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Saving Marine Life

Pacific Leatherback Turtle; courtesy Scott R. Benson, NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Pacific leatherback sea turtles can forage for jellyfish more confidently since the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration declared 42,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean a critical sea turtle habitat in February. Achieving the largest turtle protected area in the world was a multi-year effort by many individuals and organizations. Reading about this regulation and its approval process in the Federal Register is a lesson in democratic policy (sausage) making. But for E-IPER graduate Geoff Shester (PhD 2008), the collaborative process from drafting the original petition, providing the science to support it, and helping to win its approval is among his proudest professional achievements. Now the California program director at Oceana, a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, Geoff is a fitting example of the type of “boundary person” E-IPER trains its students to be – scholars and leaders who connect science to policy and knowledge to action.

With his E-IPER PhD in hand, Geoff first took a position as senior science manager for the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, overseeing the team dedicated to researching the sustainability of hundreds of seafood products. Seafood Watch does more than advise consumers on which seafood are sustainably managed and harvested. The program also influences the multi-million dollar seafood industry through its extensive database of information about the robustness of management practices. Geoff describes his work at the Aquarium as an interdisciplinary combination of “doing the basic science, cranking out reports, then engaging with strategy development of major companies like Whole Foods and Target” that can make substantial waves in the seafood industry. For example, several years ago Target stopped selling farmed salmon in response to the influence of Seafood Watch’s scientific analyses.

Ultimately Geoff’s professional goals aim well beyond healthy fisheries to sustaining entire marine ecosystems that influence other sectors of the economy such as tourism and recreation. He ponders complex questions just as he did as a graduate student: “For the greatest overall benefit of the nation, should we be maximizing what we extract or should we be worried about maintaining healthy food webs that are resilient in the face of climate change or other natural or human disasters?” At Oceana he has had a role in the controversial state legislation banning shark finning and is currently working on a California bill to manage foraging fish stocks like anchovies and sardines, which are critical components of the food web that supports the more charismatic marine life that are critical for tourism and recreation. He is also working on a California bill to require better seafood labeling and fight seafood fraud.

In addition to habitat, the protected turtles may get fame if Assembly Bill 1776 passes the California legislature. The bill designates the Pacific leatherback sea turtle as the state marine reptile, joining the poppy, redwood, and desert tortoise as official California flora and fauna. While acknowledging that such legislation is mostly symbolic, Geoff emphasizes the importance of engaging the public in marine issues by celebrating successful conservation efforts like that of the turtle habitat. The turtles’ path to notoriety looks like smooth sailing since the California Assembly unanimously approved the bill in early April. Thanks to Geoff and his many collaborators, California school children may soon learn to recognize the leatherback sea turtle as easily as they do the California poppy.