Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. Others can’t see the hurricane for the lobsters.
On Sept. 24, around 9 a.m. Atlantic time, a few hours after Hurricane Fiona had slowed slightly into a post-tropical cyclone and slammed into Nova Scotia, the federal Fisheries Department issued two preplanned posts on Twitter and Facebook.
The first urged everyone to avoid the coastline and stay safe. The second warned them off helping themselves to wayward lobsters.
“As well, if you find lobsters washed up on the shore after the storm, remember it is illegal to harvest them,” it read. “Simply leave them there.”
It had been discussed by more than a dozen people via email over a 24-hour period and officially approved by at least seven directors and managers in Atlantic Canada, according to documents released to The Canadian Press through access-to-information legislation.
Only one of them warned that the tweet might land badly, but ultimately he approved it.
“Should we consider the potential circumstances that may be present at the time,” he asked.
“It’s accurate but if the storm ends up being (the) magnitude some are anticipating, potentially with emergency measures in place, I feel it may … be perceived as tone deaf,” he wrote, adding that roads might be washed out and people forced to evacuate their communities.
Another conservation official concurred — though it was she who first brought up the idea of tweeting information about the lobsters, saying it was a suggestion from her “team.”
Despite the misgivings, the tweet and Facebook posts were still approved with some minor changes, including taking out a reference to washed up lobster being a “common occurrence” and replacing the hashtag “#leavethemthere” with the phrase “simply leave them there.”
The warning turned out to be prophetic.
As the tweet landed, residents in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, were bracing against winds that howled as strong as 177 km/h, taking out power lines, and roofs, destroying beaches and wrecking livelihoods as fishing boats and harbours were torn apart.
Three people were killed, two of them swept out to sea by storm surges.
The focus on lobsters while people were losing their homes, livelihoods, and even their lives, was not well received. The office of Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray demanded it be deleted.
“Can we please pull this tweet ASAP,” emailed Erik Nosaluk, Murray’s communications coordinator. “It’s horribly tone deaf.”
By the time Nosaluk wrote, the departmental communications team was well aware of the backlash, mostly on social media, and were scrambling to delete the post and replace it.
The posts were deleted 4.5 hours after they were published. An apology was posted a few hours after that, though it again took multiple people and three drafts before the replacement post included an apology.
Days later the department was still tracking criticism, including someone who turned it into a TikTok video that had garnered more than 115,000 likes in just a few days.
One official seemed frustrated by the lack of ability to stop some of the conversation, noting so many people had taken screen shots and turned it into memes.
The department says in the documents that normally tweets and other social media posts undergo even more vigorous discussion and approvals than this one.
But this suggestion came up late in the week, through what they call an “ad hoc” process that “didn’t benefit from a day-of check for appropriateness.”
The department says it has updated its procedures to prevent it from happening again.
“We have taken this error very seriously and have adjusted our processes,” the department says in answers prepared to respond to a media request made in September.
The law prohibiting harvesting of lobsters on shore carries a fine of up to $100,000. In previous storms, fisheries officials have said while it is unlikely many lobsters that wash ashore will make their way back to the ocean, it is still illegal to take them.
—Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press