Laura Helmuth on “Seeing is Believing”

Laura Helmuth
Laura Helmuth Molly Roberts, Smithsonian Magazine

Science editor Laura Helmuth, who has been with Smithsonian for four years and Science magazine prior to that, spent months looking for interesting ocean stories to run in conjunction with the September opening of the National Museum of Natural History's Ocean Hall. "The problem with ocean stories is that it's hard to find any that aren't unremittingly grim," she says, listing the tragedies. The oceans are getting warmer, which among other things makes coral more susceptible to disease. Sea lions are being killed by toxic algae. Albatrosses are choking on floating plastic. Mangroves are being chopped down for shrimp farms, which means that tsunamis and cyclones cause even more flooding and deaths. "It can all be pretty overwhelming and incomprehensible. I was looking for a story that would help people understand what's happening in the oceans, but that would also be charming, surprising and fascinating." She found her story in a pile of photographs from Key West gathered by an enterprising grad student. I recently caught up with Helmuth to chat about her experience reporting and writing "Seeing is Believing," in our September issue.

What did you know about the field of historical marine biology going into this story?
This is a fascinating new field. Historians and biologists don't usually mingle much, but in the past ten years or so they've started collaborating and doing some really brilliant work. I knew this field had a lot of potential for Smithsonian magazine—we are one of the few magazines that runs both history and science stories—so I attended a session on this topic at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Loren McClenachan gave a riveting talk, even though she's a graduate student and hasn't had much experience addressing a major scientific conference. She explained that she'd combed historical archives and newspaper records for photos of people standing next to the fish they'd caught. She showed us a series of photos from Key West, starting in the 1950s and ending in 2007.

The older photos showed huge fish, much bigger than the people who had caught them. Over the years, the fish got smaller and fewer, and you could see the grouper and sharks disappearing. But it struck me that the people who were posing with their fish looked equally pleased with themselves, whatever their catch. I know that proud, thrilled feeling, and I think most of our readers do, too. It was bittersweet to see all these happy people enjoying their vacations and their days out on the boat, with no understanding that the seemingly pristine waters they'd been fishing were nothing like the waters their parents would have fished.

The rest of the audience clearly responded to the talk—even though they were all scientists who already knew that the Gulf of Mexico is overfished. I heard some people sucking in their breath or saying "wow" when Loren showed her final photos. There was a lot of head shaking in the room.

What surprised you the most about the old photographs and records you saw in your research?
I was shocked at how big the fish were in the old photos. The Goliath Groupers, in particular, looked like sea monsters. Their mouths are larger than the heads of the people who were standing next to them on the dock. And it was sort of painful to see all the sharks that had been killed.

Do you think the message is more powerful and accessible through photography than say written records or logs?
Yes, absolutely. We titled this story "Seeing is Believing" in part because when I told my Editor-in-Chief about the story, he thought it had a lot of potential but wasn't convinced that fishing was all that bad in Key West. He had been out on a fishing boat the year before and caught plenty of fish. He rightly pointed out that we have to be cautious in basing a story on photographs—people have lucky or unlucky days out fishing, and you could conceivably pick photos to tell any story you wanted.

When he saw some of the photos Loren McClenachan found, though, he was impressed. And he dug up a photo from his fishing expedition and saw that his fish, which seemed pretty big and numerous at the time, looked just like those in the photos McClenachan took when she visited Key West in 2007. Basically, when you look at a series of photos from the 1950s to today, today's fish look like bait.

But you need that series—if you have only today's photos to go by, it does look like people are still pulling up plenty of fish.

Do you like to ocean fish? You talk about the impulse people have to take a picture with their catch. Do you have any proud fishing photos of your own?
I did catch a lot of bluegill as a kid, with a cane pole and bobber and worms I dug myself. Now I occasionally go fly-fishing (I call it "trout torturing"). It's strictly catch and release, so the thrill is still there but not the delicious fried fish supper at the end of the day.

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