After the Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week on a case in which a fisherman is charged with violating evidence for destroying undersize fish caught illegally, many news sites took this as an occasion for fish jokes.
Sam Frizell at TIME reported that “fish and crime have long been two arms of an octopus,” and that if you step on the Mafia’s toes “you can be sure you’ll ‘sleep with the fishes.'” (The case before the court does not involve the mafia.) An AP story in Politico began, “Not even the Supreme Court justices can resist a good fish story.” Ellen Rosen at Bloomberg wrote that the case will decide whether a law “can literally be used for a fishing expedition.”
Perhaps the worst of the bunch was Forbes, where Daniel Fisher led with this: “It was hard not to laugh as the mighty U.S. Supreme Court took up the case of the fisherman who faced as much as 20 years in jail for violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act by allegedly throwing undersized fish overboard.” I’m betting the fisherman managed not to laugh.
Some of the stories focused not on the Yates case itself, but on the implications for other cases and for law enforcement more broadly. Bloomberg and many others were interested in whether the Sarbanes-Oxley law, intended to apply to the destruction of documents in white-collar criminal cases, could apply to the destruction of fish. That is the issue before the court. Some focused on an unintended consequence of the court’s decision to hear the fishing case: A judge in Boston delayed the sentencing of two men convicted of impeding the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, pending the Supreme Court’s decision, because destruction of evidence was an issue in that case, too.
But out of all the coverage, one story–I tried Googling multiple ways, and I couldn’t find another–looked at the issues at stake when fishermen keep undersize fish. “Illegal fishing is a very serious problem,” wrote David Shiffman at the marine-science blog Southern Fried Science. “Over a billion people, most of whom are poor, depend on fish as a source of animal protein. The global fishing industry employs hundreds of millions of people around the world, and is worth tens of billions of dollars a year.”
Shiffman, who tweets as @WhySharksMatter, is a graduate student in Florida, where he studies shark conservation. Illegal fishing can have profound effects far beyond the seafood industry, he wrote. “Overfishing can result in the collapse of entire communities, as we saw with the Canadian cod collapse, as well as ecological devastation.”
This is one of many examples we’ve discussed at the Tracker over the years in which science writers–if they paid attention to the Sarbanes-Oxley law, for example–could bring a uniquely valuable perspective to the coverage.
There is more to science writing than microbiomes, asteroids, dinosaurs, and genomics. Sometimes even a Supreme Court case can give a science writer an opportunity to shine, and to make an important contribution to the coverage. Shiffman did good work here. It should be an inspiration to the rest of us.