The Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch is one of the only reality shows I can watch without rooting for the painful demise of 2/3 of the cast, preferably before the first commercial break. I genuinely enjoy the show, not just because it looks at an interesting job, but because it seems to capture some insights into genuinely interesting people. As someone who is interested in science and how science is used in public policy, though, I'm sometimes a little frustrated that the show doesn't take the opportunity to really get into any of the science or policy issues that are involved in our fisheries.
Those issues aren't sexy. They don't have the raw human appeal that you get watching a greenhorn struggle to make it in a rough job, or a captain and his brother having a heated discussion below decks. They certainly don't involve the risk of sudden death in sub-freezing temperatures. Including them probably is probably not likely to improve their ratings (at least outside the highly sought-after 30-35 year old balding science geek demographic). But they are important, and almost nobody who doesn't work in those areas really knows anything about them.
I was interested to learn that one of the captains featured on The Deadliest Catch testified about one of the fisheries issues at the intersection of science and public and before Congress on Tuesday. Captain Keith Colburn, owner of the F/V Wizard, spoke before a joint hearing of the Energy and Mineral Resources and Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittees of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The hearing used the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill as an opportunity to examine President Bush's decision to open more areas in the Bering Sea to oil and gas exploration.
I didn't have a chance to watch the hearing live, but being both a hardcore science policy geek and a Deadliest Catch fan, I naturally took the chance to watch the archived webcast of the hearing - or at least the part of the hearing that included the panel Captain Colburn was on. I was pleasantly impressed - it wasn't a celebrity performance. It was testimony from someone who is clearly very familiar with all of the issues involved.
(Just as an aside, I couldn't help imagining what things would have looked like if some of the other captains from the program were testifying.)
The written testimony that Colburn submitted to the committee and read in his opening statement provides an extremely good overview of not just the environmental and fishery effects of massive oil spills, but of the range of problems that oil and gas exploration can create for sea life even when everything goes right. If you're remotely interested in these issues, it's well worth a read - 12 pages, but that includes figures and references.
Colburn also came off very well with all of his verbal that he took from the committee. He clearly cares about the issues, and is clearly very knowledgeable. He was also speaking in plain English, which clearly differentiated him from some of the scientists on that panel.
One of the points that he raised very clearly illustrated just how completely insane the whole "drill, baby, drill" thing really is. As he pointed out to the Congresscritters on the panel, the entire predicted output of the Bering Sea area in question is estimated to be worth about $8 billion, most of the production will come in the form of natural gas, and most of the natural gas will be exported and will have no effect on our own energy needs. Meanwhile, the fisheries in the area are currently bringing in well over $2 billion per year, and with good management that seems to be a sustainable level.
In what universe is it a sane decision to risk damaging those fisheries to extract a relatively small amount of oil and gas, particularly when most of the production will wind up exported?