Environmental Bullies: How Conservation Ideologues Attack Scientists Who Don’t Agree With Them.

When science is selectively used for pushing an agenda, you see the ugly side of conservation activism for the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Waiting for the bite. Cooperative research on Atlantic bluefin tuna with Canadian fishermen.

I’d like to think that it’s not personal. I like to think it’s because an environmental writer needs to make a living and sell his books, any way he/she can. And needs to rack up awards for saving the planet, or the fish, or the sea turtles…

In science, there’s always disagreement among experts and well-respected, conscientious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on tough questions. We are used to that. And we work things out as a team using objective scientific methods and evidence. A good scientist should be ready to make mistakes, to be wrong sometimes, to be called out, or to miss something obvious that someone else runs with and gets credit for. Or to get lucky with research, to be in the right place at the right time - we experience it all. And women scientists that make it all the way to professional positions most likely have already been hit on or harassed or received unfair treatment, because there are fewer of us. Women scientists know plenty of these stories. We receive training for that too, even though it rarely helps.

But I was not trained how to respond to environmental bullies. Or scientific fraud. How do you react to false, deceitful accusations from non-experts, from unethical individuals, from persons or NGO’s with books to sell, or a point of view to peddle to an unsuspecting public or community, or politicians. Points of view, that when challenged by facts and data, get in the way of fund-raising campaigns, messages to the media, book sales, rich donors, and perhaps the most insidious - attempts to influence US fisheries and ocean policies.


In 1993, after learning that Edgerton Research Lab scientists of the New England Aquarium (NEAq) were working with commercial bluefin fishermen and spotter pilots to “sea truth” the availability and distribution of tuna schools in the Gulf of Maine by conducting cooperative aerial surveys, the attacks began. The most blatant was a letter from Carl Safina to Greg Stone, then the Director of Conservation at the NEAq, copied to other members of the ocean conservation organization of which the NEAq was a member. These were the early days of the Pew Oceans Fellows Program, housed at NEAq. Apparently NEAq scientists could not work in research partnerships with fishery stakeholders without being duped, or used, or something.

Although I still haven’t physically located my copy of the letter, essentially, it chastised us, Edgerton Research Lab (ERL) scientists, for conducting aerial surveys of tuna schools. Safina’s usual quote was that bluefin were being fished, like “the last buffalo, to the brink of extinction”. He used that analogy often, usually in association with “fishermen’s greed”. And so it was easy to attack the NEAq ERL for allowing a lowly female whale volunteer, “leading a misguided project”, to be manipulated by the fishing industry. Why would NEAq scientists want to count the tuna, to see what was really going on - it might disrupt the campaign to stop commercial fishing and shut down the historic New England tuna fleet.

In case you don’t know who Carl Safina is. Just google.

Google knows. Author he is!

As early as 1992, Carl Safina tried to get bluefin tuna listed under Appendix I (i.e., endangered) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). His staff writer at the Blue Ocean Institute, the former brand of the Safina Center, Denis Devin touted:

The fish conservation movement took a giant leap forward in 1991, when Carl Safina roiled the stagnant waters of international fisheries management with a bombshell of a proposal to save bluefin tuna.
With the help of a grant from the Packard Foundation, Safina investigated how to get fish recognized as wildlife by conservation groups and regulatory agencies alike.
Safina’s strategic choice for getting conservation groups to recognize fish as wildlife and to shake regulatory agencies from their insular complacency was to focus on bluefin tuna, a member of the “charismatic megafauna” (big, compelling animals) representing everything that was wrong in fisheries management…

This strategy struck gold ,when then National Marine Fisheries Service director Bill Fox named Safina to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council from 1991 to 1994, giving him visibility, influence and financial leverage.


Back in the 90s, bluefin fishermen said that spotter pilots could see, in a single day, as many adult bluefin that were supposed to exist in the entire western Atlantic in just a few surface schools in the Gulf of Maine alone. No federal fisheries scientists would fly to validate the fishermen’s observations, so Dr. Scott Kraus, director of the right whale research group and whale aerial surveys, stepped in to find out. And he hired me to run the surveys after an inquiry about his sea turtle data. I’d completed an oceanography PhD, two postdocs, and recently left a job in the Dept. of Interior as an endangered species scientist to get back to research, which I loved. I had been studying leatherbacks, a warm bodied turtle, and bluefin tuna were a warm bodied fish. And incredibly interesting. My UBC postdoc supervisor, Dr. David R. Jones, was an expert on their blood. And there were huge gaps in biological understanding - in other words, a scientific frontier to explore!

Up Above. Giant tuna school from the air, taken when film camera was the best tech in the 90s to shoot from the air. And It’s always a thrilling (especially when you are claustrophobic) experience to ride on an Aeronca Champ plane.
And down below. The Atlantic bluefin tuna, an iconic top predator. (C) Paul Murray Photography

In his clumsy communication to discredit our survey work, Carl Safina made no attempt to confirm the scientific credentials of the scientist running the study (me), nor her highly respected collaborator, Dr. Scott Kraus. In fact, by doing our job as scientists, using aerial survey methods to investigate real-time, surface abundance of bluefin schools, we were disrupting the ocean conservation group’s efforts, especially that of Safina, to list Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered species. Apparently, by whatever means necessary. The published spotter survey results eventually provided independent observations that rebutted Safina’s portrayal of western Atlantic bluefin as an endangered species down to a few thousand individuals. The study established the local assemblage as larger than one hundred thousand giant bluefin, at the surface alone.

Digging through the archives. First direct estimate on western Atlantic bluefin tuna numbers. Source: Fish. Bull. 93:495–503. http://fishbull.noaa.gov/933/lutcavage.pdf

Our scientific research got in the way of the extinction agenda, and continues to do so today.

Since our first research projects over 25 years ago, my lab and our collaborators and students have built a diverse body of peer reviewed science covering extensive aspects of the biology, life history, physiological ecology, reproduction, diet, oceanographic associations, and fisheries dynamics of Atlantic bluefin tuna. We published over 75 research studies on western bluefin. Most of it was new, or challenged the status quo of bluefin biology used in stock assessment. We documented a lower age at maturity, extensive, Atlantic-wide mixing, complex annual migration patterns, and effects of prey dynamics and ocean conditions on their movements. This holistic body of research showed the western Atlantic bluefin population to be far more resilient and larger than that being represented by some NGO’s. Yet this substantial scientific body of evidence, most of it noted by historic studies by Frank Mather and Peter C. Wilson, has been conveniently ignored by those with ideological agendas, even today.

Enviro Bullies rarely confront their targets face to face. Since the 1990’s, they’ve made pretty impressive attempts to mislead about bluefin science. And to influence US fisheries managers, politicians and the direction of research funding, all the way up to the White House. We stuck to our research goals, but when Congressional earmarks funding the Large Pelagics Research Center (LPRC, Univ. of New Hampshire), and its role model, the Pacific Fisheries Research Program (Univ. of Hawaii), went away, we faced vastly downsized research budgets. Actually, just when the Centers had amassed a substantial body of credible, cutting edge fisheries science, and established their true worth, both pelagic fisheries science Centers went off the cliff, into real extinction. Meanwhile, major funding began streaming in to some ocean–focused NGO’s, and their spokesperson scientists.

In the heyday. Researchers and volunteers of the Large Pelagics Research Center, Gloucester, Massachusetts.

In 2013, former students, collaborators and I witnessed the Pew Oceans Campaign and partners mislead, in their press releases and statements to US and Canadian fisheries managers, experts’ consensus regarding the status of the Atlantic bluefin population in Pew’s Fact Sheet representation of Best Available Science. And more specifically, that LPRC’s peer reviewed research that challenged their take away message, that the Atlantic bluefin population trajectory was downward, and that they were in danger. They labelled our work as well as consensus science from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), as “unsubstantiated hypotheses”. Amanda Nickson, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Bluefin Campaign, phoned from Vancouver to berate my colleagues and me for responding to the Pew Fact Sheet, which dramatically misrepresented science. We had corrected it with our own fact sheet, and they were not happy to be called out by credentialed bluefin experts.


Tuna is the new sexy. Who would have thought tuna fishing will go on the billboard?

Maybe it’s because National Geographic’s Wicked Tuna reality show, on roll out, put me up against Safina’s video blurb about the overfished, endangered bluefin on the show’s website. What can you do when a lauded environmental writer, one with a PhD in seabird ecology, that receives accolades and is often the go to authority on Atlantic bluefin for the New York Times, National Public Radio, high media profile journals Science and Nature (even though he’s not exactly running a research lab, is he?), lacks the ethics most of us practice when we conduct science. To claim to be an expert where you are not, to mislead the public, to falsely disparage those that don’t support your ideology, to repeatedly and falsely allude to a woman scientist being bought by fishermen, “in their pockets”, whatever works, when his ideology or views expressed in books or blogs or lectures are shown to be false. Is this what conservation leadership has become? Incidentally, another blatant attempt to disparage and mislead was accomplished by Pew and their scientists in Quicksilver, by Kenneth Brower, published in National Geographic Magazine March 2014 story on Atlantic bluefin tuna.

The quotes look pretty familiar:

Tuna science, always politicized, has recently become much more so. As it is no longer possible for ICCAT to simply ignore scientific advice, there is now an effort to massage the science. “There are inherent uncertainties about these stock assessments,” Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told me. “We’re seeing a mining of the areas of uncertainty to justify increases in quota.”
Industry-funded biologists propose that there might be undiscovered spawning grounds for Atlantic bluefin. It is possible, of course, but there is no real evidence for the proposition. The idea seems awfully convenient for an agenda favoring business as usual.

Wow, “awfully convenient for an agenda”, in this Nat Geo story repeating Pew’s positions and only their scientists that support it, Drs. Barbara Block and Safina. So now we have even more evidence that their representations are wrong. Gee, National Geographic Society Research and Exploration had actually funded two of my research projects.

By the way, Brower did conduct a phone interview with me, but at the end, chose not to include my perspective in his story. Let’s see if they print a correction.

Here we are again, Carl Safina. Yes, you’re certainly not the only enviro bully out there, not the only one wrong again, but this time, I’m calling you out. Let the ocean conservation community represented by Pew tuna campaigns and their chosen scientists see the latest, the peer reviewed science finding on Atlantic bluefin tuna spawning areas in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, early edition on 7 March 2016, “Discovery of a new spawning ground reveals diverse migration strategies in Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)”, by Richardson and coauthors.

A new spawning ground. Read the paper at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/04/1525636113.full

Judge for yourself. See what an environmental bully says, in his own words.

Lutcavage has spent much of her career pie-in-the-skying about unknown holy grail spawning areas. The fishing industry, with which she enjoys a cozy relationship, would love it if there were. That’s because they think it would help their denial that the bluefin is really as depleted as every other independent academic and government scientist and even the Atlantic tuna commission say it is.
Blog post of Carl Safina. http://carlsafina.org/2010/05/25/gulf-oil-and-bluefin-tuna-the-double-whammy/

There are other examples, but we’ll save those for my book!

Oh, and Carl, I didn’t spend my whole career doing what you said I did “pie in the skying”, etc. etc.

I’d be happy to discuss my 36 years in sea turtle research and conservation, but you’ll ignore that too.

Leatherback turtle baby and the author.

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About the author. Dr. Molly Lutcavage is an oceanographer, tuna and sea turtle physiologist. She is the director of the Large Pelagics Research Center at the School for the Environment, University of Massachusetts Boston.