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Flaks feed world biggest Alaska fish story ever told that never happened

Craig Medred
Utagawa Hiroshige illustration

First there was the 200-year-old rockfish that wasn't, which spawned outrage that a fisherman would kill the old fish, which birthed the story that rockfish pulled from the depths by sport fishermen are doomed to die no matter what.

Who's to blame for the shoddy reporting? Lamestream media? Social networks? The vast government-industrial complex that feeds both?

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, of course, deserves credit for shining light on the lamestream. Then she went on to demonstrate how social media can be harnessed to twist facts and mold public opinion before a story's been reported. And then there is that government-industrial complex that exists for no other reason than to spin words in various forms: information,  disinformation, misinformation, you name it.

Businesses, interest groups, non-governmental organizations and most especially the government itself all have their "spokes,'' as in spokesman, spokeswoman, public information officer, public relations specialist, press liaison, flak, etc., etc., and so it goes. These people today drive the "news bus." They were fighting to take over the bus long before news went electronic, but the growth of the web and the subsequent decline of newspapers, news editors, proofreaders and old-fashioned, gumshoe reporters gave them the opportunity they really needed.

Back in the day, reporters prowled what were called beats looking for news. "Spokes" were forced to push their version of reality through these reporters, before it met the stubborn hub of a newsroom, where "spokes" are viewed with suspicion by editors who debate newsworthiness, on behalf of the greater public. Now, in most newsrooms, there is no hub to test the news and consider its lasting impact on a community. The news business is a broken wheel thump-thump-thumping toward some new future.

More content, less quality control

The web demands fresh "content" by the minute to keep the news new so readers will come back for more and more. This beast has to be fed. Reporting has in many cases been abandoned in favor of "aggregating,'' often accomplished by young people with limited life experience and, in many if not most cases, little or no working knowledge of things about which they are writing.

Aggregators depend on the "spokes." They are beholden to the spokes. And they are lead around by the spokes when, of course, they are not being led around by each other in a circle of ignorant speculation.

All of which brings this back to that big fish.

How exactly it came to be 200 years old is unclear, but the age appears to trace back to an innocent enough observation made by Troy Tydingco, a sport fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Sitka, and the Daily Sitka Sentinel, which first reported that Seattle insurance adjuster Henry Liebman had caught a 39.08-pound shortraker rockfish off the Alaska coast.

It was a new record-size fish, and because the old record-size fish had been 175 years old, Tydingco speculated this one might be even older. From there, the story went viral. That the fish's age was based on speculation was quickly lost in the crush of headlines as the curators of today news rushed ahead figuring someone, somewhere had fact-checked it, and if not, well, it's sourced to another news organization anyway, and it's a hell of a good story.

"Insurance adjuster catches 200-year-old rockfish off Alaska," headlined the New York Daily News. "Henry Liebman knew the 39.08 pound, 40-inch fish he reeled in was abnormally big. What he didn't realize was that the beast is older than the state of Alaska."

The latter turned out to be true. The fish was older than the state, but not by much. It's actual age turned out to be not 200 years old but 64, or more than three-times younger than reported if you care about those kinds of details. 

Long before this fact emerged, however, the story throbbed across the Internet -- a 200-year-old fish! The New York Daily News has a reputation for getting carried away in headlining stories, but it wasn't the only news organization giving line to this year's biggest fish story. The normally more restrained Christian Science Monitor headlined "200-year-old rockfish: A Seattle resident caught a shortraker rockfish, which at some two centuries old might be the oldest one ever caught."

"Liebman’s fish weighed in at nearly 40 pounds (the previous high was 38.69 pounds). That’s impressive and all, but here’s the mindblowing part: The fish is estimated to be nearly two centuries old," reported USA Today, which turned the story totally crazy:

Let’s put things in perspective. Assuming the fish hatched 200 years ago in 1813:

  • James Madison was president of the United States (which consisted of 18 total states)
  • Antarctica had not yet been discovered (1820)
  • The fish was already 48 years old when the Civil War began (1861)
  • The fish was 66 years old when the lightbulb was invented (1879)

That certainly put things in perspective. Enter social media -- the 10-billion chattering squirrels of the day -- where some animal rights activists were outraged that someone had killed a fish that witnessed the presidency of James Madison. Who knows how many who love the animals were shared 200-year-old fish story, along with added comments, with friends and philosophical sympathizers.

Suffice to say, there were enough of them doing that to attract the attention of foreign press. 

"The catch did not win (Liebman) universal praise," reported the Toronto Star." Some have been outraged, posting complaints that Liebman should not have ended the life of one of the world’s longest-living species. One posted comment called him a 'pig.'”

The Star headlined its story this way: "A fish tale: Henry Liebman defends his 200-year-old catch of the day."

By this point, others were also rising to Leibman's defense with yet more speculation. This time it was that the fish was dead when it got to the surface of the ocean off Sitka. So who could blame the fisherman? If the fish is dead, he's only picking up road kill, right? 

"Wait, was that 200-year-old rockfish dead by the time it was caught?" Salon.com asked, having curated an International Business Times article that reported, "A rockfish believed to be one of the biggest and oldest ever, which was caught off the coast of Alaska last week by an insurance adjuster and recreational fisherman, has inspired controversy from environmentalists upset that the catch wasn’t released back into the water. But experts say it was likely dead when it reached the surface."

Public information officer keeps myth alive

The "experts" appear to be a former media-type turned "spokes," NOAA Alaska spokesman Julie Speegle, who, according to her resume, got her start as a television news producer in the Lower 48 before a turn as a  marketing director and her entry into the spin-driven world of government. She was a U.S. Army webmaster turned U.S. Forest Service "public affairs specialist" elevated to "public affairs officer" before the cross-agency transfer to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Government is now full of these former media types who help steer news through the 24-hour cycle. It's possible that more media specialists work in government, spinning the news, than there are actual media journalists in this country today reporting the news.

"When a rockfish caught in 900 feet of water is brought to the surface it usually dies," Speegle told L.A. Times reporter Deborah Netburn, who kept the story alive with the tale of "Ancient rockfish caught in Alaska: Why nobody threw it back."

Speegle and Netburn actually teemed to produce the implication that the fish surely was dead when it reached the surface, but nobody really knows if that was the case or not. Some rockfish do die when being pulled up from the depths, but far from all. 

Most, in fact, appear to die from the ignorance of fishermen who don't know how to release them.

"Rockfish caught in deep water often sustain injuries — referred to as barotrauma — caused by rapid decompression and expansion of gases in the swim bladder. Fish that are released with inflated swim bladders cannot resubmerge and will die," according to scientists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who have actually studied rockfish.

All the spin that's fit to flak

They found that if rockfish brought to the surface with their stomachs protruding from their mouths as a result of decompression are tossed back off a boat into the ocean, only 78 percent of them will survive. But the same scientists developed a technique called "deepwater release" that significantly increases the changes the fish will survive.

"A recent ADF&G study found that survival of yelloweye released at depth was far higher (98 percent) than survival of fish released at the surface (22 percent)," Fish and Game reports. The scientists who actually did the study said this:

"The average...survival probability for yelloweye rockfish released at depth was remarkably high and positively correlated with individual total length. Survival probability was not significantly influenced by the range of capture depths explored in this study or by exposure to barotrauma and other capture stressors.''

In other words, big fish had a pretty good chance at surviving if released at depth. Granted, the scientists were studying yelloweye rockfish, not shortraker rockfish as caught by Liebman. And 900 feet is below the depths that have been studied, but the science still indicates the fish might have had a chance if anyone had cared to try to save it. 

Gag order for experts

The state has sought to get this message out to rockfish anglers everywhere, but with limited success. Clearly the information didn't reach Speegle, who offered the blanket claim the fish "usually dies.'' 

Maybe Fish and Game needs more spokesmen and spokeswoman to spread the news that rockfish can be saved with a "deepwater release," because this is what the scientists who know the species best say:

Although rockfish caught in deep water suffer injuries due to decompression, survival can be improved substantially by releasing rockfish at the depth of capture. Pelagic rockfish caught in less than 60 feet of water are usually able to submerge on their own. If the fish appears to be inflated or otherwise unable to swim, use a deepwater release device to return the fish to the depth of capture.

A variety of deepwater release devices, or recompression tools, are available commercially.

Could Liebman's fish have been released alive? It appears possible. It is also appears possible that barotrauma of being pulled to the surface did it in. But nobody knows. There was no necropsy to determine the cause of death, because who would bother with such a thing? 

Fish die by the millions everyday. They live to die, and the best observations on theses death might have come from the Liebman himself. Curtis Rush, an old-fashioned reporter at The Star, actually managed to track the angler down and interview him. It's how journalism used to be done.

"Who is to say how much life is enough," Liebman told the reporter. "We all come to an end and no ending is fair. Maybe the fish had enough and knew what he was doing. Where do we draw the line?”

Where, indeed, do we draw the line these days? Or any line in a world that seems eager to feed on frenzied speculation -- official or otherwise -- at least as much as, if not more than fact?

Craig Medred's opinions are his own. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com