Considered a model of enlightened self interest, the New Zealand Seafood Industry is furious about a splashy newspaper article anchored to environmental organizations' claims that insinuates a systemic failure surrounding the harvesting of hoki, which finds itself in fast-food fish sandwiches.
In a series of letters exchanged with The New York Times, which published the disputed story two weeks ago and on Friday issued a limited apology by e-mail that has not yet made its corrections page, industry officials and representatives found a plethora of errors in the original story by William J. Broad.
WorldFishingToday.com, the Web site of Commercial Fishing News World Wide, published an extensive report that noted the New Zealand fishing industry had sent The New York Times an open letter "detailing a variety of omissions and distortions in its reporting that painted an erroneous picture of the nation's fishing community."
"Around the world, the vast majority of marine scientists and fisheries managers rate New Zealand's fisheries, including the two hoki stocks, as one of the two best managed in the world," wrote George Clement, CEO of the New Zealand industry's Deepwater Group.
Irking the industry was Broad's faith in the environmentalist perspectives, led by the World Wildlife Fund. It was a trust so strong that the reporter didn't deign to call New Zealanders who fish for, process and ship hoki.
But that didn't stop the New York Times from lifting the digital image of hoki from the industry Web site without permission and using it to illustrate a story it termed a "cautionary tale" about the penchant of "commercial interests" with "a lot of money at stake" to kick aside prudent conservation practices.
That insult to injury doubly irked the industry.
The controversy has so far played out on the Internet, with New England regional fishing interests expressing "been there, done that" empathy for their New Zealand fishing compadres.
"I came across an interesting exchange," wrote Rhode Island commercial fisherman Richard Grachek to colleagues, "in reference to an article in the New York Times which was apparently filled with usual sensationalistic misinformation, of course to the detriment of the fishing industry. The representative for the New Zealand industry was outraged that the reporter for the New York Times didn't consult with the fishermen involved.
"We're so used to that sort of treatment it doesn't even create a stir anymore, it's the norm for us," Grachek wrote.
Yesterday Counterpoint Strategies, the industry's Washington, D.C.-based public relations company, published a press release claiming "The New York Times apologizes and clarifies (its) article on New Zealand's Hoki fisheries," and that "the (science editor) retreats after challenge from New Zealand Seafood Industry."
Actually, the New York Times did significantly less than that.
Its apology to the industry was clearly limited, and extended only to a failure of courtesy to ask the industry for permission to use its image of the hoki, a fish that looks a bit like a hake, in the story that indicts the industry by a series of inferences and innuendo for somehow not treating the fish with the respect it deserves.
"We have talked to the pertinent photo editor, who was a substitute for our regular photo editor; the substitute editor said she was under heavy deadline pressure that day and had hoped crediting the site would be sufficient," wrote science editor Laura Chang. "We told her that this was unacceptable, and we offer our apologies to your organization."
As for the much more substantive failure of the New York Times, to write a story in New York about a fish in New Zealand with input from environmentalist interests but not New Zealanders whose livelihoods are tied to the sustainability of the hoki, Chang gave just a little.
She began by saying it wasn't her intention to be "galling," a state that the industry said it was driven to be in by her first letter. In it, she seemed to deflect the question of the necessity of interviewing the industry about the hoki it fished for.
"You are correct in noting that our reporter, William Broad, did not interview the New Zealand Seafood Industry group you represent," Chang wrote initially. "But we felt the more important body for him to contact was the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries, which sets the quotas for your clients and has oversight of the industry."
This answer assumes Broad faced an either/or reporting choice, and couldn't have called the industry after speaking to the government.
"Speaking for my clients — the subjects of your story," Counterpoint Strategies' Eric McErlain wrote back, "I can say that your response is truly galling. The story is, indisputably, about fishing practices in New Zealand and, as your reporter well knows, we are the ones that catch the fish in New Zealand. Could it be any simpler than that?
"So when you say we aren't important to the story it comes across as more than just professionally lazy — it sounds arrogant," McErlain added.
Responding to that level of galling to the subjects of the newspaper's reporting, Chang's most recent letter seemed a search for conciliation without contrition.
"It makes perfect sense that the New Zealand Seafood Industry wishes that it had been contacted directly for comment on hoki issues. Let me assure you that I was not suggesting that the people who do the fishing are unimportant," she went on to explain.
The Gloucester Daily Times unsuccessfully attempted to contact editor Chang and reporter Broad as well as the national editor at the New York Times yesterday. It also tried to reach the World Wildlife Fund.
The Gloucester Daily Times did reach Kerry Coughlin of the Marine Stewardship Council, which is an non-profit certification and ecolabeling program for sustainable seafood that accepts commissions from industries and then outsources to accredited certifiers at industry expense.
The council recertified the hoki fishery in 2007 over the objection of the World Wildlife Fund.
The New York Times reported that the environmental organization was "overruled."
Actually, the WWF just didn't convince the council of its argument, Coughlin said.
Because WWF does not have a stake in the council — though it once did — overruling couldn't have occurred, as Coughlin explained the situation.
Unilever, a global food conglomerate, and the World Wildlife Fund were original sponsors, "but we spun off from them," she said. "We remain close to World Wildlife, we may not agree on every single fishery," she said. "In the case of hoki, we have seen the stocks healthily maintained and appropriate management."
In an interview, Sarah Crysell, communications manager of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council, said, "The status of hoki is very good, and in terms of controversy, I'd say there is not a high level of controversy at all. In 2007, when (hoki) was recertified, WWF International objected. That's really the extent of it, there's not much of a fuss at all."
Richard Gaines may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.