You were instrumental in writing a petition that helped convince the U.S. government to ban all fishing in Arctic waters. Tell us how that came about.
I honestly can't take very much personal credit; I worked with partnering scientists, researching, drafting, and editing the petition. However, the petition and the movement was a truly massive undertaking. Oceana, Audubon Alaska, The Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group partnered with scientists, local Arctic communities, and fishermen to call for a science-based, precautionary approach before any industrial fishing activities are allowed to expand into the Arctic Ocean.
Why is this ban on fishing so important?
Melting sea ice and a northward expansion of fish populations increases the likelihood that commercial fishing will expand into the Arctic. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council's decision to close nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. Arctic waters to fishing will prevent such an expansion unless and until science shows that commercial fishing would not threaten the health of Arctic ecosystems or opportunities for the subsistence way of life crucial to local communities. The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to approve the Council's decision and issue final regulations to protect the Arctic later this year, after a public comment period. Swift approval by the Obama Administration will place the United States in a leadership role in Arctic conservation, and will send a very important signal to other countries with Arctic territory and other fisheries management bodies around the globe.
You earned a master's degree in fisheries science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. What got you excited about that discipline?
I was looking for a field in applied conservation biology, and in its purest, non-politicized form that is what fisheries science is (however in reality it is never really possible to take the politics out of the equation). A big part of the program is modeling populations, and finding the maximum sustainable yield, that level at which the maximum number of fish can be caught while still sustaining the population. It is a field that recognizes that people are part of the ecosystem rather than separating us and the natural world, and is the vehicle for sustainable resource use.
Tell us about your work as a consultant for Oceana (an organization that works to protect and conserve marine systems).
I started working as a consultant for Oceana in May 2008. My job specifically is to identify the most important ecological areas of the Alaskan Arctic. These are areas that have distinguishing characteristics or contribute disproportionately to an ecosystem's health. However Oceana is a fast moving dynamic organization, so I often work on other projects, including the Petition to close the Arctic to Commercial Fishing; a petition to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act; working with local communities to map and document important subsistence areas; and many and varied campaigns working against offshore oil development, which is one of the most potentially disastrous activities that one could do in the area.
This is a very exciting time to be working in the Arctic. Climatic regimes are changing extremely rapidly worldwide, and this is doubly true in the arctic. Loss of sea ice, especially in the summer months is dramatically and fundamentally changing the ecosystem. It is also one of the least understood, and most important marine ecosystems in the world. In a changing climatic regime it is especially important to protect these areas, especially in the Arctic where we know so little about the ecosystem.
What's the most satisfying aspect of your job?
I get to take all the biological information collected by hundreds of other people and put it to practical conservation use. It is a great feeling, standing on the shoulders of giants to accomplish something big.
What's one thing you would like your fellow Earlham alumni to know about our oceans?
We know more about the moon than we do about our Oceans. Yet the world's oceans directly support the majority of our population, and indirectly support all life on earth. The oceans are now in great peril, and the potential repercussions of collapse are catastrophic. By furnishing effective and practical means for transforming heat into work, the scientific discoveries of the last two centuries have provided increasingly efficient and large-scale methods for converting natural resources into economic wealth, fueling rapid population growth that has dramatically increased our environmental impacts, directly and indirectly. As on land, these direct impacts take a host of forms, including overfishing and substrate damage by trawling, increasing hazards of derelict fishing gear, impacts from oil spills and coastal pollution from land runoff, etc. These impacts have put unprecedented stress on marine ecosystems, with many near or in the midst of collapse. These stresses are now being compounded by even larger indirect impacts from fossil fuel combustion that almost guarantee a biological mass extinction.
By igniting the most accessible stores of reduced carbon available, we catalyze the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that took eons to remove following the advent of photosynthesis. In the process, we are returning the planet's surface to the warmer states characteristic of the last several hundred million years. We are also making the ocean more acidic as the atmospheric carbon reacts with water in the surface layer to form carbonic acid. While these acidic oceans and warmer surface temperatures sustained rich and diverse ecosystems on land as well as in the sea in the geologic past, these ecosystems did not include any of the members of our genus, much less our species.
The good news is that it is not yet too late, if we act quickly, there is still time to retain most of the character of the world's oceans familiar to past generations. But the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.
A lot of kids want to go far way from home and family when they head to college, but you chose Earlham even though your parents are Brent Smith and Nancy Taylor. What drew you to Earlham?
It is a funny story. Growing up I never planned to go to Earlham, I always thought of it as a wonderful institution, but it was known, it was home, and I wanted to get away. I ended up coming to Earlham as a compromise with my parents. I could drop out of high school, but only if I went to Earlham for the first year of college. Once I came to Earlham I realized that that "compromise" was a real boon, not a compromise at all. Earlham, as a student was a completely different animal than I thought it would be. Attending Earlham was one of the absolute best experiences in my life, and gave me opportunities, skills, and experiences I don't think could have gotten anywhere else.
What's something that surprised you about Earlham even though you grew up around the College?
The student-faculty, and the student-student interactions. Growing up around Earlham was very different than attending it as a student. As a kid, I knew faculty as family friends. Being a student gave me the opportunity to interact with people I had known all my life in a very different context. It made me realize that not only are the faculty wonderful people, but they are gifted and enthusiastic teachers.
What's something your former classmates would be surprised to know about you?
I've become an avid hunter. It was never something I thought I would do, but once we moved to Alaska, it just seemed to come with the territory, I guess it is just part of the frontier, living off the land ethos.
What's your idea of a great day off?
It would pretty much be last Sunday: backcountry skiing with the dog in the morning, fishing for King salmon in the afternoon, then seeing world class theater at night. That is the wonderful thing about living in Juneau; you can do all those things in a day.
What does the future hold for you?
Who can say? I hope to continue working in the Arctic conservation biology field, living in southeast Alaska, and playing a lot. Elizabeth Johnston '04 and I are planning on buying some land and building a yurt next summer once she has finished law school.
- Jonathan Graham
(Posted June 3, 2009)