New Girl Fishes For Laughs, Catches Terrible Episode

By Christie Wilcox | March 22, 2013 12:36 pm

I get that Hollywood sometimes fudges science for dramatic effect, and I’m willing to overlook warp drives and extraterrestrial DNA goop sometimes to enjoy a sci-fi flick. But this week, one of my favorite shows completely botched biological reality, and I simply can’t stand for it. Shame on you, New Girl, shame on you.

A relaxing trip to the aquarium leads to all-out writer FAIL

For those of you who don’t watch the show, New Girl is about four eccentric roommates that live in LA starring the quirky Zooey Deschanel alongside three off-beat male leads. In the latest episode, one of the boys, Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield), is having a tough time getting over the fact that his dream girl and ex Cece (Hannah Simone) is getting married. In an attempt to cheer him up, his buddy and roommate Winston (Lamorne Morris) takes him on a soothing trip to the aquarium. Instead, Winston’s plan backfires, and Schmidt becomes obsessed with a fish that reminds him of Cece: the lionfish.

Cue me screaming at the television.

It’s no wonder that Schmidt falls for the dangerous and beautiful lionfish. I certainly did — that’s why I am studying them for my doctoral dissertation. They’re a popular aquarium fish, and their elegant, striped spines have lured many a collector, so that is not what made me so mad. You see, Schmidt, now completely obsessed, inquires about buying the fish. He is told that he can’t buy it because the California Lionfish is endangered, and protected under state law.

Are you kidding me?

Lionfish aren’t native to California — at all. While they’re found throughout the rest of the Indo-Pacific, California’s chilly coast is devoid of these tropical fish. In fact, lionfish aren’t native in any US state except Hawaii. So no, there isn’t a California lionfish, and there certainly isn’t a protected one.

I don’t know what angered me more: the complete fabrication of an endangered species, or that the species they chose to make up is actually the exact opposite. Lionfish are about as far from protected in the US as possible: they’re responsible for one of the worst invasions in history.

Lionfish sightings in the Atlantic and Caribbean as of today (c/o USGS: you can see this map updated daily here)

You see, Hawaii isn’t the only state where lionfish can be found. Aquarium releases have led to a devastating lionfish invasion in the Caribbean and western Atlantic.

To use the term ‘devastating’ isn’t hyperbole. In 2010, the lionfish invasion was listed as one of the worst threats to global biodiversity. Since the first reports in the late ’80s, lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean and Atlantic with lightning speed. They’re fast growing, voracious predators that have been shown to reduce the recruitment of native fish by an average of 79%, leading to sharp declines in many species. These insatiable fish are literally eating their way through seagrass, mangrove and reef ecosystems from Venezuela to Rhode Island, and may lead to irreversible losses of native species and even entire coral reef ecosystems.

But I digress.

“Laws, schmaws. Let’s catch us a protected species!”

Not to be defeated by silly things like laws, Schmidt and Winston decide to wade off the coast on a beach to find the elusive “endangered” lionfish. I find the show essentially promoting violating protection acts more than a little upsetting, and the idea that they would find a rare fish by wading ankle deep off the coast is just silly. But then, poor Schmidt chases after what he thinks is a lionfish, and instead manages to get stung in the face by a jellyfish — perhaps just desserts for his flagrant attempt at law-breaking. And then the writers screw things up even more.

As the intense pain radiates from his sting, Schmidt begs Winston to pee on him, which science has shown doesn’t help at all. I get the character believing in a much-propagated bad remedy, but later, they make reference to the “paramedic’s urine” fixing the problem — a paramedic would NEVER pee on a jelly sting! They might have used vinegar or dilute acetic acid to rinse off any unfired tentacle cells, if jelly stings were common in the area and they had it on hand. But pee on a patient? Not a chance.

But the writers aren’t done messing things up yet. While Schmidt sleeps off the pain, Cece brings him a lionfish that she acquired through ‘shady model connections’, and Winston convinces her to leave before Schmidt wakes. Upon seeing the fish, Schmidt realizes that it wasn’t really about the fish after all, and decides to let it go. He and Winston return to the beach, where Schmidt grabs the lionfish and attempts to throw it back into the sea.

Yes, you read that right. He grabs a lionfish, barehanded, and flings it. Though the writers have focused an entire show on lionfish, they don’t mention once that these fish, like the jellies, possess a potent and painful venom. Lionfish are one of the most venomous fish in the world, and the pain of their sting has been described as “just short of driving oneself completely mad.” The writers so completely ignore this fact that they have Schmidt grab a lionfish bare-handed. This is more than a slight oversight. You think the jelly sting hurt, Schmidt? Go ahead, grab a lionfish bare-handed. I dare you.

… because what California really needs is a devastating invasive marine species

But worse, they end the night with Schmidt doing exactly what caused the disastrous invasion of the Atlantic in the first place. Schmidt ‘releasing’ the lionfish off the LA coast in the last scene is EXACTLY the what led to the invasion, and exactly what scientists DON’T want people doing. Lionfish might not be found off California right now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever be. The devastating invasion of the Atlantic has spooked scientists, who now fear that the aquarium trade in California might lead to a similar invasion in warmer areas, like San Francisco and — oh yeah — Los Angeles. Over 11 million non-native aquarium species including lionfish pass through those two ports every year. Lionfish escapes or releases from the aquarium trade may doom California’s marine ecosystems to the same fate as the Caribbean and Atlantic.

I know TV shows write for story rather than accuracy, but you think they’d have done even a meager amount of research on the fish they feature so prominently. Instead of highlighting an important conservation issue, the show practically promotes the kind of behavior that leads to localized extinctions (poaching of threatened species) AND devastating invasions (releasing aquarium fish) in under 30 minutes. There is simply no excuse.

 

New Girl still shots from TV.com

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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