When people heard that the microorganism Pfiesteria was the probable cause of fish kills in several Chesapeake Bay tributaries in 1997, Maryland’s seafood sales began plummeting. The state’s seafood industry lost an estimated $43 million that year despite the fact that most of the affected fish were menhaden, which are typically used for bait and are not sold in seafood markets.
While some industry and government officials blamed the media for fueling “Pfiesteria hysteria,” UD marine policy scientist Willett Kempton says a range of underlying human beliefs have played a more powerful role in the public’s response to Pfiesteria than the media has.
On Thursday, April 25, at 7:00 p.m., at the UD College of Marine Studies in Lewes, Kempton will iden-tify some of these perceptions and how they have affected our behavior during his lecture, “Public Reaction to Pfiesteria: Hysteria — or a Case of Mistaken Identity?” The presentation will kick off the fifth annual Ocean Currents Lecture Series, which will be held once a month at the Lewes campus through September.
In 1998, Kempton and colleague Jim Falk, director of the UD Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, conducted a survey of more than 700 Mid-Atlantic residents to learn more about their understanding of Pfiesteria.
“Our research showed that when most people hear about Pfiesteria, even if their source of information is extensive and scientifically accurate,” Kempton says, “they perceive the organism in one of four ways: as a pollutant, toxin, fish disease, or fish parasite. Unfortunately, none of these perceptions is right.”
Each of these misperceptions fosters certain behaviors, according to Kempton. For example, he says that a person who associated Pfiesteria with a contagious disease might avoid consumption of seafood but not worry about being in a boat over a Pfiesteria outbreak in progress. The former is, as far as is known, an unnecessary precaution, whereas the latter is exposing one to possible harm from aerosolized neurotoxins.
“If you want to know why people are doing something, you need to find out what they are thinking,” Kempton says. “Pfiesteria illustrates how using old ways of thinking to explain new phenomena can be faulty and costly. In this case, misperceptions led people to overestimate the risks associated with Pfiesteria, resulting in serious economic impacts on the seafood industry as well as other businesses such as recreational fishing.”
To overcome these misperceptions, Kempton will offer some new ways of thinking about Pfiesteria that the public can easily relate to and understand.
A member of UD’s marine policy faculty since 1996, Kempton earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin and his bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Virginia. His current research focuses on identifying the underlying public values and beliefs that manifest themselves in policies relating to energy conservation, pollution prevention, and global climate change.
The lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104, Cannon Laboratory, at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. The hour-long talk will be followed by light refreshments.
While the lecture is free and open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve your seat, please contact the college at (302) 645-4279.