From time immemorial, the ocean has fascinated us and terrified us. The oceans are still the greatest of mysteries on Earth; we are far from discovering all of its inhabitants, its moods, its currents and behaviour. As humans developed civilisations, every coastal area developed fishing villages, fishing being one of the most basic forms of sustenance, traditions and methods handed down through centuries, through families.
Modern fishing is a different beast altogether. The humble fishing village has changed over time, in some areas, the traditional fisherman loses his trade to huge trawlers. We consume tuna in handy easy to open cans for work lunches, never thinking how many fish are harvested for our convenience, what the effects are on fish populations, but also on the other animals living in the sea. Coral reefs are affected by fishing, by mining, by changes in ocean temperatures. Fish stocks are affected by overfishing and climate change and the lives of countless species are linked in the ocean.
How do we study the effects of climate change, pollution, fishing, shipping and so on on the life of animals in the ocean? This is where our next curator, Dr Marah Hardt comes in. We’re delighted to host Dr Marah Hardt (@MarahH2O) as our next curator on Real Scientists. Marah is the Research Co-Director at the Future of Fish/Flip Labs. Her multidisciplinary life involves research, consultation with various groups on the future of fisheries and ocean ecosystems, and as if that isn’t enough, she’s currently writing a book and communicates science in her spare time! Here’s everything about Marah, in her own words:
For me, science is the art of solving mysteries of nature. I’ve always loved being outside, exploring, and science has been the way of understanding (or at least, trying to understand) all that I was seeing. Science is a way of knowing that requires a balance of the concrete and creative sides of the brain; for progress to happen, we’ve got to think outside-the-box, while at the same time, grounding ideas in testable hypotheses. And it is never-ending. The more we know, the more we find out how much we don’t know. It’s a humbling and inspiring pursuit.
I was doggy-paddling through the ocean before I could walk. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be “a marine biologist.” I took a rather circuitous pathway there, detouring through the field of History of Science in college, but eventually arrived at my doctorate in marine science. But the day after I defended my dissertation, I had a strange realization: I had no idea what “being a marine biologist” really meant. I had dabbled in historical ecology, coral biology, artisanal fisheries management; I had taken courses in modeling, stats, chaos theory, invertebrate biology, evolutionary theory, and marine policy. I had spend hundreds of hours underwater counting fish, corals, and algae. I loved the time in the field, I loved building greater understanding of how ecosystems functioned and responded to change. Unfortunately, most of the change I was documenting was in the direction of decline. Coral reefs are one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. That’s when I really found my niche. I knew that science alone wasn’t enough. To help solve some of the most pressing global challenges of our time—climate change, overfishing, dead zones—required more than just science. The oceans need more science AND they need a voice to tell their stories, AND some seriously innovative problem-solving that expands beyond traditional science into field such as creative finance and design. It’s in this in-between space of science, story, and solution-building that I’ve landed, and I stay there because while the challenges are great, so is the opportunity for effecting real change for the benefit of people and the planet.
My full time work is as the Research Co-Director at Future of Fish/Flip Labs, where we experiment with new ways of solving large, complex problems. We started with trying to untangle the global overfishing crisis, and have identified several levers that we think are both root causes of the problem and also, keys to unsticking the system. These include building transparency and traceability within global supply chains, and shifting seafood from a nameless commodity to “storied fish”—fish that comes with information about its journey from water to plate. I love my work within the organization because I get to dig into the problem in it’s most raw form and start to build the map of where we think there is opportunity for change. Through interviews with experts, field work to shadow innovators “in-action,” and other research, I work with our team to help identify where the system seems to be stuck and which strategies seem to be working most forge success.We then identify opportunities for growing the collective impact of these different innovators in order to shift the system as a whole.
I am privileged to learn from some of the greatest minds in a field, and then, use both the analytic and creative sides of my brains to search for patterns in what is working and what is not, and where there may be room for innovation. I love that the work is focused on the big-picture, how to create change that will shift an entire system. The best part is that although we are tackling some big, thorny problems we engaged with the problem-solvers—those who are successfully gaining traction on a challenge—and help amplify their work. It’s an extremely inspiring and gratifying way to engage in conservation and sustainability work. And, our team simply rocks. My co-workers are some of the smartest, most passionate and compassionate people I know, and constantly push my capacity to think in new ways while embracing my expertise and ideas.
It sounds cheesy, but the truth is, I feel so lucky to have found a niche where I can apply my scientific expertise, my creative energy, and my passion for creating change. Between my writing and my work with Future of Fish, I could not ask for a more fulfilling career path.
My entire career, from graduate studies to my writing and my work at Future of Fish/Flip Labs has focused on bringing forth solutions to ocean challenges. Out of sight to many, and almost certainly out of mind to most, the oceans are woefully under-appreciated for the resources they provide us. Wild fisheries provide the main protein source for over one billion people on the planet. Global ocean circulation is what distributes the heat on the planet: without it, the narrow band of the tropics would be sweltering and the rest of the planet frigid, disrupting major food production. Ocean plankton—the tiny single-celled plants that float through the sea—produce HALF the oxygen we breathe. Coral reefs, oyster reefs, kelp forests—these habitats buffer the coast against storms and erosion.
We depend on healthy oceans for countless resources, and yet, we are impacting them at accelerating rates. The trouble is, the shiny surface of the sea remains the same day after day, masking the damage occurring below. My work seeks to highlight current solutions, as well as help invent new ones, to the most pressing ocean challenges—for the benefit of all.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations??
Obligations is a strong word! Right now, my “external obligation” is my book-writing, which I am doing in the evenings and weekends around my work at Future of Fish. Never an obligation, but certainly an activity, is my family. I’m a mom to an energetic three-year-old, which is the best experiment I’ve ever been a part of.
Whenever possible, I love open-ocean swimming and free-diving; I’m an avid yogi, too. When I have more time on my hands, I love to paint and down the road, hope to play my sax in a big swing band.
A flat-calm morning spent free diving in warm tropical waters, followed by an afternoon alternating between reading a great book and snoozing in the sun, finished off with a fantastic Italian dinner followed by a great movie- out or in.
Please welcome Marah to Real Scientists!