“Team Tracks a Food Supply at the End of the World”
by Susan Moran
The New York Times, March 12, 2012
[Moran notes: This is an example of an iterative pitch — a “When Plan A fails, go to Plan B, then Plan C” scenario. I offer it because it’s not uncommon to have a pitch rejected by one editor, and then to have to figure out whether to fold or to bounce back and pitch the story, albeit with a different angle, to a different publication. You’ll see two pitches — the initial one to OnEarth and the third, final (and successful) one to the New York Times. I initially pitched the story as a feature to OnEarth magazine not long after I returned from Antarctica, where, while on a fellowship, I wrote many blog posts for OnEarth’s website.]
The “Plan A” Pitch
Feb. 16, 2011
(with a brief intro before the pitch)
Suggested hed: Antarctic Food Chain Lies in the Balance As Climate Change and Overfishing Threaten Krill
Subhed: Scientists and Nonprofits Push For Ecosystem Management Changes
By Susan Moran
Dark humor at Palmer Station stretches as far as the Marr Ice Piedmont glacier that glistens behind it on this outcropping of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. On some days Kim Bernard and her fellow krill researchers at the tiny U.S. research station call their inflatable boat Psychokrillers when they call into the station manager that they’re leaving the dock to collect samples in the frigid Southern Ocean. In fact, their mission is very serious: they’re trying to understand how populations of krill, the keystone species in the Antarctic food chain, have suffered more than a two-fold drop since the mid- 1970s along the northern regions of the Western Peninsula.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Blum and her seabird research team are measuring changes in populations of some of krill’s most charismatic predators—penguins. The data, at least in this region, look grim. For instance, the population of tuxedo-colored Adelie penguins has plunged from 15,000 breeding pairs in the 1970s to fewer than 3,000 today. The faded gray rings around the scattered slate-rock penguin colonies on islands near Palmer are vestiges of much larger colonies of years past. Many of them are moving farther south where colder temperatures have helped preserve sea ice cover.
Climate change-induced sea ice loss, as well as intensive commercial krill fishing (largely for salmon feed and Omega-3 supplements for humans), are the main culprits of this cascading effect on krill and their predators. The tiny crustaceans, especially juvenile krill, feed on algae that grows under sea ice. They also hide from predators in the crannies underneath the ice cover. Since 1950, sea ice cover has dropped by 40 percent, and the average annual period of ice cover has shrunk by 80 days.
The plight of krill is regional, not universal. “Krill resource is probably one of the most abundant in the world,” says Gerry Leape, who directs the Antarctic Krill Conservation Program, an environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trust in Washington, D.C. “But unfortunately, 94 percent of the fishing is near shore, so we’re seeing stress on near- shore stocks.” For commercial fishing boats, what’s near shore is easiest and cheapest to catch.
Leape’s program at Pew, along with several other conservation organizations and academic scientists are not against krill fishing itself, but rather a more precautionary approach to fisheries management. They have succeeded in prompting the fishing industry and its regulators to introduce some changes, including quotas, that are helping to stem krill declines. But the battle is hardly over. Over the next few months the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which is part of the Antarctic Treaty System, will take up the issue.
The article I’d like to write would blend in-the-field science with policy and explore recent efforts to preserve Antarctic krill and the whole food chain they support.
As I mentioned before, I blogged for OnEarth’s website during my 16-day stay at Palmer Station on a Marine Biological Laboratory fellowship. I could include an audio slide show focusing on the krill researchers at Palmer. Here are the krill and penguin blog posts I wrote:
Thanks, George, for considering the query. I’d be happy to brainstorm about an approach that would best serve OnEarth.
[Moran notes: Three months later the editor delivered a negative verdict; he said that he had talked with another writer about a similar story idea, and ultimately decided that it’d be too soon after running a somewhat similar story on the Arctic.]
The “Plan B” Pitch
[Moran notes: The “Plan B” pitch, to Conservation magazine was more casual. After a couple followup memos and phone conversations, the editor decided it needed to be more solutions-focused than it was. So rejection Number Two.]
The “Plan C” Pitch
[Moran notes: I sent the “Plan C” query, to the Science Times at The New York Times, five months after my Plan B pitch; I needed to take a break from the subject for a while, though I don’t recommend this approach. The Times’ editor responded in a day, but with an “I’m swamped” message and a promise that he’d look at the pitch as soon as possible. He followed up five weeks later with an affirmative, and thus began the assignment. This pitch was actually a teaser, an addendum to an unrelated story pitch that I was following up on with the editor.]
Nov. 2, 2011
…Meanwhile, I’m working on another query, either for you or for the health subsection. It explores how voracious demand for Omega-3 fatty acid supplements in the U.S. is encouraging major fisheries companies to plum the bottom of the world for Antarctic krill, the tiniest but richest fuel for the complex food web, from Adelie penguins to elephant seals to whales. Some scientists, including ones I spent time with months ago at Palmer Station on the Western Antarctic Peninsula, as well as environmental groups say “not so fast.”
They argue that the krill population near the peninsula (the least difficult and costly place to fish) has plummeted in recent years due largely to melting sea ice, and that the race for Antarctica’s “gold” — as competing Norwegian fishing companies have called krill — for aquaculture and now for the human nutraceutical market could tip the scale irreparably. World Wildlife Fund believes Antarctic krill can be fished in an environmentally sustainable way. It has become a “partner” with the largest krill fisheries, Norway’s Aker Biomarine. And the Marine Stewardship Council last year certified Aker as MSC-sustainable. (I think MSC has only turned down one fisheries company.)
I’d like to take a scientific look beyond the marketing and activists’ claims at whether mining the bottom of the food chain just might be a more efficient, more environmentally sustainable way for humans to get Omega-3 fatty acids than plucking the already threatened predators of the sea — especially when salmon are now fed krill. The story would weave narrative from my trip to Antarctica as well as a visit I had in June in Oslo with representatives from WWF and Aker Biomarine. What do you think?