Remember Charlie the Tuna? If you haven't seen him on the air in while, it's probably because he was caught and eaten long ago. Overfishing has decimated the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Populations are shrinking fast. Stricter international regulations to prevent overfishing are long overdue.

At the urging of Oceans Conservancy and Oceana, and allied groups, the United States recently proposed stricter protections for the Atlantic Bluefin to the United Nations negotiators. Sadly, the U.S. didn't get enough votes from other nations to put its proposal into action.

So what went wrong? The ocean protection community worked hard to to persuade voters the speak up on their issues. They know if voters pay attention to ocean protection, U.S. negotiators will work harder to get other nations behind conservation proposals. So the groups circulate press releases, distribute electronic petitions, ask their supporters to call elected officials on the phone, etc. This time around, it wasn't enough.

In the wake of the disappointing bluefin vote at the U.N., I was curious about how the ocean community's environmental communications efforts stack up to other conservation organizations. So I gave samples of their petitions to the Due Diligence Test Panel to review. The petitions were Oceana’s "Offshore Drilling is NOT the Answer to Energy Crisis" petition and Ocean Conservancy's "Ask Your Representatives to Support Responsible Fish Farming" petition.

Compared other issue advocacy pieces that I have tested this way, these two ocean pieces earned basically average overall results. Oceana,s petition — which uses words that work like "clean" and "safe," earned a 2.98 overall. The Ocean Conservancy's petition, which uses shoptalk like "parasite amplification" and "benthic communities," trailed slightly at 2.83. The average for all similar pieces I have tested so far is 2.83.

Where both groups fell short is convincing the test panel that signing one of these electronic petitions was a meaningful act. Here are some excerpts from the panelists' feedback.

• "The Government is not likely to pay attention to one person."
• "It is likely, to me, that the congressperson with never even see my email, because his/her assistant checks the email."
• "It is difficult to imagine that a large enough of a population will act on this issue to really make a difference."
• "Is the president really going to see my little signature on some petition? In fact, is the president even going to see the petition?"

Every time the test panel reviews a policy message from the environmental community — any issue, any group — many panelists respond by sharing these cynical and doubtful feelings.

This (admittedly small) sample suggests that the ocean protection community isn't doing anything noticeably worse — or better — than the environmental community generally. But they still came up short on their efforts for the bluefin tuna.

Which brings me to my broader point: until our community can raise the overall level of environmental communication we put out, we'll probably come up short next time, too. We're like a failing school system — we've got a few star pupils that help us keep our hope alive for doing better tomorrow. But today, across the board, our communications test scores just don't make the grade.

The environmental community simply cannot meet the challenges that are on our plate until we try harder to inspire everyday citizens with hope that they can make a difference with the things we ask them to do.

So how do we get this turnaround started?

Author's Bio: 

Eric Eckl is an expert in environmental writing and environmental awareness. His company, Water Words That Work, LLC, helps ocean protection and other conservation organizations raise funds, change people's behavior, and influence government policy.