The TH Interview: Mark Powell, Vice President in Charge of Fish Conservation at The Ocean Conservancy

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After first obtaining a B.A. in Biology from Reed College and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, San Diego, Mark Powell had a short stint as an assistant professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut. After three years, he moved on to the Ocean Conservancy, a leading non-profit focused on issues of marine conservation, where he currently serves as the Vice President in charge of Fish Conservation. His day-to-day responsibilities include monitoring the organization's conservation efforts with the goal of promoting healthy fish populations and marine ecosystems and increasing public awareness of overfishing problems nationwide. Mark recently took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with us and answer a few questions about his position.

TreeHugger: How did you become interested in working for the Ocean Conservancy?

MP: I was doing salmon and river conservation work and jumped at the chance to work on ocean conservation, which was my first true love (ok, first true work love). Ocean Conservancy is the biggest, oldest ocean group, and we're proudly all oceans all the time I'm happier than a pig in mud. TH: What issues related to climate change and conservation have you and the Ocean Conservancy been focusing your most current efforts on?

MP: We want people to look under the surface of the ocean. It's wet, wild, and strange. For example, ever heard of "parasitic" male anglerfish? They ride around on females, get fed and provide sperm. Sounds like some people I know. Unfortunately, anglerfish are in trouble because fishermen went after them once cod disappeared. And so on, for disappearing grouper, red snapper, and Pacific rockfish. We're trying to convince people it's a bad idea to catch fish faster than they can reproduce. That should be a duh, but it's still going on.

Unfortunately, these days there's a big, bad new bully threatening ocean animals, climate change. We might save fish only to have them starve because of climate change. It seems like the problems just won't stop. That's what got me to quit my cushy University job and take a big pay cut to work on conservation. I couldn't keep studying the decline of things I loved. The crazy thing is that practical solutions exist. We don't need to perpetuate these problems. I think our hardest job is to convey a sense of optimism, show how things can get better, and get people to invest in solutions.

TH: How has the role of the oceans been portrayed in recent discussions over global warming? Do you think it has received enough attention in the popular or scientific press?

MP: Oceans need more attention because climate change IS an ocean issue. Our oceans will be the first victim, and sea life will suffer dramatically. Detailed proof is hard in ocean science, but I think we're already seeing big ocean changes caused by climate change, such as starvation of whales, seabirds, and other animals off the coast US west coast where I live.

Much of the attention on oceans has portrayed oceans as a villain. Warm water strengthened Hurricane Katrina that pounded Louisiana. Rising sea level will flood islands and coastal areas. Or, we're talking about new opportunities like a new shipping lane in the Arctic because of melting sea ice. These may be the obvious problems, but they're probably not the biggest ones.

TH: What is an impact of climate change that you believe has received short shrift in the media and that you think more people should know about? Any reason why you think that may be?

MP: Beneath the ocean surface, bad things are happening. Increasing CO2 makes ocean water more acid, and that threatens to dissolve the shells of some ocean animals. Ouch, how'd you like to have your shell dissolve? Also, climate change could disrupt major ocean currents that we rely on for the fish we eat and also for making useful patterns of rainfall and weather. Ocean food webs already seem harmed by reduced nutrient supplies, leading to starvation of larger animals.

I think this stuff isn't in the news because scientists are good at science and bad at talking to people. And, of course, scientists blame the audience for being too stupid, shallow, or lazy to understand. There has been a fascinating debate in the blogosphere lately about communicating science to the public, and it's clear that most scientists just don't get it. They can't be bothered to talk to real people. Nobody will care about your issues if the price they have to pay is listening to a long lecture from Morton the science bug.

TH: How effective do you believe conservation groups have been at harnessing the power of the internet, particularly social media? What do you think could be done to generate more interest in the work the Ocean Conservancy and similar NGOs do?

MP: I think conservation groups have been lame with new media. Sometimes I think we're so d*mn conservative that we'll get comfortable with the internet the day after it's obsolete. We've especially missed the social side, which could be our best way to reach people. A clear sign of weakness is that I'm a somebody in new ocean media just because I have a blog. Never mind that my only readers share my last name or home address. But hopefully we're getting smarter and bringing in the right people now.

One thing I think we need to do is to build a positive conservation message. We need to get away from being the people who always say "no, you can't do that." We need to focus on building shared investments in a better future, and we need to accept a path of small steps leading in the right direction. Too often, we have high ideological goals and don't focus on how to get there.

TH: What do you think has been the impact of your personal blog, blogfish? How has it affected your perspective on new media?

MP: I started blogfish to try to learn new media, and it's helped. But the traffic is not high, a couple of hundred visitors on a good day. It's about fish and ocean conservation so I never expected it to be wildly popular. One friend says a fish blog is "narrowcasting" and it's more about WHO drops by than how many, so that helps me think it's worthwhile. I have made some important new contacts, and blogfish is a great place to try out new ideas and get quickly slapped down, so that's useful.

My biggest lesson has been the value of being active instead of just being a passive reader. I used to read some blogs, but when I started participating a whole new world opened up. It's a brain-shift that has affected the way I do my work, and it's honed my ability to think faster and more synthetically. Also, the social aspect of blogging is just as important as the content, so to borrow a phrase from the 1960s: the medium is the message. And my personal experience shows me that the potential of this medium is extra large.

TH: A recent scientific paper that reported that 90 percent of large fish stocks have collapsed since 1950 and that projected the "end of seafood" by 2048 along current trends has stirred up a great deal of controversy among fishery scientists. What is the fundamental disagreement about and what is your take on the evidence?

MP: The big fish we like to eat are in trouble worldwide, and this argument is just about the details. In case you haven't noticed, we scientists can argue forever about important topics like slightly different flavors of vanilla ice cream. Consider the silliness of this debate: one group of scientists found a 90% decline of big fish and criticized fishery management. Some other scientists found an 80% decline and started a big argument with the 90% people. Who cares if it's 80% or 90%? The real question is whether it's OK to let fishermen take most of the big fish out of our oceans. It was also silly to argue about whether we would see the "end of seafood by 2048." Everyone agrees that the trend is bad, yet we spent a lot of time and energy arguing about exactly how bad. Is it bad everywhere, or just in most places? Was the trend worse a few years ago?

The real meat of this dispute is who gets to control fish and fishing, and the 90% vs. 80% argument is a surrogate for who's in charge. The old guard of fishery scientists say the loss of big fish is just the cost of doing business, and their critics say we lose something important when we lose big fish. I'm with the critics, we need to fix things so that we have more big fish, because big fish are important for reproduction, and they're an important part of a healthy ocean.

TH: Where do you think we're headed, what does the future hold for our oceans and our fish?

MP: I'm an optimist, I think we'll see ocean consciousness grow, and we'll take better care of our oceans. To those that scoff, I say that big changes seem impossible until after they happen. Then, looking back, they seem inevitable. In 1984, who predicted the Berlin wall would fall, yet 5 years later it was gone. Some kids will probably ask "what was the Berlin wall?" Another big change is that I'm old enough to remember the bad air caused by smoking on airplanes, but now it's the smokers who have nowhere to go, and all of the money in the world couldn't stop the change.

Ocean consciousness will grow in the US, and we'll replace the outdated thinking that gave us sadly depleted fish and unhealthy oceans. We'll end fishing in some areas, to provide refuges where fish can grow and reproduce. We'll invest in cleaner energy, and find the economic and environmental benefits of doing things right. Leading examples will provide a successful model, and seafood buyers will insist on change from those that lag behind. We won't reach a perfect ocean, but things will get better starting right now.

Mark Powell is the Vice President in charge of fish conservation at The Ocean Conservancy and is based in Seattle. You can read about his current work and contact him at his personal blog, blogfish.

Tags: Seattle | TH Interview

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