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Empower people to make ‘smart decisions’ with science: US science envoy Jane Lubchenco visits Seychelles

Victoria, Seychelles | August 3, 2015, Monday @ 13:54 in Editorial » THE INTERVIEW | By: Hajira Amla | Views: 5970
Empower people to make ‘smart decisions’ with science: US science envoy Jane Lubchenco visits Seychelles

Dr Jane Lubchenco, a U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean, was recently in the Seychelles on a three-day visit after visiting South Africa and Mauritius (Patrick Joubert, Seychelles News Agency) 

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When introduced to Dr Jane Lubchenco, my first thought was that she was dressed a little warmly for the cloyingly sticky humidity of the tropics. Pinned upon her woolen cardigan was a clue to suggest that I was indeed in the presence of one of the most highly cited marine biologists in the world - a beautiful sea turtle brooch.

Her collection of marine-themed brooches, one always displayed proudly on her lapel, are a constant reminder of this accomplished scientist’s enduring connection to the ocean.

Dr Lubchenco was in the Seychelles last week on official business - the United States’ Science Envoy for the Ocean spent three days in the Indian Ocean archipelago of 115 islands after visiting South Africa and Mauritius and was given an official reception on Wednesday evening to meet with members of the scientific community, NGOs and other representatives of civil society.

The respected environmental scientist, who formerly headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2009 to 2013, is currently a professor and faculty member at Oregon State University.

Aside from the official reception, SNA and another member of the local press attended an informal lunch on Thursday at a restaurant on Eden Island, a reclaimed island development situated close to the coastline of the Seychelles main island of Mahe, to get to know more about Dr Lubchenco and her visit to the archipelago of 90,000 people.

On a tight schedule before jetting off back to the U.S. that same afternoon, Dr Lubchenco took the time to explain her extensive experience of using science to preserve the environment, and explored the many possibilities for sharing scientific knowledge between her own country and the Seychelles.

At her official reception on Wednesday evening, Dr Lubchenco, accompanied by the United States' Ambassador to Seychelles, Shari Villarosa (pictured centre), met government officials such as the Seychelles Minister for Foreign Affairs and Transport, Joel Morgan and a wide variety of other stakeholders (pictured left) (Patrick Joubert, Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY

Can you explain a little about what you have been doing over the last three days in Seychelles?

Everyone has been very warm, very welcoming, we’ve had an opportunity to meet a lot of people and also get out and see some of the magnificent biodiversity, both on land and a little bit in the water. We went out to Cousin [Island] yesterday, and that was very special. [We went] to see some of the restoration sites on land and learn about the coral restoration that’s been happening under the water. It really shows what good things can happen when people really put their minds to it, and work together over a sustained period of time to bring back areas that have been degraded and restore endangered species.


What exactly is an Ocean Science Envoy?

This is a new position for the United States. The U.S. has long believed in science diplomacy, but in 2009, President Obama announced the creation of a new formal science envoy programme, and there are typically three to four a year, and most of those other science envoys are assigned to a country or a group of countries.

This is the first U.S. science envoy for the ocean. I am a private citizen, I work for a university, but my travel is organised by the State Department to do science diplomacy around ocean issues. This is my first trip; I have been to South Africa, Mauritius and Seychelles.


Why choose this region for your first trip?

Because this part of the world is very important to the United States, and there is keen interest in the ocean, and thinking about what lies ahead, how can we be smart about using the ocean without using it up. There are things happening where scientific information can help guide decisions and help us understand the choices ahead that different types of exploitation, different types of combining exploitation and conservation, especially because climate change and ocean acidification are changing the landscape and the seascape. We need to be smart about what’s happening so that we can make smarter decisions.


You say that this region is important to the US - in what sense?

For multiple reasons - the president [Barack Obama] has been in Africa recently, he has been making strong statements about the importance of our relationships, about empowering people, especially empowering young people, and so one of my messages has been parallel to that: empowering young scientists, growing new scientific capacity, so that nations like Seychelles that have wonderful traditions and a wonderful potential future can take full advantage of having their own scientific capacity to make the smart decisions.


School of yellow snappers 40m deep, at shark bank, Mahé, Seychelles (Olivier Roux/Flickr) Photo License: CC BY-NC 2.0

So after your visit there will be follow-up efforts to strengthen scientific diplomacy and cooperation?

This is an initial scoping visit. Following this, we will take stock of what we’ve learned - we’ve been listening and learning, and sharing some information from experiences elsewhere around the world to inform governments, NGOs, industry, about ocean issues. We’ll take stock of everything we’ve learned, and we’ll be planning a return visit to enhance some collaborative opportunities around scientific capacity building.

[We’ve spoken to] civil society, government agencies, industry. We had a reception last night [Wednesday] and there were a lot of people… there were folks from the University of Seychelles who were there, so we have touched on as much as we can in such a short period of time, with all of those different important stakeholders.


What has struck you about Seychelles, about potential avenues of capacity building?

I think there is a lot of interest - obviously, this is an island nation, and it has a long tradition and respect for the ocean. But there’s also been I think a recognition of the vulnerability for example of corals to warmer waters, to big storms.

Especially in light of climate change and ocean acidification, this is a very dynamic time, so if we want to use the ocean without using it up, we want to explore new opportunities for development, we need to do it in a thoughtful way, and that means having scientific information, so that has sort of been a theme throughout all of our conversations; what is the information that we need to make smart decisions, how do we get it, how can we partner, how can we encourage young people, and how can the public enhance the political will of people in power to make changes that would be using the ocean in a smart way?

I have long believed that science needs to be more accessible to the public and to policy makers, and to business leaders, it’s not science locked up in an ivory tower, it’s science that is accessible, and it empowers people.


Empowering people begins with education doesn’t it?

That’s exactly right. Science education for young people is critically important, but it is a challenge in many countries. Kids are naturally curious - they ask why, why, why? But if those why questions are a threat to teachers or parents, then that natural curiosity is suppressed, so we really need to encourage children to be the natural scientists that they are, to experiment, to try different things and formalise that.

The [U.S.] Ambassador [to Mauritius and Seychelles, Shari Villarosa] has been promoting a programme called GLOBE, that is a programme with NASA that has been very successful in many different countries to give schoolchildren a hands-on inquiry-based learning where they can take measurements, let’s say of the weather, and then upload those to the web, connect with other schoolchildren from many other places around the world and say “this is what we’re finding, what are you finding?”

To encourage that curiosity, to encourage young children to go into science, I think would be a truly sustainable future.


Endangered hawksbill turtles are a relatively common sight around the inner islands of the Seychelles archipelago, where mothers come to nest (Save Our Seas Foundation, Rainer von Brandis) Photo License: CC-BY 3.0

Our Vice-President Danny Faure has recently called for a ‘vulnerability index’ to be developed for small island developing states, is that something you would be in favour of?

My work here is really as a science diplomat, and how politicians choose to evaluate what they’re doing is not for me to say. I would certainly say that as we are thinking about vulnerability in any dimension, whether it’s social, economic, environmental, that understanding of vulnerability needs to be informed by good scientific information.


From what you have seen of the coral reef restoration on Cousin Island - can Seychelles help other countries such as the U.S. with the looming El Nino event in the Pacific and Atlantic?

The reef die-offs that happened here have been a result of sustained really warm water, and we’re going to be seeing more and more of those, not just with El Ninos but as the ocean continues to warm. The protocols that have been created here by Nature Seychelles to restore reefs are wonderful models to be exported to other parts of the world to do reef restoration.

It’s not an easy thing to do, and they have experimented and been very creative in figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, but they’ve also been very smart about thinking how can we do it in a way that is as cheap as possible and as time-efficient as possible, so that you actually can scale it up. There are many little boutique projects around the world. The restorations that are happening are not at the scale that are needed, and so to figure out how to scale up is the real challenge.

The other thing that we are learning though is that reefs that are super-healthy are less susceptible to bleaching, and if they bleach they recover faster, so a very smart climate adaptation strategy is to protect areas, and I mean fully protected; so no extractive activities, and that protection can create healthy ecosystems, whether it’s for sea-grass or coral reef or mangroves, or a large area that couples all of those together. Those healthy areas then are going to be more resilient; they will resist change and they will bounce back, and we have good evidence that that is true for some of the large fully-protected areas and coral reefs for example in the Pacific.

So we’re trading scientific information around how do we have a healthy ocean, especially in light of the pending changes, environmental changes but also social and economic changes that are demanding more from the ocean.


Seychelles will soon start drilling for oil in the coming years - given what you have seen and experienced in the past, do you think that this is a good idea for one of the most pristine places left in the world?

When I was the head of NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), I had to help with the very significant response to the horrendous oil spill disaster we had in the Gulf of Mexico - the Deepwater Horizon disaster - in 2010. So I have seen firsthand some of the damage that can be caused when something goes awry with oil operations in the ocean.

We still do not know the full range of the impacts on tuna, on dolphins, on sea turtles, on the small animals and plants in the ocean. There are very insidious long-term impacts, for example, when fish are in their very juvenile stages they are particularly susceptible to the hydrocarbon toxins that affect their circulatory system, so they grow with a heart and circulatory system that does not function properly. They can’t swim as fast, they cannot get food as easily, they can’t avoid predators as easily, so there are some very well-documented now, especially with this BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, some real documented impacts, but others we still don’t know.

That information should really introduce a significant note of caution about the pitfalls of drilling and help us understand - if there is a choice to go forward - how to minimise some of the accidents that might happen. But there are so many disasters that have happened, it’s very difficult to say with certainty “there will be no accidents”, and when they happen they can be quite devastating, so it’s something to go into with eyes wide open.


What about the effects of from a scientific point of view, is the jury still out about the effects of drilling on cetaceans?

I think that being precautionary is very appropriate, and in fact, I’m going to make an analogy with another situation that was just agreed upon: I’m going to switch to the Arctic Ocean for the moment, but I’ll come back around to your question. The Arctic nations recently agreed that they would not begin fisheries in the high seas of the Arctic Ocean until there was scientific information that could tell them that they could do so sustainably. Now that’s a very pro-active approach that is very rare in the world of use of oceans.


But drilling is about to start there, isn’t it?

Drilling is starting there. But I’m saying that this is a very innovative and new precautionary approach, and with fisheries around the world, we have historically, most fishing nations have started fishing and then depleted the fisheries, and then they start taking scientific information to figure out what went wrong and how to recover it. Sometimes you can recover and sometimes you can’t.

So it’s much smarter, I believe, before launching a new activity, to have the information to know what impacts it’s going to have and then make an informed decision instead of trying to play catch-up and restoration later. There are very well-known documented impacts of exploration on cetaceans. Some of it is affecting physiology, and some of it is affecting behaviour, and I think that the potential impacts need to be taken into account more strongly than they often are.


NOAA also focused on the restoration of fisheries - is this something that can be shared with Seychelles?

Yes, fisheries are very important in the United States, and despite the best of intentions to fish sustainably, we were really struggling with doing that, and the quotas would be exceeded, we had good stock assessments but they were still overfishing.

We had a law that was passed that said we would end overfishing by 2011, which meant that there would be a fishery management plan in place for every single fishery based on good, scientific information, and the quotas would be based only on the science, we couldn’t say oh, for economic or social or political reasons we need to go a little more - it was only on what the scientists said was sustainable.

If you overfished one year you had to underfish another year, and you had to end overfishing by a particular time - not just end overfishing but rebuild depleted species, and we have seen because of that law, because of the engagement of fishermen in the fishery management plans, and because we have adopted rights-based approaches to fisheries - which we call catch-shares - that combination has resulted in a remarkable turnaround in our fisheries.

I’ll give you some data: I’m going to compare the year 2000 with the year 2014. In the year 2000, we had 92 stocks that were overfished; 14 years later we had 37 that were overfished, so we drastically cut the number of overfished species in just 14 years. Even more impressively, in the year 2000 we had zero stocks that had been previously depleted and rebuilt to the point of them being fished sustainably… by 2014 we had 37 stocks that had been recovered, and they are now producing this bonanza. The number of jobs in the last few years has been increased by 23 percent; profits are up, and there is more fish in the ocean, which is important for ocean ecosystems - so it’s a triple bottom-line win.

Based on that experience, the European Union has now reformed its common fishery policy because they too have struggled with this. So I think the experience of the United States says unequivocally that it is possible to end overfishing… it’s not easy, but it is possible and absolutely worth it from an environmental standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from a coastal community standpoint.

I think the main message from the US’s experience is hope for the future - it’s not just doom and gloom for fisheries, we can actually recreate a healthy ocean if we are serious about it, have the political will and can get over the very difficult transition and get to a better point.

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Tags: El Niño, Shari Villarosa, Barack Obama, science, University of Seychelles, Cousin island, Nature Seychelles, reef restoration, coral reefs, oil exploration

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