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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fishing Tales and Clickbait

Sea monsters, according to the National Post
Once upon a time, coming out of high school, my plan was to become a journalist. I applied to a journalism program, but when the acceptances came, I went with a second pick instead, and became an English major. Even way back then, I somehow felt that journalist was, if not pure hackery, at least a not quite respectable profession. That opinion has only solidified over time. Now I tend to think of journalism as a profession for people who are clever with words but plodding of thought. And as time goes on, I think the former trait is no longer a job requirement.

The more appropriate label for the practitioner of the journalist’s trade seems now to be “content provider”. And the purpose of content is not to inform; it’s to entertain, and to manipulate people into clicking the left button on their mouse or tap their phone in such a way as to please advertisers.

One Canadian newspaper of note seems to have found its own remarkable strategy for generating these clicks and taps. It seems that the National Post has decided that running stories about sea creatures are the royal road to page views. Take this gem from July 23, 2015 headlined “Fisherman on hunt for cod reels in a more fearsome catch in rare Newfoundland shark encounter”. Fearsome catch! Rare encounter! Indeed. Someone in Newfoundland fishing for cod hooked a porbeagle shark. Then they cut it loose. That’s pretty much the story. In this case, the porbeagle was 2 metres long. The article is accompanied by a sidebar containing facts about porbeagles. One of these helpfully informs us that the maximum length of a porbeagle is 2.5 metres. There is also a map showing the porbeagle’s geographical range. Newfoundland is within this range. Stop the presses! A common species of shark of around average size was caught in its home waters!

So, the “rare encounter” in the headline can charitably be called misleading. How about the descriptor “fearsome”? The sidebar says “Attacks on humans: 3 (2009)”. Now, does this mean that there were three porbeagle attacks in 2009? If so, the number is perhaps non-negligible. Or, does it rather mean that there have been three attacks cumulatively in the records as of 2009? If the latter is the case, then it doesn’t seem like much. It is not made clear which meaning is intended, and this vagueness was likely intentional. For when we turn to the Wikipedia page for the porbeagle shark, we are told that “Only a few shark attacks of uncertain provenance have been attributed to the porbeagle.” This would seem to indicate that the three attacks are cumulative. Further on, the same source says that “[t]he porbeagle has very rarely, if ever, bitten swimmers or boats. As of 2009, the International Shark Attack File attributes three bites to this species, one provoked and none fatal, and two on boats.” So it is not so fearsome after all.

Nevertheless, using porbeagles as clickbait (pardon the pun) must have been effective enough, for within a year the National Post decided to give it another try. On July 5, 2016 it ran an article headlined “Newfoundland fisherman was jigging for cod, but he came across a shark instead”. The fisherman’s name was Jim Mansfield. Again, the shark was a porbeagle, of about average size. At least this time around the article had the honesty to note that “[p]orbeagles are not uncommon in Newfoundland waters”. Unfortunately, unable to sell the incident to the reader on its rarity, it instead pitched the fearsomeness angle (pardon the pun): “Officials confirmed it was a porbeagle shark — a smaller relative of the Great White. Still, Mansfield says the shark was just as aggressive as its famous, feared cousin.”

The article mentions nothing that this particular porbeagle did that was so remarkably aggressive, other than get itself hooked. It did not attack the boat or the fisherman. Perhaps Mr. Mansfield meant that porbeagles in general are aggressive? If so, as we’ve seen, it just doesn’t hold water (pardon the pun). As noted above, a grand total of three historical attacks on humans can be credited to porbeagles. As for the Great White, according to Wikipedia, “[o]f all shark species, the great white shark is responsible for by far the largest number of recorded shark bite incidents on humans, with 272 documented unprovoked bite incidents on humans as of 2012.”

Facts are stubborn things. Sometimes, it would seem, the National Post prefers to avoid them altogether.

A couple of months before that second porbeagle article was published, on May 4, 2016, the selfsame National Post ran a story headlined “Bizarre prehistoric fish washes ashore at beach in North Carolina”. Now, with words like “bizarre” and “prehistoric”, how could I stop myself from clicking on it? The journalistic “credit” for this fish tale goes to some kid name Justin Dallaire. In any case, I realized that I had been suckered right away, because upon clicking it, the first thing I was presented with was a picture of what is clearly a sturgeon.

Dinosaurs are prehistoric. A sturgeon is not “prehistoric”, because it exists today. Yes, it evolved millions of years ago. But so did the porbeagle shark, and we don’t call porbeagles “prehistoric”, do we? Let us be charitable and assume that “prehistoric” was a simply a poor choice of words and was not in any way employed sensationally to generate clicks or bring Jurassic Park to the reader’s mind. Let us grant that Mr. Dallaire or the headline writer intended to write “primitive” instead. Or perhaps “ugly”.

To be specific, the fish in question was an Atlantic sturgeon, and last I checked, North Carolina has a coast on the Atlantic. Again, just as in the cases of the above-mentioned porbeagles, this particular fish washed ashore in a place that was well within its species’ range. So the word “bizarre” cannot refer to where it was found. Again, though a sturgeon may appear to be “ugly” to some people, it is not some kind of sea monster, as the sensational headline might suggest. (Hint to Mr. Dallaire: sturgeons are where caviar comes from.)

Granted, there is one sense in which an Atlantic sturgeon is “bizarre”: due to the sad fact that it is endangered, it has become relatively rare.

Speaking of which, it seems that if you’re a fish, being endangered is a good thing, because if you’re a common species (“plentiful” seems to be the preferred term), the National Post will run articles about how you’re the “new thing” to eat, accompanied by interesting recipes. As an instance of this, take Laura Brehaut’s January 10, 2017 piece in the Food and Drink section of the National Post, headlined “Why now is the time for you to develop a taste for dogfish”. The general drift of this article is that, with so many other species nearly fished out, we should make dogfish the new codfish. Apparently, with dogfish being so plentiful, we’re missing out on an opportunity to rethink this species’ status as “trash fish”. Even David Suzuki, the celebrity eco-warrior and supreme hypocrite, is recommending it. (Sorry, I refuse to be lectured to about my carbon footprint by a man with five children.)

Yum, yum. Count me in…

Except that dogfish is not a sustainable choice. In North America, the Marine Stewardship Council has suspended the species’ sustainability certification, not because dogfish numbers are declining — they have officially been declared recovered from previous overfishing (but for how much longer, once Brehaut, Suzuki et al. get their way?). Rather, there is concern about by-catch, specifically of Atlantic cod. And in Europe, the EU has dogfish on its list of species that have seen 95% or more decline.

In fact, this is just another junk fish being sold to us as the “new thing” because we’ve fished all the old “new things” out of existence. Live long enough and the list of these “new things” becomes depressing, such as tilapia, Chilean sea bass, and some other new fish I saw last week in the grocery store, the outlandish name of which presently escapes me.

Furthermore, part of Brehaut's sales pitch is that the only drawback to eating dogfish is that you need to peel its skin. True enough. But what is not mentioned is that the flesh also requires several hours’ worth of soaking. Being a type of shark, it stores its urine in its flesh. Unless you like your fish smelling and tasting like ammonia, this problem must be dealt with in order to make it edible. Probably a fact worth mentioning. But again, facts are stubborn things…

Bon app├ętit.

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