Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols works with several universities and organizations to advance ocean protection. He is also spearheading the Ocean Revolution, a program that inspires, involves and mentors the next generation of ocean conservation leaders. Dr. Nichols is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Q. What are some of the problems we are facing, in particular with the turtles?
A. Generally, we’ve put too much IN to the ocean, taken too much OUT of the ocean and we are destroying the EDGE of the ocean. As a result, our ocean is full of pollution in many places, our fisheries are collapsing and fishing communities are having a hard time. Coastal areas have lost biodiversity and productivity. For sea turtles, this is particularly problematic, as they are sentinels of ocean health. They eat the plastic in the ocean and are sickened by pollution. They get caught in our fishing gear and are hunted for their meat. Their nesting and feeding habitats have been transformed. As a result, all seven sea turtle species are considered endangered or threatened.
Q. Can you tell us more about the “shrimp issue?”
A. In my lifetime, shrimp has gone from being a special, rare food to something that seems to be everywhere. Shrimp is now cheap, fast food. For a few dollars you can get all you can eat shrimp. The reason is that the scale of global bottom-trawling went way up and fuel costs were subsidized. Some nations have required shrimp trawlers to use Turtle Excluder Devices so that they catch and harm fewer sea turtles.
But bycatch of everything else remains a serious problem. Dragging huge nets on the seafloor is considered the worst way to fish, but that’s how most wild shrimp are caught. Then shrimp farms began to pop up around the world, also subsidized and made possible by sparse regulation of environmental and social standards. Taking out a mangrove forest and replacing it with a temporary shrimp farm is a quick way to make money. The U.S. market has been flooded with cheap Asian shrimp, forcing shrimpers here to cut costs or close down. It’s been a race to the bottom of the ocean.
This is what happens when there is no value put on mangrove forests or on bycatch, which includes sea turtles, baby sharks, a wide variety of fish and invertebrates, and the consumer has no idea how their food is caught. The sustainable seafood movement has helped a little, but because the shrimp industry is so enormous and the margins on shrimp are so large, most groups are compromised.
The result is that the #1 seafood in the U.S., which is also by far the most destructive, largely gets a pass. Spend a few days and nights on a shrimp trawler, or visit an Indonesian shrimp farm. Or do a google search for the words shrimp and bycatch. It will open your eyes to the real world of seafood. If you must eat shrimp for some reason, support the fishermen and farmers who are doing it right. You’ll pay more, but your money will go where it belongs.
Q. What books, movies, websites, and organizations are your favorites?
A. Books: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky and The Man Who Planted Trees aka L’homme qui plantait des arbres by Jean Giono. Films: Voyage of the Lonely Turtle (PBS-Nature) and The 11th Hour (Leo DiCaprio.) Organizations: Grupo Tortuguero (grassroots sea turtle conservation group in Baja), SEEturtles.org (helps people see, connect with and help sea turtles).
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