I was a panelist at the Aspen Environment Forum. I think this makes me a grown up scientist.

June 22nd – 25th | Aspen, CO

I had the honor of attending the Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum as an invited speaker. The vast majority of the Forum was focused on climate change (adaptation, agriculture, energy, resilience), however I was on a panel with Daniel Pauly (rockstar professor at University of British Columbia), Miguel Jorge (director of National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative), and Sylvia Earle(National Geographic Explorer and head of Mission Blue) about overfishing, seafood, and sustainability. To speak in such esteemed company as an equal was invigorating. June 24th may have been the day I became a grown up public scientist. It felt productive not to be preaching to the choir, but rather engaging an intelligent, eco-conscious audience of concerned citizens and environmental experts who knew little about the ocean, and whose faces displayed shock repeatedly throughout our discussion.


Ocean Panel at Aspen Environment Forum. L to R: David Monsma (moderator), Sylvia Earle, Miguel Jorge, me, and Daniel Pauly. (Photo credit: Dan Bayer/Aspen Institute)

Below I recap the discussion based in part on the live-tweeting of Rachel Weidinger (@rachelannyes of Upwell, the session’s most prolific tweeter), Marcela Gutierrez (@minsd of Azul Project), Momentum Magazine (@MomentumIonE of the University of Minnesota’s Environment Program), Susana Whitaker (@susannawr of the Brooks School), Hillary Rosner (@hillaryrosner), and Nancy Baron ( @Nancy_Baron of COMPASS). Thanks to all the tweeters and re-tweeters, National Geographic for this online article providing a good summary of the discussion and an extra shoutout to Rachel Weidinger who (via feat of multi-tasking) also live-watercolored the session.



Rachel Weidinger’s “live-watercoloring” of Aspen Environment Forum’s ocean panel.

Key points raised by the panelists:

Professor Daniel Pauly gave an intro to fisheries (mis-)management:

  • If you don’t fish, you have zero catch. If you fish too much, you have zero catch.
  • The solution has been to catch everything, and then to move on. Fishing is expanding geographically. (See this paper for details.)
  • Industrial fishing has been like a Ponzi scheme. Industrial fishing has never really been sustainable, rather it extracts capital from the “fish bank” instead of living on the “interest.”
  • The US can’t rest its laurels. 60% of fish eaten in the US comes from outside waters.
  • Eating tuna is like eating something that feeds on dragons. Very high on food chain. Selling un/mislabeled fish should be punished like selling a stolen TV. Every fish on your table should be labeled with the type and origin. Instead over 30% of seafood is mislabeled.

Miguel Jorge delved into policy:

  • We have the tools at our disposal to end overfishing. We should start tackling the problem now.
  • Subsidies for industrial fishing are > $25 billion a year.
  • We need fisherman see the ocean as their future. Goal should be to make as much as much money as possible while catching as few fish as possible.
  • The system of overfishing is deeply entrenched. Need to reach out to local food types, medical people, and other communities.

Sylvia Earle waxed poetic:

  • Trawling is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds.
  • Only a fraction of one percent of the ocean is a marine reserve. Consider the ocean the blue heart of the planet. How much of your heart is enough to protect?
  • What about the value of fish alive, in the ocean, as part of the ecosystem?

I discussed small-scale/artisanal fishing in developing countries:

  • There is a great opportunity for artisanal fisheries to be sustainable while providing employment, in large part because they have low bycatch and fuel use. However, these small boats and the associated communities can’t relocate of fish further offshore, so sustainable management of nearshore fisheries is critical. (See paper by Jacquet and Pauly comparing industrial and small-scale fisheries.)
  • Community-based fisheries management is a promising approach involving those who have historically managed the resource. (See previous blog post on Rare/EDF/UCSB partnership.)
  • Food security is a critical issue for small-scale coastal fisheries. 1 billion people in developing countries depend on fishing for their primary source of protein. (Source)
  • Overfishing is a national security issue. Some of the pirates in Somalia used to be fishermen but turned to piracy after foreign boats overexploited their fish stocks. (See Time magazine article about how Somali fishers became pirates.)
  • Industrial fishing is heavily subsidized. If there is an appropriate role for subsidies it is in supporting artisanal fishers and their communities as they transition to sustainable fisheries.

Also of note:

  • The Forum marked for me the weekend I became a grownup tweeter. Sending ~100 tweets over the course of the weekend, I helped to live-tweet the event and share the conversations in Aspen with followers online. If you want to check out all the tweets from the weekend, check out #AEF2012. It was rewarding to be able to engage people via this new-to-me medium.  Stay tuned for more tweeting from @ayanaeliza.
  • The panel illuminated some of the differing perspectives on ocean conservation, in part via my exchanges with Sylvia Earle. While completely cordial, I countered her “don’t eat fish” points with “fish are the primary source of protein and livelihood for a billion people in developing countries, so let’s figure out how to make fishing sustainable.”
  • Based on my discussion of the unsustainability of shrimp (for more on this see www.shrimpsuck.org), the Brooks School (a prep school in Massachusetts) banned shrimp from their menu and asked me to come speak to their students. This was thrilling, and of course I accepted the invitation.
  • Barton Seaver hosted a sustainable luncheon, which featured hickory-smoked lionfish. Yum. Saving Caribbean coral reefs never tasted so good. Find a National Geographic post on the luncheon here.

All in all it was a great event. Kudos to David Monsma, Andrea Browne Phillips, Nikki De Vignes, and the rest of the team who pulled it off. And I was able to sneak in a hike to the Maroon Bells the morning I departed. Inspiration for “purple mountain majesty” and John Denver lyrics. Majestic indeed.