A Refreshingly Positive Look “Beyond the Obituary” of the Sea with Dr. Nancy Knowlton of Scripps and the Smithsonian Institution

by Owen James Burke

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Dr. Nancy Knowlton while studying coral spawning in Bocas del Toro in 2010, with the very same snorkel she first wore in Jamaica in 1974 (Photo credit: Christian Ziegler)

If you focus [only] on climate change, it’s easy to get severely depressed—2013 saw the highest amount of CO2 emissions ever. On the other hand, there are at least a few examples of things starting to work in the right direction.

Some call Sant Chair (Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) and author of Citizens of the Sea Dr. Nancy Knowlton “Dr. Doom” (and her husband, Jeremy Jackson, known as Dr, Gloom), but after speaking with her last week, I wouldn’t dare. Dr. Knowlton was first seduced by coral reefs—and her future husband—while studying in Discovery Bay, Jamaica in 1974 as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. She hasn’t looked back.

Dr.’s Knowlton and Jackson both became early catalysts and proponents for ocean conservation. At first, she says, a dark and gloomy message was the only approach that could get the attention of the general public, especially in the days of 1970’s disco oblivion, when the ocean was often the furthest thing from the minds of the baby boomers. Today, conversely, as we’re constantly bombarded with a sense of total loss and hopelessness regarding the state of the oceans, Dr.’s “Doom and Gloom” (which I will only refer to them as just this once) peer above the tide of negativity and provide a refreshingly optimistic outlook on the future of the seas.


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Dr. Knowlton diving in the Southern Line Islands, 2013 (Photo credit: Stuart Sandin)

First, tell us some of the worst issues facing our oceans—where everything has gone completely, exactly, utterly wrong.

For essentially all marine ecosystems, the vast majority of the damage to date has been caused by overfishing and pollution. The places where the ocean is in the worst state are places where human activities are intense and unregulated. There are a lot of coastal places around the world that qualify—both tropical and temperate. The cod hasn’t come back, we’ve lost fifty or sixty percent of coral reefs, we’ve lost a big chunk of the mangroves, and we’ve lost a lot of the marshes. Overfishing and pollution—and in the case of mangroves and salt marshes, direct habitat destruction by conversion for agriculture and aquaculture.

These local impacts have done the most damage up until now. The coast tends to be where people live, so the coastal regions are the ones most heavily impacted.

Looking into the future, it’s clear that climate change and ocean acidification are increasingly going to wreak havoc with ocean ecosystems—if left unchecked. That said, up until now, reefs where other local stressors [like overfishing] are less severe tend to bounce back from these events. The ones that are chronically disturbed by human impact tend to never recover, and so you end up with a downward sloping trajectory for these ecosystems. They don’t recover from events caused by global warming because they’ve got all these other issues that they’re dealing with.

Ocean acidification, although it tends to favor the growth of plants to some extent—certain kinds of plants—many, many organisms are likely to suffer under ocean acidification scenarios. With business as usual, predictions for pH levels suggest that we’re going to wind up with an ocean chemistry unlike anything we’ve seen for 25 million years. It’s a very serious long-term future threat, and to some extent we’re seeing signs of it already. You can do lab experiments on the effects of ocean acidification, and you can actually study it in certain places in the ocean where carbon dioxide bubbles up from the bottom—they create a natural gradient pH so you can look at what communities are like in these high pH environments—but in terms of just a regular place, such as recent reports about the slowdown of growth on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s a little tricky to disarticulate the different possible causes like ocean acidification vs. global warming vs. anything else that could be going on.

If you focus on climate change, it’s easy to get really depressed—2013 saw the highest amount of CO2 emissions. On the other hand, there are some really interesting examples of things starting to work in the right direction. There was a really fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times talking about bottom-up solutions to climate. Similarly, there are a lot of bottom-up solutions to these local stressors like overfishing and pollution. I think it’s the fact that there are things we know how to do and that there are examples of doing them that allow you to talk about ocean optimism and success stories. They actually do exist, and the problem has been that we’ve tended to focus on the doom and gloom. And initially it may have been a good strategy…

To wake people up.

Exactly. People were largely oblivious about what was going on. But now, everyone kinds of gets it. Psychologists have known, literally for decades, that if you talk about big problems that have no apparent solutions, people kind of tune out. So it’s really, really important to also talk about these success stories, to motivate people, and actually to learn from them. So both in terms of designing strategies and changing the attitude and dialogue of the general public, it’s essential to focus on some of the positive things that are happening. That isn’t to say that you can forget about the threats, but you shouldn’t forget about the successes either.

Could you highlight or pinpoint a couple of the biggest disaster zones, and then a couple of the success stories?

The disasters are the major fisheries that have collapsed, the coral reefs that have been damaged, and the mangroves and salt marshes that have disappeared. There’s no end—if you look at statistics in the aggregate—it paints a pretty depressing picture. So the question is, what can you point to that’s optimistic?

There are quite a few things. I went to a meeting at the Vatican about sustainability, and I presented a paper there where I broke up the success stories into five categories; protecting species, protecting spaces, harvesting for the future—which is basically successes in fishery management—reducing pollution, and habitat restoration. Those are the five big clusters of things that we’re doing where I think we have some successes. Under protecting species, those are actually some of our oldest successes. I think species protection is something that is easy for people to identify with and relate to on an emotional level.

Sure, the blue whales.

Right. I encourage you to go on Twitter and search #oceanoptimism. It’s an initiative we’ve started to capture what’s been going on. There is really good news about shark protection—for example, new policies prohibiting the transport of shark fins that has been put forward by a variety of airlines and ships. There’s been a lot of activity. I feel that sharks are at a point similar to gay marriage—it felt like gay marriage was never going to happen, and now it’s almost like it’s impossible to stop the momentum. Obviously there have been blips in the trajectory, but we’re moving very fast as a society in the direction of accepting gay marriage—it’s just an amazing transformation. Similarly, with sharks—I don’t know where we are with that tipping point process—but there’s so much going on with public awareness and protections being implemented. We’ve even seen some evidence of sharks coming back. There was an article in the New York Times, titled “They’re going to need a bigger gift shop.

There are a lot of examples in protecting species. Some of it comes from an ethical impulse among some people that we shouldn’t cause other species to go extinct, but some of it is just dollars and cents. In many cases, like sharks, it turns out that they’re much more valuable alive and swimming around for eco-tourism than they are for their fins as a commodity. I think in terms of protecting species, it’s not that we don’t have a long way to go, but what these examples show is that if you decide you want to do something, it can happen.

The next category of successes is protecting spaces. Here, you’re basically talking about marine protected areas and other kinds of ocean zoning. There are lots of success stories that are either established or clearly promising. For example, the thing that got a lot of attention recently was the story of Cabo Pulmo. (Cabo Pulmo is a marine sanctuary and national park located about 60 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, where in the last decade–since commercial fishing has ceased–a 400% increase in biomass has been detected. This is good news, but it does not come without pushbacks and currently, a hotel resort has been proposed next to the small fishing village that lies along the reef. Perhaps the hotel will be built, but overall, things are moving in the right direction.)

The Great Barrier Reef is held up as a gold star for ocean zoning, but it has its problems. In fact, a recent paper suggested that the near shore—the part most affected by humans—is affected by agricultural runoff from fertilizer. So, even though it’s protected from fishing, the protection isn’t enough unless you include management of the ocean-land relationship as well. It’s not a complete success story, but it’s certainly an amazing story of the citizens of Australia getting together and deciding to put one-third of the Great Barrier Reef in no-take status. It’s extraordinary when you think about it, as that’s greater than most other places.

Most recently—and this is potentially a story for the future—is the Blue Halo story in Barbuda. This is a small island nation that realized they were headed in a very bad direction—much as the village in Cabo Pulmo did. They implemented all sorts of new management strategies to turn things around. We’ll see how that plays out in the future, but it’s an example of whole countries taking initiatives to protect the ocean and manage it wisely.

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A Chilean ‘loco’ (Concholepas concholepas) (Photo via Wikimedia)

In terms of fishing, there are two elements. First, managing fishing levels—we still have a lot of work to do with that. One of the examples I like is called Territorial Users Rights for Fishing, or TURFs—they’re kind of fishing cooperatives. There are some really nice examples in Chile. They fish for this little thing called the ‘loco’, which is often called the “Chilean Abalone” even though it’s not really an abalone. It’s a little snail that is a delicacy, and it fetches a very high price on the market. They had been fished way down, and there was no economically viable fishery at all. The Chileans started to get together as cooperatives to manage fishing—and the interesting thing is that they aren’t No-Take areas—but they’re managed so well that they work as well as a No-Take area does in terms of local population.

We’re not going to stop eating stuff that grows in the ocean, so we need to figure out how to do it in a way so that not only we can do it, but so that our kids and grand kids can do it, too. Territorial Users Rights for Fishing are one example of those kinds of solutions.

There’s also the issue of making fishing less destructive, particularly in terms of bycatch. The example of the sharks coming back to Southern California was due at least in some part to the banning of near-shore gillnets—which were doing a lot of damage not only to sharks but also to other organisms that needed to come inshore to breed. The banning of those gillnets appears to be one of the most important things underpinning the recovery of sharks and other top predators in that Southern California marine ecosystem.

Finally, the main thing with ocean aquaculture is to figure out a way to reduce pollution so that you don’t wind up with all this organic debris coming out of these farms—killing everything around them. There are escapees as well, in addition to thinking about the amount of food you have to feed to the thing you’re trying to raise relative to the amount of food you get out at the end. In the early days, they gave ten pounds of food to get one pound of tuna—you were only changing the nature of the overfishing problem instead of solving it.

When you think about the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States, you’re talking about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. The banning of DDT in the U.S. in 1972 led to a recovery of all sorts of birds, including ospreys—which are an important part of the marine ecosystem. There are now so many ospreys that people don’t even really think about ospreys, but they were well on their way to extinction in context of the DDT crisis.

Sometimes I talk about shifting baselines, and that you take for granted as normal what you grew up seeing as a kid. This was an idea initiated by Daniel Pauly, one of the great fishery biologists and conservationists. In the original context, it’s about how we take ever more and more damaged ecosystems as normal. You wind up with tourists going out into the Florida Keys who get wildly enthusiastic about an ecosystem that bears no resemblance to what it should actually look like. But on the other hand, you end up with a reverse of these shifting baselines when you look at the recovery of these organisms—like the osprey.

Ospreys are an incredible recovery story. They’re very prolific.

And the reason they’re abundant is because we took steps to protect them—it’s the same thing with Egrets. They were almost wiped off the planet because their feathers were harvested for ladies’ hats—those are common birds now. Some of these successes date so far back that we forget we actually did  something to make things better.

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“From Despair to Repair,” an interview by the International Union for Conservation of Nature with Dr.’s Knowlton and Jackson

Dead zones are another big example of pollution. There are some solutions that are coming up—like planting along watersheds—but there’s still a long way to go. There are ways of dealing with them and examples of solutions there, but I don’t know how scaled-up they’ve been.

The final area of this paper is restoring habitats. Certain areas are much harder to restore than others, but one place where we’ve had quite a bit of success is restoring shellfish beds—oyster restoration. There’s a guy in Virginia, Rom Lipcius who did a lot of work in the Chesapeake Bay, and he discovered through his research that the key to oyster restoration is doing it on a big enough scale—if you scatter oysters thinly on the bottom, they just get covered up with mud and don’t make it. But, if you make a big oyster bed, the ones on the top are protected from that smothering effect, and then you can actually have real successes.

On the reverse side, instead of trying to build up a population of something you want, there’s trying to get rid of an invasive species—something you don’t want. That’s much harder—once something gets established, getting rid of it is really a problem.

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Dr. Knowlton on a 2010 trip to study coral spawning in Bocas del Toro, Panama, which she visits at least once a year

(Photo credit: Christian Ziegler)

So you do a lot of work in Bocas del Toro now?

I do. I go every year—I just got back, actually. I study coral spawning there. We have 500 or so individually marked colonies and every year we go back to see who spawns and when they’ve spawned.

And how are the corals doing? The human population there isn’t relatively high, is it?

It’s not huge, the town is pretty small. But a small number of people can do a lot to a coastal ecosystem. It doesn’t take much to strip everything off a reef, for example.

What can the individual do? We can appeal to government, we can picket, we can collectively bring attention to things, but on the daily basis, realistically, what do you think the individual do?

I think just being really conscious of what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, and then sharing your ethics with your friends and family—creating a groundswell of a new standard of how one goes about one’s business on the planet. It’s something everybody can do every day, and the cumulative summation of all that makes a big difference in terms of recycling, reducing energy use, and eating only sustainable products from the ocean—they seem really small, but in the aggregate they’re really important.

Some people say that the environment takes care of itself, and I would argue—if I may be so bold with you—that in some circumstances it does. For example, specimens that are thriving with ocean acidification—Darwinism, if you will—and the algae that consumes it. To what extent—if you could even put it on a spectrum—do you think the environment can handle these changes?

Well, it depends on what kind of world you want to live in. Do you want to live with the rats and the cockroaches of the sea, as my husband puts it, or do you want to live with the beautiful coral reefs and thriving oyster beds? You’re not going to exterminate life in the ocean, but it becomes a question of what kind of life you want to see there. I think there’s no question that a lot of things we like in the ocean will not survive business as usual. You can already see the losses—mangroves, sea grasses. Things may not go to extinction, but they’re essentially de facto exterminated in terms of the benefits we might derive from them. All of those success stories are because people wanted to make a difference, and they took action as a consequence. So there’s no question that yes, on some level nature can take care of itself, but it’s not the nature we necessarily want to surround ourselves with.

Should more people be snorkeling and experiencing the oceans—do we need awareness to get movement going with all this—or are the oceans at their human threshold and capacity? Most people aren’t fortunate enough or interested enough to live on the ocean or be around the ocean, and they don’t quite realize what’s at stake.

As a general rule, I think tourism is good for the ocean. Number one, it gets people to think about ocean issues. It can inspire people who don’t live by oceans to be ocean activists or to lead more ocean-friendly lives where they normally live. More importantly, around the world, it provides income as an alternative to just fishing. In Palau, for example, the value of sharks for eco-tourism is much, much higher than it is from a harvesting perspective. In general, wherever tourism is an important part of the economy, the value of a healthy ecosystem vastly exceeds the value of whatever you can extract from the ocean.

That said, you have to manage tourism. In remote places, the management needed is pretty low-key, but places like the Florida Keys are inundated with tourists. Whether they are actually managing the impact well or not is an open question. For example, if you’re going to have people in the water, you need to have them not trampling the reef, or throwing anchors onto it. I’ve been to a reef in Egypt, Sharm El Sheikh, and I was horrified—it was all broken-off stubble. There had been so many people there in such a small area that everything was broken to pieces. You definitely need to manage tourism, and in addition there’s all this infrastructure that’s built on land—run-off from sewage, and fishing to feed all these tourists. You need to have green tourism in order to not have coastlines overwhelmed in places that are really popular tourist destinations. It’s an issue, for example, on the coast of Mexico in the Caribbean where it’s wall-to-wall hotels and there are real concerns about the plumbing essentially going straight into the coral reefs.

Cancun, oh my.

It’s like anything else—everything in moderation. That’s why there was so much concern about the big hotel being built right next to Cabo Pulmo. The environment couldn’t manage that level of visitation. Obviously no people at all on the planet would be better for the ocean, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a question of finding that optimum balance between what makes people healthy and happy and what allows them to do it in a sustainable way. Some places are so remote that they’re essentially off-limit to people, and that’s probably a good thing—so that some places are untouchable. And there are other places that are clearly influenced by people, but it’s a good balance between the health of the ocean and human well-being.

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Dr. Knowlton as a “budding marine biologist” on a rock, Long Island Sound, roughly at the age of 4

(Photographer unknown, perhaps her mother)

Describe, personally, how you first fell in love with coral? You had a major first dive over coral in Jamaica in 1974?

Yes, that’s where I met my husband. I grew up by the ocean in the sense that my grandparents on my mom’s and my grandmother on my father’s side both had these summer places on Long Island Sound. I was sort of a solitary kid—I loved walking on the beach, picking up stones, and just exploring. There just happened to be an ocean next to me that I happened to be exploring. It started off that way, and I never thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. But then I became very interested in biology, and I went to college. I took wonderful courses from Steve Gould and Ed Wilson at Harvard, and that’s what got me into thinking that organisms and the natural environment were what I wanted to work on.

Then, the really critical point was when I took a year off after I graduated and worked as an assistant for a woman named Ruth Turner—she was the first woman to go down in the Alvin submarine. She was a really path-breaking woman marine scientist, and she paid a lot of prices in terms of discrimination, but the ocean was her life. She worked on the organisms that bore into the wood of ships and piers around the world.

Anyway, that’s how I got interested in the ocean. I went to grad school at Berkeley, and my second year, there was a course organized by the Organization for Tropical Studies—which had a course on the biology and geology of coral reefs in Discovery Bay, Jamaica. So I went for that course and fell in love with coral reefs at that point, as well as my husband.

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Dr. Knowlton in Discovery Bay, Jamaica, c. 1974 (Photo credit: William Sacco)

So I imagine the names you just listed off are some of your heroes. Who else has inspired you?

I read Rachel Carson’s various environmental books, but she became more of a hero as I grew older. I don’t think I really appreciated the role she had played when I was younger. Sometimes you don’t necessarily realize who your leaders are when you’re 25—you grow into it. I really have huge respect for Daniel Pauly, the fishery biologist who has alerted the world to the problems of overfishing.

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Dr. Knowlton and Scripps Institution of Oceanography colleagues featured in Vanity Fair Magazine, May 2007

(Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe, via Vanity Fair)

I created something called the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At the time, it was a program linking the natural sciences and the social sciences, and we got incredible students. We had a sort of summer boot camp where we would lecture to them, and we’d always start with three days of utter unrelenting doom and gloom—all the problems that the oceans face. And you could see students almost collapsing in their seats, wondering why they’d chosen to go into this career. I started thinking about what we were doing in that center, sort of like it was a medical school—only the patient was the ocean, not humans. When I started thinking of that medical school analogy, I thought that you didn’t train students to write ever-more refined obituaries of a patient. But what we were doing in the environment was training our students to write ever-more refined obituaries of nature. It’s a complete turn-off, and I later came to realize that psychologists had known this for a long time, but I independently discovered it for myself.

So that’s where this Beyond the Obituaries program came from, where I started to talk about success stories in ocean conservation. In terms of who’s really inspiring me right now, it’s all the younger generation who have the potential to really do things and make much more progress than those of us who came relatively late to conservation have been able to do. They’re my true heroes—the people who are taking charge now.

How about ocean books that have inspired you; what are your favorites?

There are so many. Deborah Cramer’s book, Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water, Our World is beautifully written and illustrated coffee table sized book that covers the ocean comprehensively. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World is a fascinating exploration of our dependence on the sea and what that dependence has wrought. Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez was the first ocean book I read that made me laugh out loud. A 21st century tale of ocean science and scientists which I love is Forest Rohwer’s Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas.


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Dr. Knowlton in Bocas del Toro, c. 2010 (Photo credit: Christian Ziegler)

Dr. Knowlton lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband of 31 years, Jeremy Jackson, and between frequent trips to the Caribbean, also runs the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal blog, which features a wealth of promising solutions and success stories in ocean conservation.

Follow her on Twitter with @SeaCitizens, at the Smithsonian, and at Scripps.

All images courtesy of Dr. Nancy Knowlton (except for ‘locos,’ from Wikimedia)

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