7 May 2018

Communicating about rare and common species

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Catherine Schmitt

Biologist Randy Spencer releases a wild Atlantic salmon into a tributary of the Penobscot River. (Photo credit – Catherine Schmitt)

On March 19, in a grassy enclosure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, a northern white rhinoceros named Sudan died. He was the last of his kind.

Were you surprised by this news? Probably not, because you already know this story: biodiversity is declining, species are vanishing, more and more animals and plants are in peril.

I know this story. I work with scientists who are trying to restore endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish to New England. On a day to day basis, t hese scientists are immersed in their concern for threatened and endangered species, but to be successful they need public support. They forget—or don’t realize—that most people lack direct experience with wild flora and fauna, that their attitudes are shaped by the limited information encountered through news, friends, family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this notion of encountering. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone even reads my stuff, if it matters. So I am reassured when research demonstrates that information can make a difference, that we need more stories about wild things.

The cause is urgent. But gloom and doom only makes habitat destruction and extinction seem overwhelming and unsolvable.

History is often part of endangered species stories, a way to address shifting baselines syndrome and “eco-social anomie.” Nostalgic messages especially resonate with audiences who value the status quo, and provide those who hold local knowledge of the past with a reference point for contributing to endangered species management and restoration. But there are limits to community memory, especially when a species has been absent for a generation or more.

Harry Colburn and Horace Bond, Atlantic salmon anglers on the Penobscot River, 1951 (Photo courtesy C. Westfall)

In the case of salmon, listed as endangered in 1999, changing rules of engagement (no more fishing), combined with shifting demographics, eroded social memory of the species. Today, most people in Maine equate Atlantic salmon with aquaculture.

The extinction crisis is represented by a global subset of charismatic animal species that can seem far away in space as well as time. Yet in the meantime, billions of local populations are declining and disappearing at a much faster rate, a “biological annihilation” occurring almost everywhere. In the eastern U.S., Atlantic salmon once lived in 25 rivers; today they survive in seven and no one, it seems, knows how to grieve for the lost or mourn the not yet gone.

Local populations provide an opportunity to increase knowledge and awareness through engagement with everyday biodiversity. When people connect to nature they are more willing to take steps to protect it than if they simply hear about its demise.

In Maine, attention has shifted to river herring, which are threatened along much of the East Coast but are being successfully restored to rivers and lakes. Alewives allow for engagement through public viewing (and fishing), a way to connect with rivers that are also home to salmon. Helping others in your community learn about species—the common and the rare—close to home can make the abstract tangible, the distant near, and the past present.

Recall the origins of your own curiosity and wonder. Was it in gloom, or in the glory of nature here and now? Remember that joy, keep it close, and share it with others. Before its too late.

Catherine Schmitt is a science writer with the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine and the author of The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish in its Home Waters. This post is based on her presentation at the February 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Weinstein, N., Rogerson, M., Moreton, J., Balmford, A., & Bradbury, R. B. 2015. Conserving nature out of fear or knowledge? Using threatening versus
    connecting messages to generate support for environmental causes. Journal for Nature Conservation, 26:49-55.
  2. See Hauser, C. Wild bison killed after wandering across border into Germany, New York Times, September 20, 2017; Kim, J.Y., et al. 2014. Use of large web-based data to identify public interestand trends related to endangered species. Biodiversity Conservation 23(12):2961-2984; Redlawsk, D.P., A.J. Civettini, and K.M. Emmerson. 2010. The affective tipping point: Do motivated reasoners ever “get it.” Political Psychology 31:563-593.
  3. Weinstein et al. 2015.
  4. Waldman, J. The natural world vanishes: how species cease to matter. Yale Environment 360, April 8, 2010. https://e360.yale.edu/features/the_natural_world_vanishes_how_species_cease_to_matter
  5. Baldwin, M., and J. Lammers. 2016. Past-focused environmental comparisons promote proenvironmental outcomes for conservatives. PNAS 113(52):14953-14957.
  6. Alagona, P.S., J. Sandlos, and Y. Wiersma. 2012. Past imperfect: using historical ecology and baseline data for conservation and restoration projects in North America. Environmental Philosophy 9(1):49-70.
  7. e.g., Kyne, P.M., and V.M. Adams. 2017. Extinct flagships: linking extinct and threatened species. Oryx 51(3):471-476.
  8. Ceballos, G., P.R. Ehrlich, and R. Dirzo. 2017. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. PNAS 114 (30):E6089-E6096. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1704949114
  9. Hurd, B. 2017. Letter to America. Terrain.org, December 15, 2017. https://www.terrain.org/2017/guest-editorial/letter-to-america-hurd/
  10. Corbett, J. 2006. Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages. Washington, DC: Island Press, p. 311; Cosquer, A., R. Raymond, and A.-C. Prevot-Julliard. 2012. Observations of everyday biodiversity: a new perspective for conservation? Ecology and Society 17(4):2. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04955-170402