Have We Hit The Chicken Little Point In Ocean Conservation?

With all the talk of ocean calamities are ocean scientists and communicators making the same mistake as Chicken Little?
With all the talk of ocean calamities are ocean scientists and communicators making the same mistake as Chicken Little? (Illustration from "Chicken Little" in the New Barnes Reader vol.1, New York, 1916)

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

So cries Chicken Little (or Chicken Licken, or Henny Penny, depending on the telling) in the well-known folk tale. In the story, an acorn falls on Chicken Little’s head, and she takes it as a sign that the sky is falling and the world is coming to an end. She spreads the news—“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”—and causes mass hysteria. In some versions of the story, her prophecy leads to her own demise: in a panicked state, she and her friends are easily tricked and eaten by a wily fox. In other versions, Chicken Little is forced to admit the truth: that the sky was never falling in the first place, and she misread the signs.

Are ocean scientists making the same mistake? In the December issue of Bioscience, Carlos Duarte and colleagues argue that, like Chicken Little, scientists may have been overplaying some of the human-caused threats to the ocean. In their analysis, they found both cases of fears that were upheld with solid data (overfishing being a prime example) and cases where the data were much shakier (as with jellyfish blooms and declines of species that rely on calcium to build shells due to human-caused ocean acidification). 

Just weeks later, however, another study published in Science suggested that the ocean is being pushed to the brink. “We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” author Douglas J. McCauley told Carl Zimmer of the New York Times. And now this week, a new study suggests that threats to coral reefs are so severe that we may well have to help them to evolve faster in order for them to survive in a warmer and more acidic sea.

So, one day, ocean scientists, communicators and conservationists are making too big a deal of threats to the ocean. The next day, we should prepare for a mass marine extinction. What is one supposed to do with such an onslaught of conflicting information? Like Chicken Little, are we misreading the signs pointing to danger for the ocean? Are we exaggerating the potential for disaster, causing others to mistrust our calls for the end of the world? Is the sky falling or not?

It’s worth remembering that Duarte and colleagues found plenty of cases where the threats are real and already upon us, and some of the more uncertain threats may later prove to be serious as well. But they give us an important reminder: before you voice an opinion, you should make sure it’s backed up by factual information (something we strive to do here at the Smithsonian Ocean Portal). 

In the meantime, we suggest trying not to get too frustrated with the Chicken Littles of the ocean world. Chicken Little yelled about the falling sky because she wanted to find a way to stop it. The ocean’s Chicken Littles are the same—they spread the word about the end of the ocean because they want to save it. And when something turns out to be not as bad as we feared, that’s cause for some always welcome #OceanOptimism. 

February 2015