The Bionic Woman of Good Science - Pacific Standard

The Bionic Woman of Good Science

Author:
Publish date:

How an ecologist of tidal communities became a global diplomat for the ocean.

By Bonnie Tsui

7134a-11sks1rp_6kulg2kichns6w

(Illustration: Oliver Barrett/We Are Mystery Box)

On a blindinglybright autumn morning, I’m standing with Jane Lubchenco on the rocky shoreline at Asilomar State Beach, two hours south of San Francisco at the southern end of Monterey Bay. There’s a camera crew with us, filming her for an upcoming documentary on large-scale global marine reserves. I mention that I’d spotted a pair of whales surfacing and spouting in the bay the previous evening, not far from where we’re filming. “Oh, they were probably pilot whales,” Lubchenco says with enthusiasm, turning to look offshore. The professor in her can’t help but point out pelicans, harbor seals, and floating kelp in the clear waters — all vibrant signs of health in this marine ecosystem.

More broadly, she sees good news, which is no small thing for one of the world’s most important environmental scientists, celebrated for her decades- long efforts to call out the ways that human activities have unintentionally disrupted environmental stability. Lubchenco is a marine ecologist who has studied the Oregon coast for close to 40 years. After President Barack Obama named her in 2008 to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of his “green dream team,” she was called the “bionic woman of good science” at her Senate confirmation hearings, where she received unanimous approval. Her research papers are among the most widely cited in ecology; among other achievements, Lubchenco has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, she was given an unusually free-form mandate by the Department of State to travel the world as the United States’ first ocean diplomat. So what’s she going to do with it?

Lubchenco isthe first to tell you that there’s no single solution to our planet’s water woes — that the path to a real, sustained altering of the trajectory we have set ourselves on requires lots of different approaches from lots of different players. But she is pushing in particular for what she and others in the conservation community, like the explorer Sylvia Earle, are calling “blue parks” — in effect, the National Parks of our seas, marine reserves that are fully protected from activities that remove animals or plants or alter habitats. The timing has resonance: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of America’s National Park Service, a once-controversial but now almost universally valued project. We protect natural resources so that they will help carry us into the future, in perpetuity.

From around the world, the scientific data is already in: Marine reserves work, boosting the numbers, diversity, and size of marine life inside — and outside — their borders. When fully protected reserves are paired with strong fishery-management plans meant to maintain healthy populations of fish, Lubchenco says, the long-term prognosis is relatively good. Think of it as taking out a health insurance policy for the planet: Large, thriving marine reserves help ocean ecosystems bounce back from stress events like climate change and overfishing. As with many discussions around environmental policy, like those that surround solar energy or carbon emissions, this one typically takes place at the lofty intersection of government, business, and scientific interests — a 40,000-foot remove from the rest of us. But Lubchenco explains that big things, many times, start at the local level, within a community — that “what happens at home” is often the kick-starter. “People care about that,” she says. “They focus on that. And they want good news. Fortunately, we’ve got some.”

94a4e-1exyvch3k6oq_xsxuts6otw

This story first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

The level of protection granted to marine and coastal areas varies greatly, and so do the ecological benefits associated with them. Marine reserves are defined as fully protected ocean areas, where all extractive activities involving plants or animals are prohibited, except for what is needed for scientific monitoring; this protection is permanent, and does not vary by season or year. Other kinds of marine protected areas, also known as MPAs, offer less-comprehensive protection — they may allow some fishing or boating, for example. Lightly protected MPAs allow significant extractive activity, while strongly protected MPAs prohibit commercial activity, but allow limited recreational and subsistence fishing.

Recent years have seen a huge jump in marine protection: A decade ago, only 1 percent of the world’s oceans was in any type of MPA, and only 0.1 percent was strongly to fully protected; today, 3.7 percent is MPA and 1.9 percent is strongly to fully protected. The research on marine reserves and MPAs is extensive, and shows the effectiveness of full protection: A global review of studies in 124 marine reserves showed that, on average, the number of species increased 21 percent and the biomass of plants and animals increased 446 percent once the reserves were established.

Even partial protection, when managed well, can make a huge difference. Take the place where we’re standing on this bright California morning: Monterey Bay. Today, its cerulean waters and blooming giant-kelp forests are populated by whales and sea otters. But just decades ago, the bay’s waters were contaminated with toxic sludge, diesel fuel, and a daily dump of 100,000 pounds of stinking fish guts from the local canneries. The boom and bust of 150 years’ worth of intensely extractive industries — otter pelting in the early 19th century; whaling, sealing, and fishing for abalone, and squid decades later; and salmon and sardine extraction in the early 20th century — left devastation in their wake. During the 1941–42 fishing season, the Monterey fleet hauled home 250,000 tons of sardines; by 1953, the year’s catch was 49 tons — what would have been caught in a single hour a decade earlier. When the sardines vanished, soon after John Steinbeck sent up the rapacious industry in his 1945 novel Cannery Row, the town collapsed.

The research on marine reserves and marine protected areas is extensive, and shows the effectiveness of full protection: A global review of studies in 124 marine reserves showed that, on average, the number of species increased 21 percent and the biomass of plants and animals increased 446 percent once the reserves were established.

But that’s not where the story ends. Stephen Palumbi, the director of the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey Bay, and Carolyn Sotka, a frequent writer on ocean issues, chronicle the coast’s re-birth in their 2011 book The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival. The bay’s recovery required unprecedented commitment from disparate community groups — fishermen, ecologists, and philanthropists among them — to create the conditions that allowed for the establishment of a world-class aquarium whose mission is to inspire ocean conservation. The aquarium now draws nearly two million visitors a year, and Monterey Bay, a jewel of the California coast, is in better shape than it was a century ago. This is a story of exploitation and collapse, yes, but it’s also a tale of resilience and hope. In 1992, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was created, balancing recreational and commercial activities — including fishing, via a permit system — with the protection of natural resources.

“The ocean is very resilient, and we can be encouraged by that,” says Sarah Chasis, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s oceans program, which focuses on the protection and restoration of healthy ocean ecosystems. “But you need forward-looking action to ensure that valuable places are protected permanently and into the future.”

To Lubchenco, Monterey Bay is an important example of how, even in this era of the 24/7 bad-news cycle and direr-than-ever climate projections, it’s not too late to create something of lasting significance. Her role as global ocean diplomat is to show us all that it’s possible.

With her shortcrop of honey-blond hair, direct manner, and thoughtful smile, Lubchenco gives the impression of warm authority. She is partial to wearing crisp button-down shirts in bright colors and ocean-themed jewelry — starfish-shaped earrings, say, or a shell bracelet. One striking necklace, decorated with green sea-urchin spines, was made by Rapa Nui women and presented to her with great ceremony on her visit to Easter Island last year to advise the Chilean government in the lead-up to the establishment of a new marine reserve. It is the largest in the Americas and contains species found nowhere else on Earth.

In 2015, the addition of marine reserves by countries including Chile, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Palau, and New Zealand increased the amount of protected ocean to more than 3.5 percent. Lubchenco, who has written papers and op-eds on the importance of fully protected marine reserves to the health of the seas, chose six developing countries in Africa and Asia, where she could focus on specific and attainable goals, for her diplomacy work: South Africa, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Mozambique, Indonesia, and China. The goal is to accelerate good things that are already happening — to encourage marine reserves and sustainable fisheries, and to help local leaders weigh the short- and long-term positives and negatives of the “blue economy”: ocean-dependent activities that can range from fishing and tourism to oil and gas exploration. By the end of this year, she will have visited them all to see what progress has been made.

88d3a-1parlkajinsefrwtfmsse8q

(Illustration: Oliver Barrett/We Are Mystery Box)

This past December, the Seychelles made a major announcement at the Paris climate talks: The island nation would protect 30 percent of its ocean territory — 154,000 square miles, making up the second largest marine reserve in the Indian Ocean. In return, $30 million of its debt would be canceled by a foreign investor group. Lubchenco, who first visited the Seychelles last July, is a trusted adviser there and helped build support for the deal. It is the first-ever debt swap for climate adaptation.

While pushing the Seychelles deal forward, Lubchenco was also working behind the scenes on domestic marine reserves. Though she is no longer the head of the NOAA, she continues to shape the Obama administration’s ocean legacy. The benchmark is the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Established under George W. Bush and expanded under Obama, the set of reserves adds up to one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, and is particularly significant because it was a bipartisan effort. J. Charles Fox, program director of the philanthropic organization Oceans 5 and a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, worked closely with Lubchenco on the declaration to expand the Pacific Remote Islands monument. “What she brings is the ability to blend the science with the politics and help people understand what’s necessary to win in ocean conservation,” Fox says of Lubchenco. “She’s very respected at the highest levels of government, and she has the capacity to move between meetings with scientists to the White House to discussions in a community kitchen in Hawaii. It’s a rare scientist who understands all of this — and is heard.”

A big part of the ocean strategy is “helping Americans to see that there are important opportunities for protection in the ocean, similar to those that we have on land,” Lubchenco says. We’re in her office at Oregon State University, where she is a professor of marine studies. It’s blanketed in medals and ribbons and awards, the kind of hardware befitting a Hollywood star. (In the pile of accolades, I unearth a small, framed photo of Lubchenco with the Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett, taken at a dinner hosted by the Australian ambassador to the U.S. a few years ago.) Over two days, I watch her toggle between the local and the global: giving a lunchtime talk to graduate students in her laboratory, which she co-heads with her husband, the ecologist Bruce Menge; fielding phone calls from philanthropic foundations to strategize on domestic reserves; plotting her diplomatic trip to China. Her ability to hold both the details and the big-picture ideas in her head at once makes her particularly formidable when it comes to seeing what can be done — and to being able to explain it in a way that all parties can understand and get behind.

Raised in Denver, Colorado, Lubchenco is the oldest of five daughters born to a pair of doctors; her mother was a pediatrician, her father a surgeon. From an early age, the girls were taught to be curious and experimental. Lubchenco says that her parents made science fun; dinner-table conversations were often medical ones. Her father once dazzled her elementary school class by bringing in an actual cow heart-and-lung system for show and tell. She began her formal work as a scientist by studying the plants and herbivores in the rocky intertidal zone — first in New England, where she completed her Ph.D. at Harvard University, and then at OSU, where she and Menge convinced the dean to let them split a tenure-track position so they could, as Menge puts it, “both be parents and really good scientists.” Their teamwork extended to those tidal communities: While Lubchenco studied the plants and herbivores, Menge studied the predators and prey. She noticed that animals didn’t necessarily live where they were physically best suited — it depended on what else was living there too. A species could thrive in one community and be outcompeted in another community just adjacent. And sometimes, if things got out of whack, a species could run rampant, destroying the balance of an ecosystem.

“The ocean is very resilient, and we can be encouraged by that,” says Sarah Chasis, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s oceans program, which focuses on the protection and restoration of healthy ocean ecosystems. “But you need forward-looking action to ensure that valuable places are protected permanently and into the future.”

“You have to be open to what the system is telling you,” Lubchenco says. Her experiments with herbivorous snails and seaweeds showed that the snails were critical in controlling the distribution of seaweeds. You could say this is where she began to learn about the importance of the roles humans play in our own eco- systems. Her rise to national and international prominence hinges on the way she identified a role to play in the larger scientific community — as a strong voice urging other scientists to speak out on critical issues of climate change and ocean conservation. Not many researchers felt comfortable in that role, and many still don’t. Lubchenco made a name for herself by acting as a translator of sorts, between the scientific community and the rest of us.

When I ask Menge if Lubchenco is a better scientist or a better politician, he says that the answer is both. “She is the best at communicating science to policymakers, bar none,” he says. “She’s always had a tendency to be a leader in whatever she was doing” — whether it’s being a Girl Scout and swimming instructor, say, or an ecologist and global science envoy — “and what you see is the current incarnation of that.”

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a learning curve throughout. Lubchenco’s experience as the head of the NOAA was searing in many ways — a trial by fire in figuring out how to bring together the vastly different expectations and priorities of many different parties. She managed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest marine oil spill in history — and its clean-up, but was criticized for several communication gaffes. The NOAA is a massive operation, with more than 12,000 employees; the agency’s responsibilities go far beyond ocean and fishery management to include coast-to-coast weather monitoring, collecting environmental data for research, and shoreline mapping for up-to-date nautical charts.

Lubchenco rehabilitated the country’s broken weather satellite program, in large part by pulling the agency out of a bureaucratic tangle with the Department of Defense, but it was a hard break-up (with a rueful laugh, she describes her combative dealings at the time with Ash Carter, the current secretary of defense, as “divorce without alimony”). Under her tenure, the NOAA also made good on a congressional mandate to end overfishing. To do this, Lubchenco had to work with critical local constituents, including fishermen from New England to the Oregon coast (some of whom were so upset at the annual catch limits that they created a public display that showed Lubchenco hanging two fishermen in effigy). But she prevailed, and the U.S. accomplished an extraordinary reversal in the state of its fisheries, which are spread out over 11.4 million square kilometers: NOAA Fisheries has re-built 37 fish stocks since 2000, and overfishing numbers dropped to an all-time low in 2014. In spite of the acrimonious congressional environment, the NOAA made progress on many issues — so much progress, in fact, that Nature put her on the cover as its 2010 Newsmaker of the Year.

Lubchenco has a ready joke to describe the challenges she faced at the NOAA, and how she prepared for it: “I already knew how to read threat signals and swim with sharks.” With a scientist’s observational calm, she describes the political environment as one in which behavior is determined by context. “What they are saying to you in private is not the same as the signals they demonstrate in public contexts. There are very diverse interests, and there will always be conflict. The challenge is not letting conflict bog you down.”

In her newrole as ocean diplomat, Lubchenco enjoys increased freedom to speak her mind, and her preternatural calm and negotiating skills have paid off. Through innovative efforts like Secretary of State John Kerry’s Our Ocean conference — which Lubchenco helped plan — the recent pace of global ocean-protection commitments has been impressive. “That conference is an example of a counterpoint to normal negotiation — a way to participate on the world stage and make significant change in marine conservation,” Lubchenco says.

“She knows what an elected official is going to have to contend with. She can talk peer-to-peer, perhaps better than any other scientist or non-governmental organization that hasn’t had this experience.”

Though there have only been two Our Ocean meetings so far, in Washington, D.C., in 2014 and Valparaiso, Chile, in 2015, several countries have chosen them to announce major news-making ocean declarations (the conference will return to the U.S. in 2016). The Seychelles debt-for-nature swap is another example to be excited about — it’s an outside-the-box idea that resulted from a community of nations working together. And in the wake of an unprecedented international climate agreement at the Paris climate talks this past December, this kind of relationship-building work, Lubchenco says, is more important than ever.

“Jane is a tremendous voice for the benefits of large marine areas — there are inherent risks in these decisions, but she can walk people through,” says J. Charles Fox of Oceans 5, who works on large-scale global marine reserves, of the importance of this kind of diplomacy. “She knows what an elected official is going to have to contend with. She can talk peer-to-peer, perhaps better than any other scientist or non-governmental organization that hasn’t had this experience.”

Since humans around the world continue to exert so many pressures on the ocean, we have to use all the tools we have to protect it on every front, says Sarah Chasis of the NRDC. That means re-building the things we have depleted — see the huge turnaround in our national fisheries — and establishing strong, high-level protections as far in advance as possible. And it means deploying people like Lubchenco to make us more comfortable with these kinds of actions.

Lubchenco’s job, in a way, is to teach us how to take things like blue parks and debt-for-nature swaps for granted. “We’re seeing a disruption of the now-outdated framing of nature conservation as something apart from people,” she says. The progress we’ve made in protecting large ocean areas reflects a growing acceptance of conservation as something integrated with everyday life. Her technique for bridging the knowledge gap, Lubchenco notes, hasn’t changed much from her early days as a teenage swim instructor.

“I learned that you need to be able to go from the known to the related unknown — to go from something that they understand to something that is related to it that they hadn’t grasped before,” Lubchenco says, bridging her hands together to illustrate the point. “People know parks on land. They might not know parks in the water — but they will.”

52b1b-1olxo2suf2zbtxki9lg10uw

||

Tags
terms:
The Fix

Related