Communicating about aquatic invasive species

The calendar has flipped to 2024. Our staff members are already tackling new projects. Before they move too deeply into the new year, however, some staff members took a moment to retain the glow of their favorite 2023 project. Tim Campbell, aquatic invasive species outreach specialist, shared his thoughts.

My favorite project of 2023 is connected to my favorite project from 2021! I’m still enjoying the work I’m doing on language used for invasive species communication. I’m not sure I would’ve thought that in 2016 when University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Bret Shaw and I produced our spiny waterflea education video, that this is where I’d be with this work, but here we are.

What started as a very targeted and theoretically informed video led us to more detailed research on how themed messages impact invasive species communications, which then progressed to coordinated action on the results of our research and other related work.

Tim Campbell. Image credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant

This year, thanks to Sea Grant leadership, the Great Lakes Panel on Aquatic Nuisance Species (GLP) developed a position statement on inclusive communication and naming conventions. The statement encourages GLP members to be mindful of messages and consider the unintended impacts of place-based invasive species names. Alternatively, names could describe characteristics or behaviors that help members of the public identify these species.

The position statement has already led to the change of one national awareness campaign that had used militaristic language. The campaign has been forwarded to the national Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force for consideration as a template for other organizations. 

Sea Grant’s work has also resulted in the National Sea Grant Office funding Michigan Sea Grant to host a meeting on inclusive language and naming conventions as part of National Invasive Species Awareness Week. The meeting will be held Feb. 27 and 28 in Washington, D.C., A virtual half day of presentations will be followed by a full-day workshop where attendees will draft guidelines and research priorities for inclusive communication and naming conventions.

Seeing people from all aspects of invasive species management coalesce around this issue and recognize the need for us to change is rewarding. Scientists and natural resource managers often believe that the language and points they make are neutral; that they’re just the facts. However, even when communicating facts, we all use value-laden language or language that may be received differently than intend.

By embracing this inclusive language and naming conventions, we can all be more intentional with the language we use so that we reduce unintended consequences of our communication products and we can build more support for aquatic invasive species management efforts.