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To Save Fragile Ocean Fish, This Surfer Turned to Science

She spent her youth surfing and sailing. Now Shannon Switzer Swanson is diving into marine biology to investigate the aquarium fish trade. Get to know all 10 honorees, then vote every day for the People's Choice until December 16, 2016. The winner will be announced in January 2017.

This summer, photographer and conservationist Shannon Switzer Swanson was traveling in a small open boat with six Filipino men, all workers in the aquarium fish trade, when she started to get nervous. She had been filming the harvesters collect fish off remote Camiguin Island in the northern Philippines. By the time they were finished, it was mid-afternoon and the swell had started to rise. As they traveled back to Santa Ana, a town on the much larger island of Luzon, they hit a risky open channel and the waves started crashing into the boat.

“It was comical in the beginning, because we were getting doused with waves coming overboard, but not enough to flood things,” says Swanson. “But once the swell grew to eight to 10 feet, no one was laughing.” The 12-foot boat shuddered with each rise and fall, sometimes skittering sideways down the swells as the passengers, including Swanson, bailed furiously for four hours.

“It’s a notorious channel, and we knew that,” she says. “But we just sort of pushed our luck.” By the time they reached shore in the inky black of night, Swanson was terrified—but grateful to be alive.

It wasn’t the first time Swanson has gotten herself into a jam for her work, passion, and reason for being: marine conservation. Since she was a kid growing up in San Diego, Swanson has free dived with sea lions, sailed along the coast of California, and surfed near otters and whales. Over the years, her love for surfing and other ocean sports inspired a deep commitment to scientific research and advocacy, which has propelled her across the globe.

After college, Swanson studied chimpanzees in Uganda and whale sharks in the Seychelles. In 2010, when several of her San Diego surfer friends came down with bacterial infections from polluted water, she won a National Geographic Young Explorer grant to trek the length of the San Dieguito River and study sources of runoff. Her photographs and stories about the watershed brought public attention to the tapped-out resource.

After working as a photojournalist for six years, she earned a master’s degree in coastal management from Duke University, traveling to the Philippines to study mangrove restoration.

This year, she embarked on her Ph.D. at Stanford University in marine conservation while leading one of her biggest projects yet, an investigation of the global aquarium fish trade with three other National Geographic Young Explorers: biologist Andrea Reid, aquatic conservationist Mikayla Wujec, and aquarium hobbyist and researcher Caleb Kruse.

For me, research is another form of adventure.
Shannon Switzer Swanson Adventurer of the Year Honoree

The project was inspired by a concern among marine conservationists that the 2016 movie Finding Dory might send fans in a rush to pet stores to purchase blue tangs like the title character, Dory, whose voiceover is performed by Ellen DeGeneres. (After the movie Finding Nemo debuted in 2003, many fans snapped up clownfish.)

While clownfish can be raised in captivity, blue tangs are generally harvested from the wild. A surge in demand for blue tangs, conservationists worry, could deplete reefs over the years. Another problem: Some fishermen use cyanide to stun the fish, then scoop them up from the seafloor, a practice that can hurt other fish species and compromise water quality.

“I was fascinated by this idea that a Disney movie could spark an increase in interest in this little-known fish all the way across the world,” says Swanson. With her research partners, she wanted to dig deeper into the hidden impacts of such an interest—and explore the fish trade at large. “There are 1,700 species in the aquarium fish trade—how does that impact the wild population? And not only that, how is it influencing people who depend on this market for their livelihood?”

In June and July, the team went to Philippines and Indonesia to track blue tangs from home aquariums back to their native habitat, a journey of thousands of miles from the United States to the farthest atolls of the South Pacific’s great island chains. What they found was a world far more complex and exciting than they bargained for. Next year, a film documenting the journey, by filmmaker Justin DeShields, will debut.

Adventure: In tracking this supply chain, have there been any great surprises?

Swanson: We didn’t realize how complex the chain would be. The fish go from the individual harvesters that collect them to a local middleman to a regional middleman and then to the national exporter. Then from there, these fish travel 13,000 miles, farther than the middlemen and the harvesters likely will ever travel. They either go to the U.S., the largest market, or Europe, the second largest. Increasingly they go to China and Hong Kong. And then from the import side, the fish go from the major importer to a wholesaler then to a regional salesperson then to your retail pet store, then to someone’s home.

Wow. So what were some of the challenges in documenting this journey?

We definitely ran into some issues in Indonesia because we were there at the end of Ramadan and for a week [everything was shut down]. The other challenge we didn’t anticipate was: We knew Bali was the hub of the export chain, but we didn’t realize that the main harvesting locations are much farther out in Indonesia—much farther off the beaten bath.

The rest of the team had to leave, and I was on my own for the last two weeks. I ended up having to go fly out to central Sulawesi, take a five-hour car ride, a six-hour boat ride, another boat ride to a boat off the coast of central Sulawesi, and then I realized that even then they weren’t harvesting the blue tang. I met a middleman there but his harvesters were another nine hours away. When I got there, the harvesters still went another three hours out to where their primary spot was!

So what was it like being that far out in the atolls of Indonesia?

The harvesters, they’re actually the Bajau who used to be nomadic and they were forced by the Indonesian government to settle down in a village. So they live on houses over the water. That’s a really interesting impact on the resources, of course—they’re no longer roving around. I stayed in one of the fishermen’s homes in this stilt house that was absolutely stunning.

You could see the ocean under your feet through the floorboards, and the reflection from the water sparkled up and splashed on the walls. To keep fish fresh—or if they wanted to keep them until they were a larger size—they would put them under their house in these sort of net pens, so there were all these fish under the floorboards.

Like an increasing number of environmentalists, you believe it’s important to come up with solutions to resource issues that not only conserve wildlife but also consider the well-being of people, too. We know that the fish suffer in this trade, but what are the risks for people?

One interesting thing about the way they harvest these fish is they’re on hookah [a system in which divers breathe through hoses attached to an air compressor on the surface]. It was hard for me to free dive to 30 or 40 feet and still hold everything well enough to film, so I tried to hop on one of their hookah lines. While I was on it with them, a hole busted in the compressor. All of the sudden I couldn’t really breathe. There was a little bit of oxygen, but it really highlighted the danger that they face.

It’s quite a dangerous trade because they are on hookah and they’re out in the middle of nowhere and it’s very unreliable—I heard about a lot of leaks and failures. Also the fishermen aren’t trained in taking a safety stop to avoid getting the bends [a serious condition caused by an accumulation of gas bubbles in the bloodstream and tissues from a sudden change in pressure].

As you prepare to release your film and a website with an interactive map detailing the aquarium trade in 2017, what message are you hoping to convey?

We’re trying to have a counter narrative to this dominant conservation view of “the aquarium fish trade is bad and just make it stop.” We would encourage people to just learn more about the chain itself and understand the complexity of it. There are a lot of people who are involved in it and are impacted by the aquarium trade. And if we stop the trade—that is the goal and that is the current voice from the conservation community—there are people like the harvesters who will have to fill that void with something else. That will likely be another marine resource that might be managed less sustainably. It’ll have its own impacts.

If you want to have an aquarium—they can help people care about the ocean who wouldn’t otherwise—then it should be done in a sustainable, transparent way so that people interested in being hobbyists really understand exactly where their fish are coming from and how the fish are caught. If people know that there is an option to catch the fish more sustainably and that it makes all these differences in the lives of the people catching them—and also in the survival rate of the fish being harvested—and they demand that, it can drive market certification.

How did you go from a lifestyle built around playing in the water to using your sailing, diving, and surfing skills to study and preserve oceans?

I think I have an extra dose of curiosity. There are obvious forms of adventure and exploration that are about going out into new territory and the adrenaline of trying new extreme sports. I value those forms of adventure, but there are also other forms.

For me, research is another form of adventure, a way for me to express that curiosity of the mind and to really understand how we can address conservation issues in a thoughtful way—a way that isn’t going with the obvious solution that may have unintended consequences. And there’s the old adage, you answer one question and there’s 10 more.

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