A Brush with Snorkel Bob
by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
There is the world of science, of measured and verified observations, of slow-moving knowledge.
And there’s a world of advocacy, of convictions, values, passion, and a desire for fast-moving change.
Only a few slides into his PowerPoint on the West Hawaii aquarium fishery, WSU marine biologist Brian Tissot notes how the two views serve to complicate the conflicts around the aquarium trade.
Science, he says, looks at the interest-based aspects of the fishery—conflicts between divers and collectors, and how better management can satisfy interest groups and keep the fishery sustainable. But a values-based perspective concentrates on the ethics of collecting and trading fish. It’s a less nuanced view that focusses on outright banning the trade.
“These two opinions are not compatible,” says Tissot. “You can’t have one and the other. Which I think underlies a lot of the conflict here.”
Indeed, had Robert “Snorkel Bob” Wintner attended and spoken up at Tissot’s presentation, that conflict would have been laid bare. Reached afterwards by telephone, Wintner showed just how different his perspective is from Tissot’s, to the point where he will refuse to acknowledge areas in which they seem to agree.
Brash, hyperbolic, and a font of good quotes, he makes it easy to see why reporters regularly seek him out for the obligatory pro-ban point of view. He also shows how scientists and advocates debate under different rules of engagement. Where Tissot stays close to the numbers and verifiable facts, Wintner can prefer stories to numbers and pick scientists who suit his cause, like Teresa Telecky of the Humane Society. Both Wintner and the Society oppose keeping wild animals as pets.
“If you’re doing something for money, then it cannot be at the expense of nature or of society,” he says. “And when you talk about trafficking in wildlife for the pet trade, it has a nasty ring to it.”
Wintner had seen one of Tissot’s presentations on Maui, he says, and basically wrote him off when the value-based slide of his presentation was the only one to discuss banning the trade.
“I don’t dislike Brian,” says Wintner. “I tend to dismiss Brian because I think he’s stuck. I think he’s predisposed. And I think he wants the aquarium trade to continue.”
To most people—including scientists and the state of Hawaii—West Hawaii is a fishery, a place where you can catch fish. But Wintner chooses to disagree even on that and compares the netting of aquarium fish to the slaughter of dolphins near the Japanese town of Taiji.
“There’s no separation here,” he says.
In some ways, he says, science is itself a value and scientists are prone to lean in certain directions, like those that will bring in grant money. Tissot himself has acknowledged that science is prone to certain perspectives and helped Claudia Capitini study the fishery’s points of view for her 2003 Master’s thesis.
Wintner discounts any assertion that he might have a financial incentive to see more fish for the customers of his snorkel shops.
“My vested interest is to take care of what takes care of me.”
On the one hand, his definition of science includes the anecdotal. On the other, he doesn’t need science or data at all.
“The people who live here don’t need data to know what they know in their hearts: They don’t want this to happen to their friends who happen to be fish on these reefs,” he says. “And if they haven’t yet met them, they still don’t want this to happen. There’s the data. You can call it ethical, you can call it values, you can call it social, you can call it data.”