacked.  Don’t let a day go by without using your factual knowledge of aquaculture to tell someone about its positive aspects and effects.