Guarding the Coral Reefs like a Moray Eel: Interview with Rick MacPherson

I had great fun meeting Rick MacPherson last summer in San Francisco, so I was very happy that he could come to the second Science Blogging Conference in January where he co-moderated a panel on Real-time blogging in the marine sciences. Do not miss out on reading his blog Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real World job?
Aloha, Bora, and thanks for the opportunity to chat. I’m on the Big Island of Hawaii as I write this. I’m checking-in on one of our coral reef conservation projects here. When I’m not blogging, my day job is directing all of the site-based conservation programs with the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL). I’m a marine ecologist by training and did my undergrad years at Roger Williams College (now a university) in Bristol, Rhode Island. I loved it. Class sizes were small, professors were committed to teaching, questions were encouraged, and there was plenty of hands-on, field-based learning. I think it was that early exposure to field work that got me hooked as a field biologist. Though I suspect if you asked my family, they would say that my roots in field work started a lot earlier. As a child, I was notorious for heading out into the woods and streams near our home in Northeast Pennsylvania early in the morning and not returning until late in the day. I’d have pockets filled with rocks and fossils, jars of beetles, caterpillars, or frogs, and lots of scrapes and muddy clothes. Not a lot has changed.
I bounced around quite a bit after grad school trying a lot of different field-based marine science gigs, from co-managing a field station for a season in Jamaica to leading ecotourism trips as a naturalist. I even had a 3-year stint as a columnist for a New England newsweekly on queer culture. About 10 years ago, I packed-up and moved from the east coast to San Francisco, California and it’s been the best decision of my life. California was the stomping ground of my marine bio idol Ed Ricketts, and moving here was a life-long dream come true. I eventually found myself as a lecturer and Ocean Science Specialist for UC Berkeley and curriculum developer for the Lawrence Hall of Science. But I missed the field and the hands-on experiences that got me excited about science in the first place. Lucky for me, I was contacted about an opening with the Coral Reef Alliance to lead their conservation programs. It was serendipity and I’ve never been happier.
Tell us more about the Coral Reef Alliance, what does it do, and what do you do there.
CORAL is a member-supported, non-profit organization, dedicated to protecting the health of coral reefs by integrating ecosystem management, sustainable tourism, and community partnerships. The best defense we have against coral reef destruction are marine protected areas (MPAs). But when you look at the 1100 or so coral reef MPAs out there, most are failing to meet their conservation objectives. We wanted to know why, so we did a very comprehensive gap analysis, asking MPA managers a series of questions. Their answers clustered around several common themes: Lack of capacity to reach out to local communities and tourism sectors, lack of sustainable financing, lack of trust from stakeholders, inadequate training to do their work. We then looked at what a small, nimble NGO like CORAL could provide to fill those gaps and our conservation methodology began to form. We began working with communities to identify and solve local conservation challenges. We change attitudes and behavior through education and training. Our programs provide technical and financial resources to strengthen marine protected areas. And unlike many conservation NGOs that avoid working with the private sector, we see marine tourism providers (diving, snorkeling, or boating businesses) as a force to leverage increased reef stewardship. So we create meaningful incentives for sustainable tourism. We’ve found that achieving these goals translates into measurable gains in reef resilience and MPA effectiveness.
As Director of Conservation Programs, I’m responsible for pulling together the best teams I can find for our projects along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, and our Pacific projects in Hawaii, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. While I wish more of my time could be spent in the field, most of my energies go into grant writing to continue to grow our programs and increase the scale of our impact. I’m also a big believer in monitoring and evaluation of program effectiveness which is something that is always a challenge to demonstrate. There are a lot of workshops, trainings, meetings, publications, and all sorts of busy-looking activities that a conservation NGO does. But at the end of the day, how is the natural resource (lake, stream, coral reef, fishery, etc.) better off because of this activity? That’s one of the most challenging yet exciting aspects of my work… quantifying conservation impact.
What is the idea behind dumping iron into the ocean and why it turned out to be a bad idea in the end?
The whole iron dumping scheme is yet another example of what happens when bad or inadequate science meets “get rich quick” mentality. Essentially, the idea behind one such iron dumping company, Planktos, is that the ocean can be a much greater carbon sink for excess atmospheric CO2 if we could somehow increase primary productivity in the ocean (that is, get more phytoplankton to metabolize CO2 through photosynthesis). But to boost phytoplankton blooms, you need to add something to the ocean that is limiting the growth of plankton in the first place, in this case iron. So dump some iron into the ocean, plankton blooms, CO2 is depleted in that area of the ocean, and more atmospheric CO2 can “sink.” But wait, there’s more. It also had the added notion of offering consumers an easy out of their carbon guilt by offering shares in the iron dumping as “carbon credits.” I’m just dubious in general of attempts to make people feel better about their global impacts without actually asking anyone to change the behaviors that are unsustainable in the first place. Anyway, I was more of an armchair skeptic and detractor during the whole iron dumping fiasco a few months back. Craig over at Deep Sea News and Miriam at The Oyster Garter systematically dismantled the whole Planktos agenda. They ultimately folded, which I suppose means somewhere out there is a big pile of rusting iron in someone’s back yard.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
My answer today hasn’t changed from the answer I gave when I was 10… I want to be a marine biologist. And here I am. I’m just one of those very fortunate (or obsessive) individuals who succeeded in following his dream. But I can honestly say that I became a scientist despite my education. In retrospect, science was taught very badly, if at all, in my elementary years. Despite the abysmal science instruction, I was still so completely in love with science, nature, and science writing that it didn’t matter. I knew every shark species, watched every Jacques Cousteau special, read The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson… you name it. I had at least half a dozen “experiments” going on around the house at any given time. In high school as a young and somewhat shell-shocked queer in the late 70’s, I was too busy trying to survive and stay relatively invisible and just get through the ordeal to focus much on my academics. Still, I loved science and remained committed to following-through with a career in marine biology despite anything my guidance counselors suggested.
Once I made it to college, I knew I could finally get to take the classes I’d been waiting for all my life: marine zoology, invertebrate zoology, botany, developmental bio. It was great. And while the early 80’s was still somewhat of the Dark Ages for being a young, shy queer man, I got a chance to at least meet other equally tentative gay and lesbian students and find some safety in numbers.
I’ve been really encouraged by all the gay and lesbian student science groups that have formed on campuses nationwide. It’s tough enough dealing with the course load in a science program. Having a support and sounding board to deal with the social complexities of queer life is a great thing. If I ever get tired of my blog, I may need to start one called “Queered Science” to explore those intersections of science and GLBT perspectives.
What’s with the fascination with Moray Eels?
Yeah, the morays. My weekly feature, That’s a Moray Monday, got started as sort of a whim. I was trying to think of a regular, recurring feature that could give a different take on my work with coral reefs and maybe allow people to see reefs through a different lens. I wanted to focus on something big and charismatic that might appeal to those readers who aren’t particularly moved by coral polyps, sea fans, or mantis shrimps. I suppose there are more cuddly reef megafauna I could have chosen (dolphins, manta, turtles), but there’s something just right about the moray that I can sort of empathize with. They aren’t an “out-there, in-your-face” reef species. It takes some time to find them. They have a certain calm dignity. And they’re obliged to mind their own business if you simply return the favor. But piss them off and they come at you all fists and elbows… except without the fists and elbows but numerous sharp, bacteria-laden teeth.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I can’t recall when I first discovered science blogs. My own exploration into blogging began about a year and a half ago. I launched my blog, Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets, as an online journal of my travels. It seemed a lot more convenient than the many paper journals that I carried around, and at least I wouldn’t lose yet another journal because of a swamped boat or due to a spilled Mai Tai.
I’m a big fan of many of the Sciblings, but I must admit that of late I’ve been really impressed by some of the science and nature blogs coming out of SouthEast Asia. I’m hampered by what I can read in english of course, but there are some great photo and journalistic nature blogs from Singapore that provides a different take on the blog experience. I’m very curious about more science blogs that may be coming out of China, but due to either translation issues or internet censorship we aren’t seeing yet.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
I want to thank you and Anton for arranging the snow and freezing rain. It’s been 10 years since I had seen snow, so it was a welcome addition and added to the un-conference feel.
I got to meet some of my ocean blogging colleagues which was just fantastic. Peter from Deep Sea News, Jennifer from Shifting Baselines, Kevin from The Other 95%, Jason from Cephalopodcast, and Karen from The Beagle Project Blog. In addition, I thought the sessions on increasing interactivity on your blog and open access efforts in Serbia were thought provoking and boundary pushing. I was unfortunately dealing with some work-related problem solving during the conference so got pulled away from the evening events, much to my frustration since one of the big motivations to come to North Carolina was to have a few beers with my peers.
I’ve gone on the record as being critical of the Changing Minds Through Science Communication: A Panel on Framing Science session. It seemed to be the least un-conference moment of the whole un-conference event and more of a platform for Science Debate 2008. Which is all fine, I suppose, but I traveled a long way to get short-shrifted with what I perceived as a rather average panel discussion/keynote. Chris Mooney was very nice eye candy, though, so it wasn’t a total loss.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview.
Always a pleasure, Bora, and thanks for the opportunity.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


6 responses to “Guarding the Coral Reefs like a Moray Eel: Interview with Rick MacPherson

  1. Great interview! Now I’m off to check out Rick’s blog…

  2. Great interview Bora and Rick! But I thought I was the eye candy?!
    I just want to concur with Rick that there are some fabulous Indo-Pacific bloggers coming up like The Annotated Budak, as Rick notes, but also The Saipan Blog and The Saipan SCUBA Diving Blog.

  3. kevin…
    candy is dandy, but ocean beefcake is best…

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