Bringing problems to the public and other ways to raise awareness for our oceans

The Source
By: Lucy Frisch, Fri Jun 5 2020
Lucy Frisch

Author: Lucy Frisch

In honor of UN World Oceans Day (8 June), and in collaboration with Oceanic Global, we are excited to launch our new SDG 14 hub, dedicated to life below water. This day is about celebrating the ocean and its importance to the planet and our lives, while raising awareness about the many threats it faces. 

Bernd Würsig is the author of Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Odontocetes (and Academy-Award nominated for an IMAX movie about dolphins!). Learn why he's looking to younger generations and public attention from entertainment (among other things!) to help make real change happen against SDG14.

Oceans Day blog header
How is your institution addressing UN Sustainable Development Goals 14, Life below water?

Texas A&M University's Marine Biology Program in Galveston, Texas, is dedicated to multiple studies and conservation actions of biota: from kelp and seaweeds; to invertebrates, fishes, marine birds, and marine mammals. We believe that the best science will help to energize especially young people to help protect our myriad of ocean problems, with over-fishing, large scale and rapid climate change, and ocean acidification.  We also believe that it is not enough to just do our science — we also need to interpret findings and problems for non-scientists, and therefore we have multiple blogs, out-reach programs, and ways to alert government legislators to problems and potential manners to help fix them.  You can learn more here.

What do you think is the most relevant way to measure success against this goal in your field?

I study the ethology and behavioral ecology of cetaceans — whales, dolphins, and porpoises. These magnificent, generally large-brained mammals that live in our seas, and several mighty world rivers, are upper-level prey consumers that can be used as sentinel species — where they do well, the environment is likely to be relatively healthy; where they do not do well or are significantly changing their ways of feeding, socializing, places where mothers have calves, etc., the environment appears to be (and probably is) in grave trouble. It is our effort to a) describe habits and habitats of dolphins and whales, b) analyze changes in behavioral use of habitats, and c) help to interpret such changes for our our readers, ranging from scientists to intelligent non-scientists, hopefully with a strong dose of interpretation to our young people, the next (and the next...) generation.

What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policy makers?

I am not confidently sure.  In my own case, I use the resources of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, as a life-long member and also past President of this now large and effective international society, to bring problems and demands for actions to both US and international regulators.  We, "as a body of scientists", attempt to convince legislators that problems are real, can be solved, and (most importantly for action to proceed) — the solving of environmental problems (overfishing for one!) will help to alleviate other problems, and is thus likely to be the most economically and therefore most feasible solution. 

Another laudable way — but I also do not know how truly effective it can be — is to bring problems to the public and therefore also legislators by simply being public about them. News reports in public media, including movies, are ways.  The movie "The Cove"(2009) highlighted large-scale killing of dolphins and their kin in Japanese drive-fisheries, and while "feel good", may not have totally stemmed the activity, the movie "Blackfish" (2013) about killer whales (orca) in captivity arguably (and probably) helped to stem further widespread use of their capture, training, and fake in-captivity use of them as ambassadors of nature. Public attention helps.

How do you prioritize public engagement and what role does this play in the future of our oceans?

We researchers ("scientists") are not good at interpreting our knowledge relative to the public.  I believe that we can do better, by using science to reach out to the media — news reports, blogs, "Wikipedia" type often-used websites, books and digital outlets geared to youngsters, to reach ever-more people.  A common problem in all of this is that these education attempts reach a rather large audience but reaching is bit like "preaching to the choir". In other words, we reach those people who are already convinced that there are problems and that we (and they) need to find ways to alleviate/reverse those problems.  We are not very good at reaching those "others" who may have have desperate personal problems of their own (Out of a job!  An illness not covered by insurance! A dear loved one just died of COVID-19!). And while all personal and larger-scale problems are bad and in need of solving, the largest problem of all — our overall degradation of the environment — must not be forgotten in the process.

What are the short- and long-term goals of your work?

My goals have dramatically changed since I started research about 50 years ago, on aspects of ethology and behavioral ecology of cetaceans, the whales, dolphins, and porpoises. In the 1970s through 1990s ("then"), my graduate students and I were almost solely focused on learning ever-more about the animals, their behaviors, cultural ways. But, in the 2000s ("now"), we believe it is critically important at all times to put those behaviors into context with the environment, environmental degradation, and potential solutions.  So, both short and long-term goals are the same — to use our expanding and ever-more long-term knowledge of cetacean lives to help make a difference in how those lives are being affected — by humans — and how those effects can be changed with proper actions at all levels, from running a motorboat at too-fast-speed, to oil and gas pollution of that motorboat, to the knowledge that thousands of such boats (and so much else...) contribute to global warming, ocean acidification, reduction in food stocks for us and cetaceans.  These are now our (scientists') absolutely and desperately-needed goals as we attempt to advance into the middle of our century. The most important goal, in my mind, is to reach new generations.  They must do better than "we" (I'm considering myself 1970s to present generations) did.  I apologize for our poor stewardship of Earth including of oceans; despite our pride in learning more about aspects of the Oceans, we did not steward it very well.  I am sorry. 

All our interviews reflect the views and opinions of the interviewees.

Visit our new SDG14 hub to explore the latest content related to life below water.

About Bernd Würsig

Bernd Wuersig
Dr. Bernd Würsig has degrees from Ohio State University (BS, 1971) and Stony Brook University (PhD, 1978); spent 3 years as an NIH/NSF postdoctoral fellow at University of California Santa Cruz (1978-1981), and 9 years going through the professor ranks at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (1981-1989).  He came to Texas A&M University as Professor of Marine Biology in summer 1989.  He is now Regents and University Distinguished Professor (Emeritus since Nov. 2016).  He has taught courses in Marine Bird and Mammal Biology, Marine Vertebrates, Bio-Statistics, Behavioral Ecology of Cetaceans, and Study Abroad courses in Mexico, Greece, and New Zealand.  Würsig has published about 210 peer review papers, chapters, and nine books; and been senior advisor to 70 graduate students and 14 movies on nature interpretation.  He was nominated for an Academy Award for an IMAX movie on dolphins. He, his students, and postdocs have studied marine mammal and sea bird foraging, sexual, and social ecology on all continents, with present work on social strategies of dusky dolphins in New Zealand and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in Hong Kong.  Recent books are The Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Ed. 3 (Senior Editor, 2018), Dusky Dolphins; Master Acrobats off Different Shores (with Melany Würsig, 2010), both Academic/Elsevier; and Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Odontocetes (Springer Nature, 2019).  He and Melany enjoy their gardens in New Zealand, the Arizona desert, and coastal south Texas, three marvelously-different biomes. Website: Wikipedia:ürsig

Lucy Frisch

Author: Lucy Frisch

Lucy Frisch is a Senior Marketing Manager on the Outreach and Open Research team, based in the New York office. She has a passion for storytelling and works to humanize the research published across Springer Nature with a focus on the researcher experience.

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