Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Fish Feud

The episode of Fish Fight in which I appeared is available to watch here:

Fish Fight Series 2 Episode 2

I was extremely unhappy with the way I was portrayed in this program, and with the fact that it contained misleading information, innaccuracies and ommitted some important information. Below is a copy of the open letter I wrote to Hugh and his production company, a copy of Hugh’s response and the three newspaper articles which resulted from the debate.

My letter to Hugh (25 Feb 2013)

Dear Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall,

my name is Ruth Brown, you met me in February 2012 when you came to Bird Island, South Georgia, to film an episode of ‘Fish Fight’, and I appeared in this episode which aired on Thursday last week (21st Feb) on Channel 4. I am writing to protest about the unfair and unflattering light in which you portrayed me, and the glaring inaccuracies in information that you presented to viewers.

In your program you implied that the research I do is paid for by licence money received from the krill fishing industry, and that I am therefore unable to speak freely about my opinions of that industry. This is not true. I work for British Antarctic Survey, who do not receive any money from fisheries and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, a government body that funds independent scientific research. British Antarctic Survey fund and manage all work that is carried out on Bird Island, yet were not mentioned once in your program.

During your interview with me, I repeatedly told you that the data I collect on penguins and other seabird species is handed over to CCAMLR (the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), an international consortium that manage all fishing activities in the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR use this data to inform their decisions about fishing practices and to ensure that Southern Ocean fisheries are sustainable. I find it remarkable that in a program dedicated to fisheries in the Southern Ocean, you did not once mention CCAMLR, the international body that governs fisheries in the Southern Ocean.

In your program you mentioned that penguin populations are declining, with the implication being that this is a result of competition with the krill fishery for their main prey food, krill. This is at best misleading. It is true that macaroni penguin populations at South Georgia are in decline, and I would direct your attention to a recent paper on the subject (Trathan et al 2012 ‘Ecological drivers of change at South Georgia’ Ecography 35 (11), 983-993), which discusses the possible causes of this decline. The authors conclude that the most likely reason for declining populations of macaroni penguins at South Georgia is an increase in the population of Antarctic fur seals, which also feed on krill. Indeed, fur seals have undergone a population explosion at South Georgia in recent years despite the presence of the krill fishery, a fact which was not mentioned in your program.

In your program you asked me how much krill an individual penguin consumes in a single meal. The amount of krill consumed by animals in this ecosystem is an important point. The estimated total amount of krill consumed by macaroni penguins in a year is around 1.6 million tonnes, and the estimated total amount of krill consumed by Antarctic fur seals in a year is around 6.8 million tonnes (Trathan et al 2012). In contrast, the average annual krill catch by the South Georgia fishery is 43,500 tonnes (Trathan et al 2012), and is therefore insignificant compared with the amount of krill consumed by the animals. These figures were not mentioned in your program.

Whilst you were on Bird Island, one of your production team (Lucy Meadows) told us that the krill boat on which you filmed experienced zero by-catch. In my opinion this is an astonishing and noteworthy fact, given the high levels of by-catch seen in other fisheries. However, this fact was not mentioned in your program.

In your program you suggested that populations of great whales in the Southern Ocean have fully recovered following the end of commercial exploitation. This statement is misleading. Whilst some species of whales have recovered to pre-exploitation levels, others have not, and a very modest amount of research on your part would have shown you this (see, for example, Lotze et al 2011 ‘Recovery of marine animal populations and ecosystems’ Trends in Ecology & Evolution 26 (11), 595-605).

In conclusion, the episode of ‘Fish Fight’ which covered fisheries on the Southern Ocean was poorly researched and misleading. Many important facts were left out, as they would clearly have compromised the pre-conceived journalistic slant of the program. You and your production company (KEO films) repeatedly ignored the research and opinions of scientists and conservationists who have spent decades studying the ecosystem around South Georgia, believing that you are better placed to comment on that ecosystem than they are.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of campaigns for sustainable fishing in general, and of the ‘Fish Fight’ campaign in particular. It therefore saddens me that you have chosen to tarnish this noble cause with what can only be described as a tawdry piece of hack journalism. I am ashamed that I was a part of it, albeit unwittingly.

Sincerely,
Dr. Ruth Brown.

Hugh’s response

Dear Ruth,

Thanks for taking the time to write with your views on the latest Fish Fight programme. I am sorry that you feel disillusioned with the campaign, and that you feel we misrepresented your views on Marine Protected Areas or the krill fishery.

Let me respond to your points in the same order you presented them. You say that we implied that the research you do is paid for by license money received from the krill industry. In fact in the film it is Dr Martin Collins of the Government of South Georgia who introduces the idea that the fisheries generate £3 million a year, and we specifically state in the voiceover “the bottom line is that the fisheries operating round South Georgia bring in 3m pounds a year for the Government, and that money is what keeps the whole place running”. This is an accurate summery of Martin’s explanation to us on camera – and it contains no specific reference as to how the research programmes on the island are funded. We never said or implied that the research on Bird Island, or anywhere else, was funded by krill fisheries or any other fisheries.

You seem disappointed that we never once mentioned BAS, CCAMLR, or NERC. This is because television needs to work hard to make complicated ideas and stories comprehensible and accessible to a wide audience, and including acronyms and too many auxiliary parts to the story often works against this guiding principal. We do however explain clearly that there is an “international management body” which sets quotas for the krill boats (ie CCAMLR), we just never mention it by its name.

When we talked about penguin populations declining, and we did this more than once during the programme, we made it clear that what is known is that penguins are declining due to habitat loss. What we actually said is that “It is not yet known what effect fishing for krill might have on this fragile ecosystem”, and again later in the programme “What is harder to measure is the effect that the growing krill fishing industry is having on the local wildlife”. It is precisely because of this uncertainty that we go on to talk about the need for “future proofing” our oceans, and setting up more restrictions on the fisheries working in those areas, management plans which we are delighted to see are currently being discussed and implemented.

You say that fur seals have undergone a population explosion in recent years in South Georgia and that we fail to mention this fact in our programme. What we actually say (over shots of lots and lots of fur seals) is that the populations of whales and seals around these islands are “almost back to pre-hunting levels. In fact South Georgia has now become the most important breeding site in the world for fur seals”, which I think gets the point across. You say that it is misleading to suggest that all the whales have recovered to pre-hunting levels, and I agree, we may have over-simplified this point, and I’m happy to post a clarification on our website along the lines of: “During our latest Fish Fight programme we gave the impression that all the whale species around South Georgia have recovered to their pre-hunting levels. In fact, although humpback whales have shown strong recovery, Blue Whales and fin whales haven’t yet recovered to pre-hunting levels, and there is a lack of data on Sei whales and Antarctic Minke whales.” Perhaps you, or others working at BAS could help to clarify these facts?

You are right that we didn’t include the fact that the Saga Sea has little or no bycatch while it is fishing for krill. We did film a sequence talking about this on board the boat, but due to a lack of time, we did not include it in our final edit. As I mentioned before, it is important to keep the story telling of a TV documentary clear and simple, and as you know, bycatch is not something we are looking at in this series, having covered it so comprehensively in the first series of Fish Fight 2 years ago. I do not feel that this omission misrepresents our story in any way.

You conclude by saying that our programme was poorly researched and misleading, and suggest that we came to South Georgia with preconceived ideas of what we wanted to film. I can assure you, however, that we take great pride in getting our facts right, and putting across forceful and engaging arguments to our viewers to try to encourage them to take an interest in marine conservation issues. Although we thoroughly research our stories before we leave the office, we never arrive on location with preconceived ideas of what we will discover there. One of the joys of documentary making is filming what you find, and following the stories that emerge on the ground. Unfortunately, when we arrived on South Georgia, it appeared to us that everyone we were due to film had been briefed about what they could and could not say to us. It was later confirmed that a briefing from the BAS press office and representatives of the South Georgia Government had indeed taken place before our arrival in South Georgia. This made it quite difficult for us to feel like we were ever getting heartfelt and true responses to our questions.

I hope this answers some of your queries and concerns, and that we can continue to have an informed and productive conversations about marine protected areas and how best to manage the astonishing seas round the Southern Oceans.

All best wishes
Hugh

Article from The Sun (by Ben Jackson, 27 Feb 2013)

Scientist raps chef Hugh in fish feudCELEBRITY chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was accused yesterday of fishy tactics in a TV conservation show.

Hugh warned on Channel 4’s Save Our Seas last week that fishing of krill — shrimp billed as a “miracle” supplement on the High Street — was ruining the food supply of seals and penguins.

But British zoologist Dr Ruth Brown, who was on the show, said she was “ashamed” of the “misleading” evidence.
She claims it wrongly implied she received money from the krill fishing industry.

In a blast at the chef, she added: “You and your production company repeatedly ignored the research and opinions of scientists.”

Article from The Daily Mail (by David Wilkes, 27 Feb 2013)

Hugh and a war of words over penguins: Marine scientist accuses chef of 'glaring inaccuracies' in campaign against overfishing• Dr Ruth Brown interviewed on Fearnley-Whittingstall's Hugh's Fish Fight
• She said in letter afterwards she was 'ashamed' to have taken part
• Marine scientist said programme was 'poorly researched and misleading'
• But Fearnley-Whittingstall insisted his show was 'meticulously researched'

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign against over-fishing hit choppy waters yesterday after a marine scientist featured in his TV show branded it ‘poorly researched and misleading’.

Dr Ruth Brown, a supporter of his fight for sustainable fishing, accused the multi-millionaire chef of ‘glaring inaccuracies’ in his investigation into krill fishing in the South Atlantic and of presenting her in an ‘unfair and unflattering light’.

She is unhappy about apparent suggestions that the penguin population is falling because they are struggling to find food as a result of krill fishing.

Fearnley-Whittingstall travelled 8,000 miles to speak to the 36-year-old zoologist and other conservationists working in South Georgia, the British territory close to Antarctica, for the latest episode of Hugh’s Fish Fight.

Fishing for krill is burgeoning in the surrounding waters. The tiny shrimp-like crustaceans are used for feed that helps turn farmed salmon pink and to make krill oil tablets, part of the lucrative health food market for products containing omega 3 fats.

It is understood Dr Brown, who has worked there as a field assistant for the British Antarctic Survey collecting data on penguins and other seabirds since 2010, was interviewed for around three hours for the programme.

But she was left ‘ashamed’ of having taken part after she saw the programme, aired last Thursday on Channel 4.

The Old Etonian chef claimed people on the island might be ‘wary’ of backing a new protected area around it where no fishing could take place because the fishery generates £3million a year for the government and ‘that money is what keeps the whole place running’.

In fact, the BAS receives no funding from fishing firms. In a letter to Fearnley-Whittingstall, Dr Brown wrote: ‘You implied that the research I do is paid for by licence money received from the krill fishing industry, and that I am therefore unable to speak freely about my opinions of that industry. This is not true.’
She also criticised him for implying that penguin numbers are falling because of competition with the krill fishery for their main food.

Dr Brown said research has indicated the most likely reason for declining populations of macaroni penguins is an explosion in the population of Antarctic fur seals, which also feed on krill.

Her letter ended: ‘[This] episode of Fish Fight was poorly researched and misleading...’
Fearnley-Whittingstall, 48, who this week led a march to Westminster to urge the Government to do more to protect UK seas, insisted the programme was ‘meticulously researched’ and denied it said or implied that BAS research was funded by krill fisheries.

He said the show made clear that it was not yet known what effect fishing for krill would have on penguins.

Article from The Guardian (by Leo Hickman, 27 Feb 2013)


Scientist calls Hugh's Fish Fight 'a tawdry piece of hack journalism'Chef and Antarctic scientist in Facebook row over research funding claims made in Channel 4 programme

A bird scientist interviewed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for his Fish Fight series on Channel 4 has posted a scathing open letter on Facebook accusing him of portraying her in an "unfair and unflattering light" and producing a "tawdry piece of hack journalism".

Dr Ruth Brown, a penguin specialist based at the British Antarctic Survey's research station at Bird Island, off South Georgia, was interviewed on the programme broadcast last Thursday. Fearnley-Whittingstall asked Brown, and her colleague, what impact intensive krill fishing would have on penguin populations in the southern Atlantic, and whether marine protection zones would help to protect bird species reliant on krill. In an awkward exchange, Brown told Fearnley-Whittingstall said she needed time to consider an answer. But the programme moved on without showing her giving an answer.

In her letter, Brown objects to what came next. In the subsequent voiceover, the chef and food campaigner said: "I can't understand why these scientists and naturalists are so wary about backing the idea of a new marine protected area around South Georgia."

"The bottom line is that the fisheries operating around South Georgia bring in £3m a year for government and that money is what keeps the whole place running. As so often in fish conservation, I'm starting to feel caught up again in a web of bureaucracy, politics and, frankly, money."

Brown responded in her letter: "In your programme you implied that the research I do is paid for by licence money received from the krill-fishing industry, and that I am therefore unable to speak freely about my opinions of that industry. This is not true. I work for British Antarctic Survey, who do not receive any money from fisheries and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, a government body that funds independent scientific research."

She concluded: "The episode of Fish Fight which covered fisheries on the Southern Ocean was poorly researched and misleading. Many important facts were left out, as they would clearly have compromised the preconceived journalistic slant of the programme.

She said she was a supporter of Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign, which today won a notable victory with EU ministers deciding to ban the practice of throwing healthy fish back into the sea. "It therefore saddens me that you have chosen to tarnish this noble cause with what can only be described as a tawdry piece of hack journalism. I am ashamed that I was a part of it, albeit unwittingly."

On Tuesday Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a point-by-point response to Brown and issued a statement to the Guardian: "The programme was meticulously researched and we take great pride in getting our facts right, and putting across engaging arguments to our viewers to try to encourage them to take an interest in marine conservation issues. We spoke to many experts in the course of making the series, and the programme is a fair and accurate account of all the research we consulted and of our experience filming in South Georgia – although inevitably it was not possible to include every single detail in a one-hour programme."

A spokeswoman at the British Antarctic Survey said it supported Brown, but that it was a "personal matter". In a "science briefing" posted on its website the BAS said: "BAS scientists do not receive funding from any commercial krill fishing company. However, BAS scientists do collaborate with fishing companies in order to understand how the fishery operates."

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