Q&A: Shannon Swanson, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year

Dec. 1, 2016, 11:51 p.m.

Shannon Swanson was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for her work in photography and marine conservation. A Ph.D. student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Swanson studies fishing practices and sustainability in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with a focus on finding realistic solutions to problems facing the planet’s oceans.

The Daily spoke with Swanson regarding her views on marine conservation, aquarium fish trade and her current research.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How do you define marine conservation, and why do you do it?

Shannon Swanson (SS): The reason I care about the ocean at all is because I grew up next to it in San Diego and developed a love for it in a very physical way: by being able to go out and surf and being around dolphins and whales that would come by… Then, that evolved to understanding and realizing that there are a lot of complex issues surrounding the ocean that need to be addressed [related to] human health and livelihood… I’ve always loved wildlife for the sake of wildlife. I think as far as caring for it and inspiring people to care for it, it’s a much stronger argument when people understand how their health is directly tied to the health of the ocean and other animals on this planet… For me, it’s about taking care of ourselves as much as it is taking care of the environment that we inhabit.

TSD: How does your work with photography and in academics here at Stanford address these larger issues?

SS: It’s been really fun to come back to school because not only am I able to really gain an expertise and a deep understanding of social and ecological issues [but] I’m also able to use the power of images to tell the story of the data that I’m collecting… So I see [photojournalism and my academic work] as being very hand-in-hand and not mutually exclusive, which has been a nice surprise because I didn’t think that that was necessarily possible.

TSD: What is your research focus at Stanford?

SS: I’m still sorting out my specific thesis, but [my project] on the aquarium fish trade was actually started by a grant from National Geographic… This aquarium fish project stemmed from a growing public interest in the movie “Finding Dory,” and a concern that like “Finding Nemo” did for the clownfish, it would drive up sales of the blue tang and deplete the wild population. The impetus was wanting to understand what [it would mean] to drive up the demand for these fish and where [they are] being harvested from. How do they make it from these really remote reefs to the U.S. or Europe? I think that now, having been on the ground working for this grant, some aspects of [this work] are going to morph into my thesis for my Ph.D.

TSD: What is the aquarium fish trade and why are you interested in studying it?

SS: [Harvesters] are trying to keep these caught fish alive, which is really unique [to this industry], and then a middleman sells to an export facility … and then the export facility sells hundreds of thousands of fish and sends them out to foreign countries… One of the biggest issues is that for a long time they were using cyanide… They were using it to stun the fish to make it easier to catch them in larger quantities, but it is very indiscriminate because it stuns every single fish. It leads to a higher mortality rate, and it’s bad for both human health and that of the reef… There’s a new subset of fishermen that have transitioned to more sustainable net fishing, and I want to understand why they have transitioned … to understand how we can transition all of them to a more sustainable form of harvesting.

TSD: What is your stance on the long-term continuation of the aquarium fish trade?

SS: There is this extreme way of looking at it and saying [that] we should stop the trade [and] make it illegal … and I think that there is a place for that view, but I think that it is not very productive and not very realistic… Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction and trying to shut it down, [we should] look at what we can do to make it more sustainable and also realize that if we were to shut it down, the people that harvest the fish would be most hurt by that. They would have to fill the void of that income with something else.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Nic Fort at nfort ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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