How to Become a Marine Biologist

Illusions and reality: marine biology as a career.

Illusions and reality: marine biology as a career.

When I tell people I am a marine biologist a common response is “I wanted to do that when I was younger!” Among possible careers it is both high on the list of desirability but low on success rate. Why is that? In my experience many people love the ocean, and hence the marine part, but not so much the biology part. Centering your life around the sea and its critters has a certain romance around it — sailing on clear blue seas, playing with dolphins, diving on coral reefs, exploring the deep ocean from a submarine — that draws people in. However true that all my be, marine biology is a scientific discipline, and a competitive one at that, and as such requires a high level of dedication and discipline to plow through years of technical material that may at times seem very remote from those blue seas. There is no big secret per se; anyone can do it but it is not the easiest of careers to tackle successfully. So here is my guide on how to become a marine biologist, which is designed for students of all ages, those thinking about marine biology, those already doing it but having trouble staying the course, and those that may already have their degree but are thinking about going back for more. This tips come from my own experiences as well as my 22 years as a professor in academia teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. These are most certainly my opinions but one formed from seeing 100s of students go on to successful careers in marine biology plus a great many more that didn’t.

Embrace all things ocean. Becoming a marine biologist is a long journey, one that has many twists and turns. What gets you started and where you end up can be very different things. As your journey progresses you have to be open to change, to adapting to your interests and new knowledge. The common denominator is of course the sea and its life. You may start out loving Dolphins but you may end up with a zeal for sea stars. Ultimately it your passion for the ocean and marine life that has to be sustained because it will sustain you. See the ocean in everything you do: biology, chemistry, physics, math, you will enjoy or suffer — your choice — through these classes if you cannot see how they are relevant to getting where you want to go. Trust me, they are all important, but it may not seem like it at the time.  As you move into upper division courses like marine ecology, ichthyology, and invertebrate biology, you will see the relevance and enjoy the rewards of your foundational labors. Hang in there, it gets much better. You can’t foresee where you will end up or what will become important so do your best to master everything: waves, tides, currents, salinity, pH, nitrogen cycles, rates, ratios, differential equations, genetics, physiology, ecology, all are very exciting and highly relevant to understanding the ocean. Learn to love it.


Surveying coral reefs is clearly one highlight of being a marine biologist! Photo courtesy of

Must love science. Marine biology is, after all, a scientific endeavor. If you love marine mammals become a vet; if you love oceanography study the biology, chemistry, geology and physics of the sea; if you love fisheries focus on fish, fisheries, and the politics of fishing; if you love marine life study the biology of living things and their genetics, physiology, behavior, ecology and evolution. Either way the focus is on SCIENCE. If you don’t love science or don’t want to become a scientist then you will fail as a marine biologist. Again, you never know where you will end up so do your best at everything. The good news is that if you decide to change your focus as a science major you still have many doors open to you such as medical school, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, dentistry, teaching, medical tech, etc. Life is a journey but college is both an intellectual journey and challenge, an odyssey, and can be a life changing event. Be open to change because that is what college is all about. Hopefully your ultimate goal is to be happy where you end up more than anything,

Be ready for tons of this. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University.

Be ready for tons of this. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University.

Creativity is key. As much as science is viewed as a left brain endeavor, it is not. Creativity is at the heart of science, and hence in marine biology. Discovery and intuition are key in our search for the truth in nature. For ultimately, we only truly love what we understand. Scientists don’t discover in order to know stuff, they know stuff in order to discover. The famous biologist E.O. Wilson stated that the ideal biologist thinks like a poet but works like a beekeeper. Making observations in nature, in the sea, is inherently difficult, but observations are the key to understanding natural history, which is essential for constructing hypotheses and experimental tests of our ideas. We cast our intellectual thoughts out into the world and see if they hold up. This is inherently a creative process where imagination is more important than memorizing facts. Although facts are essential, being creative in science is a lot more important than you might think.

Skill up. To be successful in a competitive world you need to set yourself apart from others. Most all students that apply to graduate school to work with me have excellent grades, high GRE scores, and tons of research experience. The things that I notice are that extra skill or area of expertise that is unique. This is where those electives or extra effort can pay off. I’m not talking about minors or double majors, honestly most people don’t care about those, me included. It is what you KNOW and can DO that is key. Master statistical analysis and how to model complex data sets, or how to work with geospatial tools and databases; become adept at genetic analyses or the use of new molecular tools; become a scientific diver or learn how to process video transects. The idea here is to build on your other talents and interests to strengthen your already awesome resume in science. Think broadly, be creative, then get experience using your new-found skills. It will pay off.

And this. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University.

And tons of this. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University.

Just do it! Nothing is more impressive than a student that has tons of experience by the time they graduate. Although you may not feel you are a marine biologist as a sophomore in college, you are! So just get out there and show us what you can do. Talk to your professors or that biologist next door and volunteer to help them in the lab or field. Get experience analyzing biological samples or using complex instruments. It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t even have to be marine, but the more hands-on experiences you have the more likely you will succeed. Through these experiences you will learn what you like and what you don’t like which is invaluable for shaping your career choices. Remember college is a journey so be open to change and where it may take you. Book knowledge is important but practice will help pull it all together for you.

Never give up. Determination is required. Science is hard work and there will be times when you will lose momentum, perhaps for years. There are many people who want to be marine biologists so it is competitive. The only way you will not become a marine biologist is by giving up. Of course before you commit yourself to eternal frustration be honest with yourself about your chances. Do you really love marine biology? Do you love science? Are you good at what you do? If you honestly think you are great don’t give up, never give up, and you will succeed. The road is not easy, nothing worthwhile is, but it can be very rewarding.

See my follow up post: How to Become a Marine Biologist: Getting into Graduate School

References and other resources:

Caught Inside: Surfing Nightmares and the Legend of Dickie Cross

Diving under a huge wave at Makaha. Photo by Paul Nicklen

A dream: I am standing on a rocky jetty staring out at the ocean as the sun starts to slide below the water. A large storm is approaching but it is warm and a gentle breeze caresses my body. The waves are huge and rolling in with tremendous power between the two breakwaters jutting out into the sea. The waves are gray and ominous and I feel a sense of dread sweeping over me as I realize that I must swim out to sea. For some reason I must get through these waves. My friends are standing around me, wordless but supportive. I dive in and begin swimming through the strong surge. As the first wave approaches I easily dive down below it and surface on the other side. Swimming stronger I approach the next wave. This one is bigger and again I dive below. After several more waves I see a huge one building on the horizon. I swim quickly towards it, take a deep breath, and dive as deep as I can to get below the wave’s massive power. Under it, in the twilight gray sea, I see dark powerful foam surging down towards me… Shell Beach, California, 1981

I’ve had that dream many times — over and over — and I always wake up shaking. It is a primal fear and one many surfers share. Surfing is an adventure every day but nothing compares to a stair step ocean. As swells build from an incoming storm the arriving swell can build quickly. The nightmare is getting caught out in the ocean as the waves build quickly in size, breaking further and further offshore on deep reefs, pulling you out to sea to the incoming spawn of the storm. Very few things in surfing compare to the helplessness you feel when a large wave breaks on or in front of you. Hopefully you have time and can dive below the maelstrom; if not, your board is brutally ripped from your hands and you are thrown into a washing machine of epic proportions. As you are tossed around like a rag doll time passes underwater and you try to relax and wait it out. If you are unlucky you will be bounced off the reef, or worse, wedged in a crevice on the bottom, further adding to your adventure. Eventually, however, the lack of air forces you to the surface — if you know which direction that is — and you flail around with the hope of heading in the right direction. Most make it back to the surface before another wave comes crashing down, some don’t.

When I was a young surfer I read about the ordeal of Woody Brown and 17-year old Dickie Cross; that of being caught in a stair step swell on the north shore of Oahu in the early days of surfing. It was a gripping tale and one that I never forgot for its nightmare scenario. It is at the core of our fears, of helplessness and struggle in the face of a power greater than ourselves over which we have no control. It is a story of incredible courage and the raw power of the ocean and how insignificant as humans we all are with respect to the might of the sea. I repost this story here from Legends of Surfing to remind us to remain humble and always respect the power of the ocean.


Outer reefs break on the north shore of Oahu.

The Death of Dickie Cross, 12/22/43

This is an account of the death of big wave hawaiian pioneer Dickie Cross, when Woody Brown and Dickie Cross paddled out at big Sunset in 1943, as told by survivor Woody Brown  (see credits below).


17-year old Dickie Cross (right) in 1943. Photo: HOS

On December 22, 1943, Woody and a young friend named Dickie Cross paddled out at Sunset on a rising swell. Up to this time, Sunset had rarely been ridden and it was only Woody’s third or fourth time surfing the North Shore. “My friend and I,” Woody related to me, “we thought, ‘Oh well, it’s winter time.’ There’s no surf in Waikiki at all, see. So, we got bored. You know how surfers get. ‘Oh, let’s go over there and try over there.’ That’s how we got over there and got caught, because the waves were 20 feet.

“Well, that wasn’t too bad, because there was a channel going out, see. The only thing is, when I looked from the shore, I could see the water dancing in the channel, eh? I thought, ‘Uh, oh. Boy, there must be a strong current there, cuz the waves are piling in the bay from both sides,’ causing this narrow channel going out. Then, it opened up. So, we thought, ‘Gee, well let’s just go sit in the channel a little ways from the beach and see how strong the current is. If it’s not too strong, we can paddle back in, then: no worry, eh?’

“So, we did that. We went out. We sat in the channel and it wasn’t too bad. We could paddle in any time. ‘So, OK.’ There were 20 foot waves breaking on each side. We went out to catch these waves and slide toward the channel. The only trouble was, the surf was on the way up. We didn’t know that. It was the biggest surf they’d had in years and years, see, and it was on the way up. Twenty feet was the smallest it was gonna get, but we didn’t know! I mean, it looked good!”

“So, we got caught out there! It kept getting bigger and bigger and, finally, we were sitting in this deep hole where the surf was breaking on two sides and coming into the channel. The channel opened up into this big deep area where we were and the surf would break on two sides and we were trying to catch ’em.

“Then, all of a sudden, way outside in the blue water, a half mile out from where we were — and we were out a half mile from shore — way out in the blue water this tremendous wave came all the way down the coast, from one end to the other. It feathered and broke out there! We thought, ‘Oh boy, so long, pal. This is the end.’ But, we were sitting in this deep hole and so we watched these things come in. The white water was rolling, oh, what — 20 feet of white water, eh? Rolling in and just before it got to us, it hit this deep hole and the white water just backed-up. The huge swell came through, but didn’t break. Oh, boy! Scared the hell out of us! Well, there was a set of about 5 or 6 waves like that. So, after the set went by, we said, ‘Hey, let’s get the hell inside. What are we doing out here? This is no place to be! Let’s get in!'”

“So, we tried to paddle in, eh?” Woody made paddling gestures. “As we came in to this channel, it got narrow in there. We’re paddling and paddling and finally we stopped for a minute to rest and my friend says, ‘Woody, you know where we are, don’t’cha?’ I thought about it and, oh, wow, we hadn’t moved one damn foot. All that paddling and we were right where we were before we started paddling. We couldn’t get in.”

“You have to be very careful of these channels. When the waves get big, the rip current just pours out of there, out of the bay. You can’t get in. Anyway, we didn’t know what to do,” Woody admitted. “So, finally, we decided, ‘Well, there was only one thing to do. We gotta wait until that huge set goes by’ — which is only about every 10 minutes — ‘then, we’ll paddle like hell to get outside of ’em and then paddle down the coast and come in at Waimea.’ When we went by Waimea before we went out, it was only 20 feet. The whole bay was open, right? It was just breaking on the point, more or less. So, we feel, well, we’ll come-in over there; big beach break, there.”

“The only trouble was, it didn’t work that way. By the time we got there, it kept getting bigger and bigger. It went up on the Haleiwa restaurant and it wiped out the road at Sunset. It was the biggest surf they’d had in years and we were stuck out there.” I mentioned to Woody that George Downing swears the waves were 40-foot that day, breaking over a shelf in 80 feet of water, and asked him if he thought the estimate was in there.

Surf lineup at Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii. Outer reef called King's breaking

The outer reef breaks. Photo: Mark Johnson.

“Yeah, I think, easy. On the way down, while we were paddling down to Waimea — we got out OK, past the big sets at Sunset, you know. And so we started to paddle down the coast. This guy who was with me, a young kid — he was only around 17 — he was just a gutsy young guy. One of these guys: all guts and nothing up here; just, ‘ummm.'”

“So, we’re paddling down and he keeps workin’ in! I said, ‘Hey!’ Boy, you know, I’m lookin’ as we’re paddling down and I’m saying, ‘Look, the surf is breaking right along a line where we are, ahead of us and behind. We’re right in the line of this break. We better move out more, yet.'”

“‘Nah, nah, nah! That’s alright.'”

“He wouldn’t move out. I could see we were in a boneyard! So, I pulled and said, ‘Well, I’m gonna move out. Come on!’ I went out about a hundred yards further than him and we paddled down like that, side by side.”

“Then what I was afraid might happen did happen. In other words, a set came where we were — a big, tremendous set. Boy, outside of us there was just a step ladder a far as you could see, going uphill. Oh, man! I scratched for all I was worth… You could paddle 10 paddles and you’re still going up the face of the wave. Oh, wow!”

“I got over ’em — I got over all the sets — and I sat down and looked to see where Dickie was, cuz he was inside of me! Boy, I couldn’t see him because the waves were all in the way. And then, the last wave I saw him come over the top and it was so steep, his board and him just flew in the air and came down on the other side. Then he paddled out to me and I said, ‘Dickie, you think you could have lived through that?'”

“He said, ‘Hell no!'”

“So, then I said, ‘How big do you think these waves are out here?’ We agreed we thought they were 60 feet.


The outer reefs off Sunset beach and Waimea Bay. Aerial photo on the rights shows the nearshore reef, LIDAR map on the left shows the bottom contour of the reefs extending over a mile offshore. Note the deep channel near Sunset Beach where Cross and Brown may have been sheltered from the giant surf. The outer edge of the reef is about 60 feet deep, where 50+ ft. waves may have broken that day. The distance from Sunset to Waimea is about 3 miles.

“Well, then we kept going down the coast, see,” Woody said, entirely engrossed in retelling the tale, “and he was with me. As we got close to Waimea, he starts coming in, again, see. I said, ‘Hey! Hey! No!’ Cuz we had agreed we’d go out in the middle of the bay, where it was safe, and sit there and watch the sets go by and see what it looked like. Then we could judge where to get in and what. But, no! He starts cutting in, and I hollered at him, ‘Hey, hey, don’t go in there. Let’s go out in the middle!'”

“‘Nah!’ ”

“He just wouldn’t pay any attention. It seemed like it was his time; just like something was calling him, you know? Because, look at how he was acting, eh? Even though he had almost got caught and admitted he couldn’t have lived through it, and still he was cutting in, again. It was just like it was his time to go. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, he cut in… as we went up. When we got to the point, there were 20 foot waves breaking there all the time and then these big sets would come every 10 minutes. So, he was going in and I would see him go up over these swells and come back out off the top. The next one would come and he’d disappear and then I’d see him come up over the top and it looked like he was trying to catch ’em. Yeah, that was the only thing I could think of.”

“Finally, one wave he came up over the top, he’d lost his board. ‘Oh, boy,’ I thought, ‘Oh, gee, two of us on my little cut-down board!’ — I’d cut it down — and I was exhausted. ‘Two guys on one board? What chance do we got, now?’ But, I told him, ‘Come out, come out!’ It sounded like he said, ‘I can’t, Woody, I’m too tired.’ That’s what it sounded like. But then, he started swimming out towards me, so I started paddling in to catch him to pick him up on my board.”

“Well, you know, at a time like that, in that kind of big waves… you’re watching outside all the time, right? Your eye’s out there, cuz you never feel safe. So, I’m paddling in and one eye’s out there and one eye’s on him to pick him up. All of a sudden, his eyes see the darn mountains coming way outside in the blue water, just piling one on top of another, way out there. I turned around and started paddling outside for all I’m worth because I figured if I lose that board, too, then what chance do we got? Two guys swimming, eh?”

“My only chance is to save the only board we got. So, I turn around and I’m paddling out and I’m paddling towards the first one coming in and it keeps coming in, getting bigger and steeper and higher and getting a little white on the top. Well, I saw that I just wasn’t gonna make it — you know — it was just cresting already. And so, just as it came to me, I threw my board and just dove down and headed for the bottom. That’s your only chance in a big wave is to get down in the deep water.”

“I could go 30 feet in those days and I got way, way down in that blue, blue water and, boy, I could feel myself being lifted up and drawn back again. I could see the white water boiling down under me and behind me. I’m 30 feet down and the white water’s still boiling 30 feet down! You couldn’t live through that. I was just lucky I was just out beyond it just enough.”

“I got up to the surface. The next one was coming and I swam like hell toward it. Luckily, they broke in the same place and I dove down and got under it; a whole set, about five of ’em. Then, when they went by, I started looking for Dickie, cuz he’s been inside of me. Oh, boy. I hollered and called and looked, swam around, and there was no more Dickie anywhere. It’s getting dark, now, too! The sun’s just about setting.”

“So, I’m swimming and I think, ‘Well, I’m gonna die, anyway, so I might just as well try to swim in, because, what the hell, I’m dead, anyway, if I’m gonna float around out here.'” Woody removed his trunks to reduce drag and then briefly worried about sharks. “Oh, how ridiculous,” he told me. It was questionable whether he was going to live at all, so why worry about sharks?

“There were no surfers on the North Shore in those days. Nobody knew we were out there and there were no boats. I thought, ‘Hell, I’m dead, anyhow. I’ll do what we said. I’ll swim out to the middle of the bay and I’ll wait and watch the big sets go by and after a big set goes by, then I just try swimming and hope to God I can get in far enough that when another big set comes in I’ll be where it isn’t so big and strong.'”

“And that’s what I did. I was just lucky when the first one came. I’m watching it come, bigger and higher and higher and it broke way outside, maybe 4-5 hundred yards outside of me. I said, ‘Well, maybe I got a chance.’ So, I dove as deep as I could go, again, and I just took the beating; a terrible beating… And when I couldn’t stand anymore — black spots are coming in front of my eyes — I just started heading for wherever it looked lightish color. You know, you didn’t know what was up or down. Wherever it looked kind of a light color, it might look like down, but ‘that’s where I’m headed for.’ And I got my head up!”

“So, I figured, ‘Man, if I lived through this one, I got a chance!’ Cuz each one, I’m getting washed in, eh? So, each time I dove a little less deep and I saw it was washing me in.”

I told him I assumed he was facing out, diving into the wave each time.

“Yeah, you’re watching ’em come. Oh, yeah, sure,” he replied. “So that at the last minute, you dive down before it gets to ya.”

“So, they washed me up on the beach. I was so weak, I couldn’t stand up. I crawled out on my hands and knees and these army guys came running down. The first thing I said to them was, ‘Where’s the other guy?’ They said, ‘Oh, we never saw him after he got wrapped up in that first big wave.’ That was their words. ‘Wrapped up in that first big wave.’ I figured from that, this guy [Dickie] had so much guts, he tried to bodysurf the wave. Because, otherwise he would have dove down. Why didn’t he dive down under it? If he got ‘wrapped up’ meant that he was up in the curl, right? How else would you express it? So, I figured he tried to bodysurf in.”

Special thanks to Legendary for this interview

Best Years of Our Life: Pacific Beach 1971

SurfRider71It was the best years of our life
When we were children remember what it’s like
To bring back memories of the good things we once knew
To be right, there’s so much we gotta do.

— Iron Butterfly, Best Years of Our Life, Metamorphosis

▲ click to hear the music ▲

Listening to Iron Butterfly transports me to the back of a van in 1971 heading down to the beach to go surfing. The music was so loud the walls of the car vibrated with the bass which you could feel a block away. Thinking back on those days in San Diego reminds me of how great they were and how perfect life seemed. Eight grade, and Junior High in general, for many people is either heaven or hell. For me it was the former as I ended up going to two different high schools and never really caught by stride again until many years down the road. Of course life is full of great times and memories and certainly many adults ones, but I think back on those days with fond memories and a major touch of nostalgia. Life at the age was simple, I had few commitments, and the weather was ideal.

During a recent move I re-discovered my 8th grade yearbook, which reminded me of why those times, and Pacific Beach in general, were so great. In the early 70s I lived close to the beach and on most days, after I ran my paper route in De Anza Trailer Park delivering the San Diego Union, I would head down to the beach with my Friend Neal Unger and surf Crystal Pier or Diamond Street before school. After a morning session we’d head to PB Junior High where I was the school photographer, an aspiring drummer, and just an all around surfer dude. Here’s a few pages from my yearbook to give you a sense of the times.

The eight grad lineup, with Neal Unger in the lower right.

PB Junior High 1971: part of the eight grad lineup, with Neal Unger, whom I have known since 4th grade.


Drummer in the band, 1971. Inspired by Ron Bushy (Iron Butterfly’s drummer).

With my favorite teacher, Mr. Buh. He also taught graphic arts and was a huge influence.

With my favorite teacher, Mr. Buh. He pushed me to take lots of pictures and was a huge influence. My favorite place was the darkroom in his classroom. I must have liked that shirt!

What I remember the most is how nice everyone was, how supportive, and as is common when you know your time with someone has ended (I moved the next year), how much they really liked me. If course this is par for the course in year book chatter but here are a few comments which I hold dear. Thank you Andrea, Laurie, Jacki, and Cristina! You haven’t been forgotten!!




But my memories are of more than the sappy notes: those times were unique. As anyone who has lived in San Diego can tell you it is radically different these days and the 70s, like the 60s and 50s before them, are just a memory. Here are some things I miss about 1971:

easy going, twin fins, miniskirts, Creedence Clearwater, long straight hair, 45s, corduroy, sunrises, Guess Who, Belmont Park, saltwater in my nose, wetsuit rash, hard rock, “bitchen”, beach fires, shooting the pier, my first leash, riding my bike, “far out”, Soda Pop, double features, Windansea, early mornings, the Doors, sand in my ears, hamburgers at the beach, steel wheels, vinyl records, sunburn, San Diego Sports Arena, zinc oxide, KGB Boss radio, Zog’s sex wax, Hairmos, resin, milkshakes, sleeping on the beach, fiberglass, hanging out at the seawall.

The WildLife: Marine Aquarium Trade, Interview with Brian Tissot

In July, 2010 I was interviewed by Laurel Neme on the well-known “The Wildlife” radio show. It was a fun interview and I encourage you to visit her site and listen to it here. However, we also made a transcript of that show for those that may not listen to interviews. We were discussing a recent paper on the aquarium trade, which you can find online.


The WildLife” Radio Show hosted by Laurel Neme
The WildLife: Marine Aquarium Trade, Brian Tissot

Brian Tissot, marine ecologist, discusses the marine aquarium trade. He tells “The WildLife” host Laurel Neme how the United States, as the world’s largest importer of marine ornamental species for the aquaria, curio, home decor and jewelry industries, has an opportunity to leverage its market power to promote more sustainable trade and reduce the effects of this trade on coral reefs worldwide. The trade in coral and coral reef species for ornamental purposes is substantial and growing, with approximately 30 million fish and 1.5 million live stony corals removed from the ecosystem each year. The aquarium industry alone targets some 1,500 species of reef fish, and many die in transit, prompting collectors to gather even more animals to compensate for potential losses. With the United States accounting for over half of the ornamental trade in live coral, reef fish and invertebrates, Tissot and 17 other scientists are calling on this country to leverage its market demand—through additional regulation and enforcement, public awareness campaigns, certification of sustainable products, and assistance to spread best practices in source countries—to make the trade more sustainable.

Dr. Brian Tissot is a Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Science at Washington State University Vancouver. His research is focused on the interface between biology, management, and policy and examines ecological interactions between habitat and commercially important marine fishes and invertebrates and the role of the community in managing marine resources. Through collaboration with state, federal and international agencies he is involved in a range of activities including basic research, research with implications towards resource management, and environmental policy development in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California. In Hawaii, he helped improve the management of an aquarium fishery along the Kona coast by being a part of a collaborative research program with state biologists and policy makers, SeaGrant extension, and the local community. On the west coast he is examining the role of continental shelf invertebrates, especially deep water corals, and how they function as critical habitat for commercially important fishes. Information from his work has been used to improve management strategies for coral reefs in the Pacific, west coast bottom trawling, and in the development of legislation in Congress. In addition to over 60 publications in scientific journals, Dr. Tissot’s work has been featured in Scientific American, National Geographic News, Smithsonian magazine and in the Washington Post. This episode of “The WildLife” aired on The Radiator, WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont on July 26, 2010.

The Interview

Neme: While we spoke recently, I asked Brian how he first got interested in oceans.

Tissot: Well, it’s been a long standing interest of mine. My father was in the Navy. And so, as you may know, when you’re a Navy family, we moved every two and half years. And many times, many times in the course of my life. But, the only constant thing in that was that I was always near the water. And so I got attached to having the ocean. It was one thing that was constant in my life. And so over time, that evolved from hanging out at the shore, to when I was thirteen I started surfing, and at that point it was my all consuming passion in life. But, gradually in college I switched over to an interest in the shore and things underwater and I science became a natural interest to me and I migrated more into marine biology. I still surf occasionally but I am more interested in other things like scuba diving and [riding] submersibles underwater and doing studies on the shorelines as well.

Neme: When did you first start working on the marine aquarium trade?

Tissot: Well, it’s interesting; I have always had a long term interest in aquarium fish. I mean, ever since I was a little kid I have had aquaria. And that’s pretty much right up until the last ten years or so. But in the mid 1990’s, I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii in Hilo on the Big Island. And as a matter of course of engaging with the community, I became aware of a conflict that was occurring on the west Hawaii coast, that’s the Kona and Kahala shorelines of the Big Island of Hawaii. And the conflict was between aquarium collectors, which are catching primarily live reef fish and transporting those to aquarium exporters, and people that either were [promoting] ecotourism, they had small boat operations and they are taking people out to view and photograph fish, or some of these large-scale dive tourism operations that would take people on ships to view fish as well. And so part of the conflict was the perception of decline in reef fish over time and also some ethical issues around whether you should even be taking fish like that. People don’t seem to have a problem in spearing fish to eat or fishing because that’s for consumption, but some people do have a problem with live catching fish that will never come back to their home.

Neme: And what kind of species are we talking about? Can you describe the types of reef fish and the variety that you see when you are snorkeling or scuba diving in that part of the world?

Tissot: Yeah, well Hawaii has some absolutely wonderful coral reefs, and it’s not as diverse in the number of species relative to other areas in the Pacific, but still there is over four hundred species of fish and 40 species of coral. And that’s much less than the thousands that are found in other areas like the Philippines and Indonesia, but still quite diverse.

Neme: Just by comparison, say that the reefs in the Philippines you said have thousands of species, different species of reef fish?

Tissot: Yeah, they are much more diverse, right.

Neme: And the Great Barrier Reef off Australia is that as diverse?

Tissot: Also very high. And that’s mainly because Hawaii is so isolated. It’s one of the largest isolated archipelagos in the world.

Neme: And are those fish, those four hundred species, some of them endemic, meaning found only in those reefs there?

Tissot: Yeah, absolutely. There are about 20% to 25% depending on how you count the species of fish and other things like invertebrates and seaweeds that only occur in Hawaii.

Neme: Are they always colorful fish? Are they, you know we all have this image of all the parrotfish and angelfish and clownfish that you know, “Finding Nemo” made famous?

Tissot: Right. All the fish are really colorful, some more than others, but generally what people want are really colorful fish that also can do well in aquaria. Some are very easy to take care of, can live on Tetramin and things like that, and those typically tend to be herbivorous fishes, fishes that live off eating seaweed and things like that on the reef, so they adapt pretty well to aquaria. Other ones, for example Butterfly Fish, which are also incredibly beautiful; have all sorts of different patterns and colors, uh they, a lot of them, eat corals only, and so in order to have them in your aquaria you have to be able to culture live corals, which is quite difficult and requires a lot of expertise, but there are lots of people that are very good at it, but its not for your amateur hobbyist.

Neme: When we talk about the marine aquarium trade, what exactly are we talking about? Are we talking about just fish, or corals too, or shells and everything?

Tissot: Well, the bigger trade is called the ornamental trade, and the ornamental trade has to do with a wide variety of organisms that are transported to various places across the world, not just aquarium fish. So aquarium fish account for roughly 30 million fish a year that originate from about forty-five countries that are just for the live aquarium trade. As part of that as well, there’s also millions of live corals which are transported, and sometimes millions of, basically, pounds of dead coral which is used in aquaria, you know as ornamentation and habitat and things like that. But also there’s deep sea red and black [coral] which occur not typically on coral reefs but deeper in warm and cold waters, and they’re used primarily for jewelry, so for pendants on you neck, earrings, things like that. And then also things like shells, there’s over 2500 [metric] tons of shells taken off coral reefs every year, and of course shells can be used by themselves or they can be used in jewelry, baskets, all sorts of things. And then there are the live invertebrates which are also collected for aquarium trade. But, you know, also things like dried seahorses, shark’s teeth, salmon bones, just a wide variety of different things, and really there are aquaria, jewelry, curios. Those are the main ones.

Neme: How much is that trade worth? Is there a value that’s known?

Tissot: Um, you know, it’s hard to put a number on it. It’s really a data-poor trade in the sense that a lot of it originates from countries in the coral triangle region, [primarily] Indonesia and the Philippines, and it’s difficult to track, but estimates are as high as a billion dollars a year in some cases, but, and it could be anywhere from 500-600 million and up, but it’s a pretty massive trade.

Neme: You had said that, um, just talking about reef fish for instance, that those three million fish involved in the trade originate from forty-five countries, so where are we talking about?

Tissot: Thirty million.

Neme: Thirty million, sorry.

Tissot: Yeah, it’s alright.

Neme: Big difference! Ha ha ha…. my apologies… and so from forty-five countries. So what, where in the world are we talking about? What are the top ten?

Tissot: Well, the most common ones are again in the coral triangle region and in Southeast Asia. And so that primarily includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands, but also areas like Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef, Sri Lanka, East Africa, India, there’s trades in all of these countries.

Neme: So those are the biggest suppliers, presumably of the trade…

Tissot: Right.

Neme: And then who, who are the buyers?

Tissot: Well, primarily the United States. We make up greater than sixty percent of the trade [which] is imported [into] the United States. Other ones are countries like Japan, and [the] European Union including the United Kingdom and Netherlands, France, and there are literally a hundred countries that are actually importing these organisms.

Neme: Recently there was an effort at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that the conference of parties at the March 2010 meeting to protect, or increase protections on red and pink corals. Could you tell me a little bit about that proposal?

Tissot: Well, I don’t know as much about that as some of my co-authors do, but apparently this has been tried to be listed for several years, including three years ago during the last convention, and these are species that are part of the jewelry trade, so there is a lot of evidence, strong evidence that these are becoming quite rare and habitual beds that people have been harvesting for many years are showing declines in large individuals and they may have the inability to replenish themselves on the order of decades, so there is a lot of concern about those in the jewelry trade. And so the idea with CITIES, Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, was to get them listed so that people would have to have a license to import them. Unfortunately to get something listed under CITIES, particularly in Appendix II is what they’re trying to do, all the member [countries] have to have a fairly high degree of cooperation and agreement about that, and that was not the case for the last couple of meetings.

Neme: And then, for these other species, for the invertebrates, the seahorses, the reef fish, what is their level or status, you know level of protection I should say?

Tissot: Well, in most cases none. I mean, that’s what the problem is really, there’s very little [protection or] management at all. And so, most of the species become virtually endangered, it’s very difficult to get them listed on CITIES or other things like the Endangered Species Act of the United States. There’s just a lack of information. It’s very difficult to get information, (in) a lot of these other countries there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous studies done, because it’s very complex to go into a coral reef environment and be able to sort out human impacts due to one specific type of activity, in this case reef collecting, relative to others and come up with some hard data that really give you an idea of how many fish are taken. There’s a few studies that have done that, including some that we’ve done, but there’s relatively few, so for the most part we don’t have a good handle on exactly what the impacts are like in a lot of these source countries, but we do know from the few studies and from hundreds, literally perhaps more antictidotal studies, that in many places these fish, invertebrates, and shells are reduced to numbers that are, you know, less than ten percent of what their normal abundances are.

Neme: Within the ecosystem, what is the role of these different species that are involved in the curio trade, or the ornamental trade? I was going to say that sort of the reef is the habitat, but where do reef fish come in… where do the invertebrates come in… sort of.. Why do we care about a loss of these species?

Tissot: Yeah, it’s a very good question. I mean, again I mentioned the largest source of the trade is in the coral triangle region and that happens to be the areas of highest coral reef diversity in the world and also one of the areas that is most threatened by other human activities, like global warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, and in these areas, these ornamental species come from a wide range of different trophic levels, that is different positions in the food web and they play a lot of different roles, and so the impact is relatively spread out. For example, corals are really the base of a coral reef. They are the foundation. They are the habitat. So harvesting of them obviously has a direct impact in that you’re removing things that people themselves require, because they co-exist with the fish that are there, but also the other reef organisms, like fish that use it for habitat, other fish and invertebrates that might eat off a coral, or various things that use it for shelter. Other fishes and invertebrates are herbivorous fishes, so they graze seaweeds off of corals, so they maintain a balance [between] corals and seaweeds on reefs; other ones are predacious fish, which control the abundance of herbivorous fishes. Sharks, for example are top predators, and they’re taken sometimes and used for a variety of things including shark’s teeth and jaws, which are dried and sold. And so there’s a whole bunch of different levels that are basically represented in this trade. And, you know, what’s important is the cumulative impact of those, I mean this is no the only stressor, there’s lots of other things going on as I mentioned, and so this is on top of all of that, and it’s really has a potential to severely disrupt the ecosystem function of these systems.

Neme: So, it could almost be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, type of thing?

Tissot: Yeah, it’s an added stress, you know, and there’s two issues here that I think are really important to consider, it’s cumulative on top of other issues [and its impacts are unique]. Certainly things like fishing in general are much larger and broader scale than the ornamental trade, but that’s an industry that’s difficult for us to manage. The ornamental trade on the other hand, since we import over sixty percent of these, we are directly part of that, and so this is something that through regulations and laws, we can actually help improve the coral reefs in those areas. And every bit is important.

Neme: How are the items collected, and is it destructive to the ecosystem in the process?

Tissot: Well, there’s lots of different ways and different people use different methods. I mean, typically for aquarium fish, most people use nets of various sorts. Hand nets if they are going after single individuals or larger gill or corral nets if they’re going after groups. And those can be relatively safe in the environment; they may not cause much impact if they’re used correctly. But sometimes people also use other things, and in some areas in the Philippines for example, and other areas in Southeast Asia, people use cyanide to stun fish, which allows them to [more easily] capture them. And that’s a poison, as you know, and not only is it bad for the fish, a lot of fish die, but it also poisons other things that are nearby where the fish is captured. Other fish, because they are quite valuable, can be literally chased for hours on the reef, and people use crowbars and things to dig them out of holes and pull them out of there because they are worth a lot of money. I mean, these are extreme examples. How much is very responsible, careful collecting and how much is destructive is really not well known. But we do know there’s a whole range of methods here. Shells that are just taken off the reef and dried, and shipped and things like that.

Neme: And then what happens? So if you’re… Could you take me through the life of an aquarium fish? You know, once it’s collected, where does it go, how is it transported?

Tissot: Well, it’s a pretty amazing process. I mean, it can be very short in some places and very complex in others. The shortest possible route a fish could take is it is collected off a reef, say in Hawaii, and that person actually also is their own exporter, and they would export it and ship it to somebody, perhaps in Los Angeles, which is one of the biggest ports in the United States for aquarium fish. And then that person, the primary importer would then sell them directly to aquarium shops, and then people would buy them there. But in some cases, in the Philippines for example, the collectors actually give them to middlemen, and there may be two or three different middlemen, which are either financing some of the boat operations and things like that, and that eventually goes to an exporter and an importer. So literally, the fish can be taken off the reef, they can be put in bags and then handed to another person, and to another person, and another person. And some of these could literally take weeks to actually get even to an exporter. And of course the concern there, and we know this is the case in some places, that you know that the water quality might get bad, the fish might be [held with] too many [other fish], the oxygen concentration could drop, and you can get a high amount of mortality if it’s not carefully managed. And again, there are some people that are very careful about this, and they can end up with less than one percent mortality, and we know that’s the case in some places. But other people are not really that concerned about where the fish end up. All they really care about is collecting and getting those fish. Particularly in the Philippines there’s a lot of what we call rovers, which are people that don’t really live in the [areas they collect], they just kind of [cruise] around, they live in certain villages, but they drive around all over the place and get as many fish as they can from different places, and really just sell them as fast as they can. And so, it’s really not in their interest to take very good care of them as much as it is for people that actually [live] in an area and check the reefs out in front of their own home.

Neme: So you said that it could end up with less than one percent mortality… What’s the high end of that?

Tissot: Uh, could be one hundred percent. And sometimes that does happen. And again, this is something we don’t have a lot of data on, you know. It’s one of the things we’d like to get some funding to pursue, but basically there’s not a lot of studies. It’s gotten a lot better in many places over the past ten years. People have been very conscious of that and so, it may down to under ten percent mortality in a lot of facilities.

Neme: You had mentioned that some of the fish are extremely valuable… How much are these fish worth and how does that value change as it goes from the point of origin to the United States… to a pet shop?

Tissot: Well, it goes up considerably. In Hawaii for example, Yellow Tang, which is one of the most common caught fish in that area, some of the fish there generally are sold for a couple of dollars. That’s what actually people sell them for directly to somebody that might export them. I’m not sure what the importer would actually buy them for, but my guess is maybe five or ten dollars. But you typically see in the aquarium store in Portland, for example near where I live, is fifty or sixty dollars.

Neme: Fifty or sixty dollars for that same fish?

Tissot: Right. So you know, like most things, and there’s been economic analyses done on this, is that most of the money [made] is actually on the retailer end, which is true of, you know, a lot of trades of course, not just this one. But typically, most of the profit is made in the United States.

Neme: In the United States, is… this trade is perfectly legal, is that correct?

Tissot: Uh, with the two exceptions, yes. There are some things that are banned. Queen Conch is [mostly banned]. There is a number of species that are listed by CITIES and the Endangered Species Act, Staghorn corals are another one of those, that they cannot be legally imported or collected in the United States.

Neme: But most other things, most of the reef fish and what not, can be?

Tissot: Well, yeah, right. There’s thousands of species [on a] coral reef and CITIES only really protects five or six groups of those. And so there’s really only a couple of species, plus live corals and live rock, which are explicitly [protected]. So just a few, out of the thousands of coral reef species, are currently listed.

Neme: Can you tell me about any impact from this ornamental trade that you’ve seen on specific species?

Tissot: Well, most of my work has been in Hawaii, and so it’s probably very different than what you would expect in other areas, like the Philippines and Indonesia. So I haven’t had much first hand experience there, except way back in the late seventies, when I had lived in the Philippines for a short time. But in Hawaii, we don’t really see a lot of destructive fishing practices. For the most part, people are very careful. There have been instances where people, for example, have gone out at nighttime and have broken coral to get fish which down into the reef at night and they are a little easier to capture. That’s about the worst I’ve actually seen. What you do see, and it’s not something you actually notice as much as you can measure with a scientific study, is the reductions in the number of individuals. So before the management was implemented there, fish were reduced as much as fifty percent on reefs, and that primarily occurs with yellow tangs. So half of the fish were gone, and so the other half were what were left, and that’s much less than you would expect in the natural environment.

Neme: With management, can you describe, you know, how is that balanced? I know you’ve done a lot of work related to community management of fisheries in Hawaii…

Tissot: Right…

Neme: And there’s this inherent tension between collecting things off the reef and then, say, tourism, to look at things on the reef…

Tissot: Right…

Neme: When one will reduce it up to fifty percent and the other wants to see as much as you possibly can…

Tissot: Right…

Neme: Can you tell me more about that conflict and how you can resolve that?

Tissot: Well, it’s difficult. We’ve been working, and I say “we”, I mean primarily Dr. William Walsh. Bill Walsh is with the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources in West Hawaii, he’s really been the lead person on doing that, but there’s a lot of people in the States that are involved in the industry and trying to regulate it. But the fundamental conflict is, as you said, is really people that want to view the fish, that get services from those and those that actually want to harvest it, “the goods” per say, you know and especially collectors that take live reef fish. And so if you think if there’s not too much going on with collecting then it should be fine, but the perception is that it’s… that a lot of fish are being taken. So when we did a study in the late 1990’s, we found again that over half of the yellow tangs were being taken. Now, we determined that by comparing fish in areas that were known to be collection sites relative to ones that were closed, where it was illegal to fish. And so, that conflict has been going on for quite a long time. So the community put a lot pressure on the legislature to do something about it and they acted, and this was primarily State Representative of Dave Tarnas, who was a marine resource manager familiar with these issues, and he was from West Hawaii, and he [helped to] pass a bill called “Act 306”, which actually helped create a very flexible management strategy for West Hawaii. One of the few places in the state that has this kind of strategy, and it created this large region for the entire West Hawaii coastline called the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area. And one of the mandates, and there are many, were to help establish a sustainable aquarium fishery by involving the community and by closing at least thirty percent of the areas to aquarium collecting. And this is why they’re called Marine Protected Areas, or MPA’s. And so, the MPA’s were implemented with community recommendations as to where they would go in the end of 1999. They were closed in the beginning of the year 2000, and we’ve been studying them ever since. So, going on eleven years right now.

Neme: And, has that resulted in increases in reef fish?

Tissot: Yeah, what we have found is rather remarkable. In the areas that have been closed to collecting, the fish have increased over fifty percent. And so, they basically have come back to what we believe are natural levels. Levels that, you know, were before they were actually collected. And so this is overall for the whole West Hawaii coast. And we’ve also seen that the aquarium fishery is [doing] better than ever. And we don’t know exactly why that is. Some of that could be due to the Marine Protected Areas. It’s most likely that it’s a growing industry and it’s doing well, and people are making good profit. So it seems that there’s been winners in both cases, both the people that now have these fishery replenishment areas, and these are principally the areas that dive co-operations go into, there’s lots of fish. Aquarium collectors have their own areas where they collect. And in some ways the conflict has been separated spatially to where they’re in different areas. Unfortunately, there still is conflict. There’s quite a bit of it. It’s not been totally resolved, and I think that some of these things never completely go away because there is always disagreement about how you share common resources. But it has improved quite a bit.

Neme: And then do the fish migrate so that if, you know… If fish are coming back in the Marine Protected Areas, will they eventually move, or check out the non-protected areas, and then possibly improve what’s available for collection?

Tissot: Yeah, you know, that’s a really interesting question. And there is the of science of Marine Protected Areas is to help replenish fish outside the areas where the MPA’s occur. And so, thirty-five percent of West Hawaii is actually closed to collecting. Thirty percent are fishery replenishment areas, plus five percent from previous areas. The other sixty five percent is wide open. And so, MPA’s have the potential to replenish those fish [in open areas] in two different ways. One of which is called spillover, and that is as fish increase in abundance inside the Marine Protected Areas, the densities get so high that fish naturally migrate out into other areas, and in this case open areas. And we have done studies, this is a paper primarily authored by Ivor Williams, who is now with NOAA in Hawaii, and it showed that if you look at the boundaries of these Marine Protected Areas right next to open areas, that the abundance of fish there was not significantly different from inside the protected areas, but definitely different as you move further away, out into the open areas, suggesting very strongly, in this case adult Yellow Tangs were actually moving out. And we know that they move hundreds of feet, perhaps thousands of feet and so that was kind of suggesting that there’s quite a bit of movement going into these open areas. And that could provide some replenishment of adults. Unfortunately the aquarium fishery in Hawaii doesn’t really target adults, they target juveniles, so it is hard to know how that directly benefits the fishery. But it benefits them in the long run because the adults, of course, are what reproduce and provide small fish [through recruitment] and that should help in the long term.

Neme: Why does the aquarium fishery target juveniles? Just because they are smaller?

Tissot: Yeah, people usually have a ten or twenty or thirty gallon tank and you don’t want a six inch fish in there, so they typically take these inch and a half, two inch fish at the most, and those are selected and sold. So it’s unusual in that sense. They’re not taking the big fish, for the most part they are smaller, medium size fish.

Neme: And don’t they grow, or in an aquarium will they not grow as much?

Tissot: Well, they will. They will grow, but they only generally grow as big as the aquarium could allow them to, so that will limit their size to some extent.

Neme: Okay….

Tissot: Because the aquarium won’t get big…

Neme: Ha hahah… You had mentioned a second mechanism…

Tissot: Yeah, the second mechanism, how Marine Protected Areas might help enhance the outside areas in fisheries, is called recruitment enhancement, or larval seeding. And the general idea is where adults in Marine Protected Areas become so abundant that when they reproduce, their babies, which will drift in the ocean, for in this case Yellow Tangs will drift for about [two] months, will then move into outside areas and help seed those areas and increase the abundance out there. And we have a study that we’re hoping to get published here soon, this is authored primarily by Mark Christie and Mark Hixon at Oregon State University, and we used genetic markers, microsatellites, and actually found four pairs of adult Yellow Tangs, we actually found their offspring had settled onto a reef in an adjacent area. And what we showed was that adults inside Marine Protected Areas provided larval fish to areas outside Marine Protected Areas, but also to other Marine Protected Areas, and even fish that were in open areas provided larvae to inside Marine Protected Area. In other words, there’s high connectivity between all these populations. That’s the whole idea of Marine Protected Areas and [an MPA] Network, which is what’s in West Hawaii, that it all kind of works together to increase the fish across the whole coastline and perhaps to places, like Maui, by drifting in the ocean.

Neme: So now that you’re starting to work in Maui, will you be able to tell if that is how far that impact will reach?

Tissot: If we did another study like that… those studies are fairly expensive, but yeah it wouldn’t be that hard to do that, to see they’ve gone that far. I mean one of the fish we found went, [almost two] hundred kilometers. In other words, the adult was [two] hundred kilometers from where we found its offspring. And so, from one part of the Big Island to Maui is not even that far, so it definitely could do that. We don’t have plans for a study like that, but might be something that we could do in the future.

Neme: Interesting…. And then, I’m just curious, because a lot of the studies it seems focus on Yellow Tangs, is there a reason for that?

Tissot: Well, we primarily use tangs as they are a proxy for the trade in general. And the main reason is 70-80% of all the fish harvested in West Hawaii, and Hawaii in general, are Yellow Tangs. And so, they’re an icon for the industry, but keep in mind the aquarium industry in Hawaii literally has hundreds of species. Although really, there’s about eight fish that constitute over ninety percent of the fishery.

Neme: You recently released a paper, in the journal Marine Policy, on how U.S. ocean policy and market power can reform the coral reef wildlife trade. So I wanted to talk about, both what prompted this call to action, and then what you’re recommending?

Tissot: Well, the paper actually came out of a workshop, which occurred during May of 2009 in Washington D.C., which was on international trade in ornamental species, and this was organized primarily by Cara Cooper, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Barbra Best at USAID, and sponsored by the KingFisher Foundation. They brought together a wide range of experts, over forty people that were scientists, policy makers, government, and people in the industry. And basically, the idea was to find if there’s a consensus about the trade from all the different perspectives. Kind of do a very broad literature review, I mean for my one section on Ecological Impacts, I looked over two hundred papers, and I did that along with one of the coauthor’s [on the] paper, Todd Stevenson, who’s my graduate student here at Washington State University who assisted on the paper. And all these people [pulled different] information together. For one day, we had talks about the trade, trying to get everybody up to date on that. And then, the second day was working groups talking about solutions. And so, this paper basically outlines what we found in terms of the trade itself, the impacts, management, and also what we recommend in terms of ways to improve it.

Neme: And given that the U.S. is sixty percent of the market, of demand, how can the U.S…. you know, what reforms can the U.S. make to make the trade more responsible?

Tissot: Well, generally, what we’ve found is there are four main areas [for action] that we recommend. And since the U.S. is the leading importer, we can also provide leadership and help change [the trade]. First of all that the laws that currently exist are inadequate. And as you mentioned earlier, CITIES, Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, is difficult to use to regulate the ornamental trade into the United States. So that law by itself is not sufficient. And so, what we recommend is new laws that would help promote a more sustainable trade. That’s literally, trying to put some kind of limits on imports, very carefully obviously because this is something that is quite difficult, and find a way to import fish where there is some [information] about where they came from and how they were collected. In other words, try to be selective about [companies] that are very careful in harvesting fish and transporting them, versus those that do not. And so, have a law that would filter that out.

Neme: And to get that kind of knowledge about where they came from and the way they were collected, what would that require?

Tissot: Well, that’s going to be one of the more difficult aspects of it. And I think that we all agree that this is a very difficult problem. Even these things that we’re recommending are likely to take a long period of time. But I think that there needs to be some leadership here. We need to change things. It’s just that the currently the way it’s going, is not sustainable. And so, one of the second recommendations is that we need to promote reform and best practices in source countries. And so, the U.S. again as a leader in the world can help, and we’re doing that now, and we should continue to do that in places like the Philippines and Indonesia, help improve their management practices by supporting them, training them, working with communities. There’s lots of good people in those countries that are very good at what they do, and getting it so they are the ones that are actually able to provide, for example proof that their product is sustainable. So along with that, and this is kind of item number three, would be to provide some kind of market incentives. And this could be like the Seafood Watch program, for example or other seafood programs that label seafood as being from good fisheries, okay fisheries, and bad fisheries. By the same token, you could have certain kinds of exporters that have incentive to prove that their fish are being sustainably fished, and handled, and marketed. And so, provide a way of certifying those kinds of importers and collectors, and being able to show that there’s a supply chain that involves good practices. And so that shifting in market demand would be really important. And a huge part of that, and this is one of the reasons we wrote this paper, was to improve education [and awareness}. Make people aware of what this issue is. That it is an important issue and what they should do about it. I mean, freshwater fish for example, ninety-five percent of those fish are [artificially] cultured, and that is very different for marine fish, where ninety-five percent of fish are wild-caught.

Neme: And what about your fourth recommendation?

Tissot: The last point, the fourth thing we recommended, was to improve enforcement because even with the current laws and regulations enforcement is very inadequate in the United States. And that is that there [are numerous] ports of entry, which imports come into, there’s only so many of those, there’s only so many people that can handle this and they’re really inundated with too much work. So if we did increase regulations it would require much better enforcement and that would actually make these laws work.

Neme: Who at the ports… would that be customs, the Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife inspectors?

Tissot: Yes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Neme: And because there’s only, like a little bit more than one hundred, one hundred and fourteen I believe, Wildlife Inspectors across the whole country, so… a staffing issue as well…

Tissot: At the talk I heard at the meeting it was bewildering in terms of what they have to deal with. And not only is there not many people but the training that somebody would have to have to deal with to identify different species of fish and corals and shells is just amazing, you know, you really have to know what you’re doing and that takes a lot of time. And so to do that right, you know, this needs to be more money put into this to build, you know, a good trade, a trade that people can be assured that what they’re doing is not significantly harming coral reefs.

Neme: Taking each of these steps in turn, it seems that a lot of it is hinged on the “best practices”. And are those, it sounded from the discussion that we’ve just been having, that a lot of those “best practices” are already known, or is there more research that needs that needs to go into what works, you know, what types of management practices are better?

Tissot: Yeah, well I think that there’s a fair amount of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, but I think that the key thing is a lot of places is that the communities themselves have to come up with something that works. It’s very difficult to have “top-down” management. And in the Philippines for example, it’s really the local municipalities that have most of the legal authority. And so, you really want community based management as much as you can, although if you have larger laws that provide a framework, that can be extremely useful as well. So there might be different solutions in different places. So the idea’s to provide some economic development and scientific expertise and work with people to where they find solutions that work, and then try to get their products to market, where people say, “Hey, this is a good fish. This has been harvested from this village, which is known for these kinds of practices,” and that there’s some assurance that that’s true. That would be, you know, a reasonable way to accommodate that with those fish.

Neme: And then is there, like you had mentioned the Seafood Watch, is it possible to include this within that, or is there any organization that is working on certification?

Tissot: There is the Marine Aquarium Council, or MAC, they have been trying to do this for many years, in particularly the Philippines but throughout other places in the world, in the Pacific, but it’s been very difficult. And I think they’ve had some success, but a large part of their inability to make it work is that that’s only one piece of the solution. And so we believe that these other pieces have to be in place. In other words, people can be certified and shown that they have good practices if indeed there’s enough training and oversight, and these things actually work, but then people need to know that here’s a product that actually has a chain of custody for example that we know there’s good practices. People need to be educated about that. They need to know at the pet store, be able to make a choice, presumably based on one that is certified and one that isn’t. And of course, all of that requires, among other things, regulations, improved management in source countries, things like that. So that’s just one piece of the puzzle, but certainly an important one.

Neme: And then on the enforcement, what’s required for that? You talked a little bit about staffing and budget…

Tissot: Well, that’s really the biggest thing is that the ports that do exist, again Los Angeles is a primary port for imports just because the largest volume is in the Pacific, [although] there is a fair amount coming in from the Atlantic and the Caribbean as well, but just not enough people. Not enough physical people to sit there and sift through all these things. And so, they get hundreds of shipments a year, each shipment can be multiple boxes, each box can have multiple bags, each bag can have multiple species, and you can imagine what it’s like to go through these things day after day. It’s very diligent, very time consuming work, and they just need more people that are trained to do that. And of course, for a lot of the species that are coming in there are no laws that are preventing them from coming in, and we don’t know how they were collected or anything. So that’s one link in the chain but it’s part of a larger recommendation that we’re making.

Neme: And what has been the reaction to these recommendations?

Tissot: Well, it’s still a bit early so I can’t say too much. But we have seen a few people that have written about our paper. In particular, some hobbyists have actually taken pause to think about this, and I’d like to believe and I think that this is true, is that most fish hobbyists in the United States are very concerned about where their fish come from, and I’m sure they’re concerned about coral reefs. And it’s not that they’re not concerned about it, it’s just that it’s very difficult to be able to know what to get and where it’s from and how to distinguish between good players in the market and bad players. So one of the reactions that we’ve seen that was published recently was that there really should be some movement on the role of the hobbyists in terms of this issue. And I think that’s been very positive.

Neme: Well, that is interesting because often times the hobbyists could be against it, but in this case, probably why you have an aquarium in the first place is because you love it.

Tissot: Right. And I have no problems with aquariums. I think they’re great. I’ve had one for many years and they’re great educational tools as long as people know really how to take care of their fish and do a good job… there’s nothing wrong with them at all. In fact, you’d hope that people who have these would make them even more sympathetic towards conservation of coral reefs, the very ecosystems they came from. So that’s a group that should be very concerned about this, and I think they are, you know. But on the other hand, there are a lot of people that are threatening the industry, and so they often get threatened with lots of cases that are trying to shut them down or eliminate them. And so, yeah, not everybody’s happy about what we probably had to say, I imagine.

Neme: What’s the next step then?

Tissot: Well, the next step from what I understand is to try to lobby for some new legislation. I mean I have next steps myself personally as well, but I think that’s kind of the next step from this paper, would be to try to get some laws, some bills introduced that would actually start to address some or all of these issues.

Neme: And so, if people were interested in learning more about this issue, where should they go? Are there any websites you’d recommend, or organizations you recommend they check out?

Tissot: Right, yeah, sure. There’s a bunch of them. And again, Cara Cooper was one of the lead people on this project, she’s with the Environmental Defense Fund ( , they would obviously be a good one to look at. Some of the other groups, Pew Environmental Group (, might be places where you could find information. NOAA of course has a lot of information about the ornamental trade on their websites ( There’s actually a lot of literature, including hobbyist sites on the web, I would just encourage people to search for aquarium trade or ornamental trade, and they’ll find quite a bit of information. And a lot of research papers, you know. People can certainly contact me as well ( I guess the only caveat I would have about what I’ve said here is that I’m a scientist and so my expertise in the area of ornamental trade is primarily focused on ecological impacts and ecosystems, and my comments on policy, on economic, on social sciences and other aspects of the trade are better addressed by a lot of my coauthors. So I would encourage people to contact them directly if they have questions about different aspects of the trade, as they’re much more knowledgeable then I am about this.

Neme: Fantastic. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

Tissot: Well, you’re very welcome.



The Hunt for Monster Red Abalone


Diving for Red Abalone in Northern California. California Dept. Fish Game photo by Patrick Foy

Twenty feet down, murky, dark, swarming with kelp, surge pulling me back and forth, fighting to stay in place. Feeling my oxygen slipping away with my arms buried deep in a crevice as I try to reach a huge abalone. I look up and there is even larger ab just inches away. Still time. Re-position, slip the iron in, and try to yank him off. He clamps down, hard. Fighting as my lungs start to burn, running out of time. Finally, he breaks loose, swim to the surface, my biggest one yet! Stoked!!

Red CFG photo

Red Abalone in its Natural habitat. Photo CDFW.

The hunt for monster, or trophy red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) is a thrill, a passion, an obsession, a deadly pursuit, and the holy grail of free diving on the Northern California coast. Dinucci, Johnson, Pepper, Centoni, Spinale, Buller, Likins, Powers, Owen, Wandel… the statistics of the most successful trophy abalone divers reads like the line up for a major-league baseball team; and to those that hunt the “big reds” they are just as famous. All of these divers have hunted and collected over 100 ten inch reds, which are rare and difficult to find. They also have the distinction of collecting at least one eleven inch abalone (some, like Dinucci, have collected over 20!), but only one has caught a twelve inch red:  John Pepper, who holds the world’s record red abalone at 12.32 inches, taken in southern Oregon in 1993. Pepper’s story is legendary as recounted in the Kelp Forest Newsletter in 1994:

John’s adventure began two hours before dark “somewhere north of Del Norte County” while free diving in 12 feet of water. John first found and removed a 11.25 inch male red abalone from a deep hole. Behind this abalone, but unreachable to an ab-bar of conventional length, was what looked like the father of all abalone. Fortunately for John (and less so for the abalone) John’s diving partner had brought along a 35.5-inch long abalone bar (36 in. is the legal maximum length, see Abalone Regulations). Over the next two hours and innumerable dives John finally pried the abalone loose just before dusk. Once freed the abalone was poised precariously, at risk of falling beyond his reach. Again fortune was on John’s side and the abalone chose to attach to his ab-bar and was thus extracted “like a giant popsicle.”


World Record Red Abalone, 12.32″, collected by John Pepper in 1993. Photo B. Owen.


Hall of Fame for record Red Abalone.  Photo courtesy of Geiger & Owen, 2012.


Photo courtesy of Buzz Owen.

Reds are the largest species of the approximately 75 species and subspecies of abalone and they have the glory of setting size records for all abalone. But how do you measure the “largest” abalone? Length, weight, glory at the dinner table, sheer impressiveness? When I first discovered abalone in the 1960s I was immediately impressed by their great size and musculature; they are truly a giant among snails. Officially, the California Dept of Fish & Wildlife (formerly Cal Fish & Game) uses maximum length but they are also records for the overall heaviest abalone (shell plus meat). That distinction belongs to a 10.9 inch, 14 lbs 9 oz monster collected by P. McReynolds (Pepper’s world record weighed a bit over 12 lbs). That’s an abalone dinner for at least twelve people! For the sheer weight of the meat (“trimmed weight”) Randy Jones has the record for a 7.5 lbs yield, which provide enough to feed 15 people and more.

2014-09-03 20.57.31

Of course, nothing worthwhile is easy (nor should be!) and the pursuit of monster reds can be a dangerous endeavor. Although all of the record holders mentioned here are veteran, highly experienced free divers, since 1993 at least 54 people have lost their lives pursuing abalone in northern California, including 15 in 2007-2008, and at least one diver perishes in the cold and rough waters off the North Coast every year. Most don’t drown but the sport is vigorous and problems arise due to exhaustion or other underlying factors, such as heart attacks. The water can be rough and it is exhausting climbing down cliffs, pulling on a wetsuit and weight belt, swimming out through the surf, and submerging into 55-47 degree water for a couple of hours of free diving (Scuba diving for reds is illegal). Then there are the sharks. Since 1960 there have 13 shark attacks on abalone divers on the north coast (N. of SF) including one fatal attack in 2004 ( Although the red abalone fishery is large, with about 35,000-40,000 licensed fishers per year, the relatively small number of attacks isn’t very comforting when you’re the one in the water. Two attacks stand out: while free diving for abalone off Bodega Rock in 1968 Frank Logan was astonished to find himself suddenly being carried through the water in the jaws of a great white shark which had him gripped from back to chest in its mouth and was shaking him violently. He survived but suffered a 1.5 ft. wound from 18 tooth punctures. The other, a fatal attack by a 16-18 ft Great White on Randy Fry off Fort Bragg witnessed by his dive buddy, still haunts the north coast abalone community; he was a tireless advocate for recreational fishers and the Sonoma County Abalone Network (SCAN) holds an annual memorial tournament for Randy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that trophy reds are very rare and difficult to find. To give you an idea of the rarity consider this: between 2002-2012 an average of 256,000 reds per year were taken by sport divers with perhaps 100 being 10 inch abs and a handful greater than 11 inches taken each year. What about the monster reds, those greater than 12 inches? In an article written by Buzz Owen and Dwayne Dinucci (2005) they describe a story of Buzz talking to Andy Sorensen, a 97 year old long time abalone collector and the name sake for the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni), about the 12 inch reds:

Many years before 1959, he had made a public offer of $100 [early Japanese divers at this time made $1/ dozen] to anyone who would bring him a 12-inch red abalone shell – just to measure and confirm that it was that size! “Andy” was very outspoken with this offer, and certainly all the Japanese fishermen had known about it for years. The day I met him, he told me that in the many years that had passed since he had first made that offer, NO one had ever brought him “the mythical 12-inch red” and he had come to believe the species simply didn’t get that large.

1920 Postcard - abalone

Abalone shell pile in 1920 in Santa Barbara.

Because the early Japanese divers were working a “virgin” fishery in the early 1900’s, this event seemed to suggest 12″ reds either didn’t exist or were not present in the central California area. To appreciate the massive number of abalone harvested in those days you just need to examine the size of the many shells piles that existed back then along the California coast. In those days 2-4 million pounds of (mostly red) abalone per year were being harvested (1-2 million abalone) so clearly a very large number of abalone had been examined but no 12″ reds were found. So where do the monster reds live? Of course this is information best keep secret but some general principles are of interest.

reds in NorCal

Percent of Red Abalone Catch by County, 2002-2010. Total = 1,352,353 abalone. Source: CDFW.

Bergmann’s rule is an ecological concept which states that animals get larger as they range into colder waters. Although it was originally developed for warm blooded animals it has been found to hold true for some marine invertebrates as well. One reason is that in colder climates invertebrates generally grow slower, live longer and get larger. Among red abalone populations it is generally true that the average size of individuals tends to increase the further north you go. Moreover, the 13 top-ranked trophy reds are all from the northernmost counties in California and southern Oregon. However, it is unlikely that temperature alone is the culprit. First, red abalone are a cold water species and grow faster in relatively cold water (48-53 F). Second, perhaps as a consequence, red abalone occur in deeper, cooler water in the southern areas of their range and shift into shallow water, and even the intertidal zone, as they range north. According to Buzz Owen, eleven inch reds have been taken from Baja and Southern California, in several places in the channel islands, and at Morro Bay, and are not just limited to the north coast and  Oregon. The species will probably thrive, and grow large, anywhere the water is close to their optimal temperature AND other conditions for optimal growth exist, such as great circulation, abundant kelp, and low population density. This last parameter, population density, may be one of the key factors influencing where monster abalone are found. As reds range into the very northern end of California and into southern Oregon adult densities decline and recruitment of small abalone is less frequent. Thus, as a consequence the number of abalone drops off in Humboldt and Del Norte counties (see CDFW Data) and into southern Oregon. Owen & Dinucci (2005) speculate about this area and Pepper’s monster red which was likely 25-30 years old in 1993:

This is interesting, as severe flooding from rivers had occurred throughout coastal areas in extreme northern California during the winter of 1964-1965. This flooding had destroyed very large numbers of red abalones in the near-shore extreme northern parts of the species range (Dale Snow, Oregon Fish and Wildlife, pers. comm.; Ed Samuels, pers. comm.). Haliotis rufescens is very sensitive to lowered salinity, and massive flooding from rivers can cause large, though infrequent, mortalities. We believe that most of Pepper’s huge abalones found in this area, including the 313 mm world record, represent animals that resulted from “recruitment events” that occurred after the winter of 1964-’65. 

Of course the most important factors for finding a trophy red are the knowledge gained from experience, in addition to skill and luck. Even for those that have spent most of their lives pursing the big reds finding an 11″ abalone is an extremely rare event. Will we ever find one larger than John Pepper’s 12.32″ monster? Who knows? But remember: a big part of the thrill is in the hunt.

Here’s a great video by Matt Mattison which captures the thrill of Trophy Abalone Diving on the North Coast.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Buzz Owen for comments on this article and for providing me with pictures and information on hunting the big reds.

References and Further Reading:

Gifts from the Sea: A Letter from my Mother


My Mother, Millie Patton Tissot, 1930-2003

So there I was unpacking boxes from like the 20th move of my life. Growing up in a Navy family I was used to the drill but had forgotten the surprises. This move was different as my wife and I had moved from Washington State where we lived for 16 years; the longest I had ever lived in one place. When I was living with my parents we moved precisely ever 2.5 years. What I had not recalled was that unpacking was a trip down memory lane. In every newly opened box there was the possibility of finding an old photo, or a long-lost shell, or as in this case, a forgotten book. In the second day of re-shelving our extensive book collection one book caught my interest. As I opened it a letter fell out from my mother written in 1991, ironically as she herself was unpacking after a recent move. Although I may have read the letter before, it was forgotten, so it felt like a new letter to me.

Since my mother died in 2003 not many days go by that I don’t think of her. Because my father was a naval aviator he was away in Vietnam when my brother and I were growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s and my mother largely raised us alone. We were fortunate, she was an amazing woman: loving, passionate, smart and a great sense of humor. And despite (or because of) a lifetime of illnesses she developed a deep but simple wisdom that continues to guide me through life. I guess her lessons weren’t over. As I began to read I felt like I had received a letter from heaven:

May 8, 1991

Brian —

A late little birthday gift for you. I found this when I unpacked books and thought you’d like to have it. I have gotten a great deal of joy & peace from the ocean.  As a child I remember standing on the beach of Santa Cruz & running as fast as I could into the waves with the joy only a child can have. I love the ever-changing colors of the sea and the peace of seeing waves break upon the shore. The wonderful smell of ocean air and the tiny treasures we can find on the beach. In the hard moments I have found peace in remembering the ocean. You are lucky to have made the ocean such a part of your life. I know it will always be a source of comfort & peace. Love, Mom

I knew my Mom was sending me a message after all these years so I opened the book and began to read. It was if my mother knew what I needed to hear at precisely this moment in my life. Here is my favorite poem:



Seascapes: Inspiration & Meaning drawn from the Serenity of the Sea

The sea has cast up so many treasures for us.
The beach is dotted with shells of every description…
…furled and latticed by nature’s artistry…
…sculpted and turned, bleached to a dazzling white
or shimmering with a pearly sheen.

At first we want then all…
we run to catch each one…
…but soon realize that these are only shells…
empty houses left by creatures of the sea…
…and we lay all but the most beautiful aside
and carry one or two away with us.

Just as one cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach,
so one cannot collect all the moments of wonder…
…all the songs of joy…
…all the times of triumph that are a part of life.

But we can clasp the ones that come to us…
…close to our hearts…
where they will remain forever.

Managing Nemo: Conservation and Conflict in the Hawaii Marine Aquarium Trade

In early 2012 I traveled with Washington State University Science Journalist extraordinaire Eric Sorensen to Hawaii so he could write an article on my research on the Hawaii aquarium trade, which has been ongoing since the mid-1990s. At the time of the article things were heating up between aquarium collectors and Snorkel Bob’s crusade to shut them down in Hawaii. Since then, conflict has escalated to the level of a very public physical confrontation, as described in a balanced and well researched piece by Ret Talbot published in Coral magazine. As a scientist I have tried to provide objective information to inform fishery management plans and policy and not engage in the debate over the fate of the trade in Hawaii.

Our lab’s research in Hawaii over the last 15 years, including our very important collaboration with Dr. Bill Walsh (Biologist, West Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources), and the work of many others, has resulted in one of the best managed aquarium fisheries in the world. I don’t say this lightly and a recent independent study by Rossiter and Levene (2012) published in Marine Policy examines the reason why management works well in West Hawaii. Since there are important lessons to be learned here I thought I would write a few blog posts on the trade describing my experiences in Hawaii as a person and a scientist with a focus on the role of science in environmental conflicts. Since Eric’s article is a nice introduction on how I came to be involved in West Hawaii, and describes the larger scene, I lead with that. Please follow the link at the end to read the original article and the web exclusive: “A Brush with Snorkel Bob.”

WSU Magazine

WSU Magazine Cover, Summer 2012

Managing Nemo
Summer 2012, WSU Magazine

by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University

THE ISLAND OF HAWAII, lest it be confused with the state of Hawaii, is often referred to as the Big Island. In fact, it is the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands. But in many ways, it is like a small town, as Brian Tissot has once again realized upon returning earlier this year.

On short notice, he has scheduled a talk in the Kealakehe High School Library in Kailua-Kona, the largest town on the island’s west coast, also known as West Hawaii. And in the days leading up to the talk, most everyone he meets has heard he will be speaking. Even an old acquaintance from across the island in Hilo, where Tissot was once a University of Hawai‘i professor, caught wind of the talk. A traveling companion swimming off the town’s waterfront met a woman from Alberta, Canada, who has also heard about it.

Tissot, accustomed to crowds of ten or so people on the WSU Vancouver campus, is excited about the prospect of a full room. He is nervous, too. His subject—the West Hawaii aquarium fishery, home to an array of charismatic, brightly colored creatures like those in the movie Finding Nemo—has for years been the subject of often bitter debate and worse.

“There were death threats,” he says on the flight over, recalling a particularly intractable period in the ’90s. “People were going on collectors’ boats and letting fish out while the collectors were underwater. All sorts of bad stuff was going on.”

Since then, Tissot, a marine scientist, has become a key figure in the fishery. He has documented the impacts of aquarium collectors and the ability of the reef to recover when areas are closed to collecting. He and his colleagues have shown how protected areas can “seed” unprotected areas with fish and larvae. In the first study of its kind, they mapped genetic connections between fish and their offspring miles away—a needle-in-a-haystack accomplishment writ across tens of thousands of square miles of water.


Brian Tissot at Kahalu’u, Kona. WSU Photo

“Brian was the foundation of aquarium science here in Hawaii,” says Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist for the Division of Aquatic Resources and the state’s top fish scientist in West Hawaii.

To Tissot, the West Hawaii fishery shows how a mix of science- and community-based management can reconcile competing interests and points of view to conserve a treasured ocean resource. Alongside similar efforts off Florida and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it could be a model for conservation activities elsewhere. In particular, Tissot and a number of other researchers are concerned about the trade in aquarium fish, corals, and other items from the western Pacific’s Coral Triangle, home to the richest, most diverse reefs in the world and a region of relatively lawless collecting.

So while Hawaii is relatively small, he says, “what we learned there is helping us think about the big picture.”

Central to that is the network of people needed to forge a consensus on what directions to take.
“We’re studying people as much as we’re studying organisms,” he says. “Fishery management is more than just fish.”

In a way, the fishery is a tidy, self-contained example—an aquarium unto itself—filled with the elements common to so many other fisheries struggling to responsibly manage stocks in the face of a hungry, growing, and interconnected global economy. It is subjected to deep and responsive scientific study from the likes of Tissot, Walsh, and others. It has several marine protected areas, darlings of the conservation world whose value reaches well outside their borders. And its voluntary management council has poured thousands of hours into smoothing out more than a decade of controversy to reach a consensus on the fishery’s direction.

To Tissot, the West Hawaii fishery is a marvel of modern marine policy, an admirable blend of conservation science and sociology, or “integral ecology,” capable of pointing the way for embattled fisheries around the world.

Only now the fishery’s hard-won consensus is being jeopardized by a group rekindling efforts for an outright ban on all aquarium collecting in Hawaii. Among those leading the charge is Robert Wintner, owner and namesake of the “Snorkel Bob” dive shops. He is an outlier among the aquarium trade’s critics: brash, hyperbolic, unyielding, and prone to ego-flavored pronouncements that begin with, “I, Snorkel Bob.” His website links to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser review of his book, Some Fishes I Have Known. The review says it “can be considered environmentalist propaganda and, as such, is most excellent at what it accomplishes.”

As Tissot sees it, an advocate like Wintner uses the science that suits him and blows off the rest. A scientist has to play by different rules. His terms of engagement call for acknowledging and giving good weight to other points of view. Tissot has opinions, but he doesn’t want to conflate them with his science, or shed the rigorous, impartial, redundant, and peer-reviewed scrutiny of science.
“If I give one bad talk,” he says at one point, “it can be the end of my career.”
Just a few days before his talk at the library, he hears Snorkel Bob might be there.

BRIAN TISSOT was a Navy brat. His dad, Ernest Tissot, flew 309 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, was the third Navy aviator to land more than 1,000 times on an aircraft carrier, commanded the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, and retired as a rear admiral. This had several implications for the younger Tissot.

“Every two years, we’d move,” he says. “But we were always near the water.”
That meant surfing. He started at age 13, while stationed in San Diego. Footage of a spring break surfing trip in 1975, while dad worked at the Pentagon, has more than 40,000 views on YouTube. When the time came to go to college, he chose Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Sure, it had a good marine biology program. But Tissot thought, “Big waves, not too crowded.”
His first major was journalism, and he knocked off a suite of photography classes. He was living at the beach 10 miles from campus, hitchhiking to class. One day he was picked up by a marine biology professor, who told him he wouldn’t need to take any prerequisite science courses to enroll in his class.

“That was it,” says Tissot. “I was gone.”

While he used to sit on the beach waiting for waves, he would now walk the shoreline. He developed an interest in black abalone, a dark sea snail with an iridescent pink and green interior. He finished his undergraduate years studying their diet and growth. For two years after graduation, he worked for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, studying how abalone were affected by the plant’s warm-water discharges. While getting his master’s at the University of California, Irvine, he met marine biologist Mark Hixon, who lured him to Oregon State University for a doctorate.

Two years into his studies there, he started seeing fewer abalone. In 1988, there were a fifth as many as the year before. It turned out the abalone were stricken by a bacterium that inhibits their digestive tract. Their feet, which they use to store carbohydrates as well as move and anchor themselves, wither away, making them more vulnerable to predators and starvation.
Tissot looked for them in remote places left relatively untouched by fishing, like Santa Cruz Island, in southern California’s Channel Islands. He sailed on a converted destroyer to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Upon arriving, the crew was told they had to leave in a matter of hours. It almost didn’t matter; all Tissot found was shells.

“You go to a place where life was just teeming and suddenly it was empty,” he says. “It was haunting. It was very sad.”

Up to that point, Tissot was focused on the nitty-gritty of the research: biomechanics, morphology and evolution, diet. But as the abalone withered, Tissot’s conservation ethic grew, shifting “from science for science’s sake to protecting the things I love.”

IN 1979, Tissot was basking in one of the Seven Pools of Hana, on the island of Maui, when he spotted a long form in the distance. He wondered out loud what it was.

“That’s the Big Island,” said his brother.

“I had a moment,” Tissot recalls one night over ribs and a golden-orbed sunset at a waterfront restaurant. “I felt I would end up here. There was something about this island that always appealed to me.”

Truth be told, Tissot is prone to moments. He had another one the next year, when he visited West Hawaii and dove north of town.

A strong ocean surge sent water in and out of the black lava cliffs and underwater caves. Against this backdrop, clouds of fish swirled back and forth, going with the flow, moving in to pick at rocks before streaming out. Tissot documented the scene with an underwater 8-millimeter movie camera, or thought he had before realizing he forgot to load it with film.

“I just figured I’ll have to remember it,” he says. “And I have.”

And in a move familiar to many Hawaii visitors, from smitten honeymooners to the cast of “Lost,” he got back to the island. In 1992, not long after he got his doctorate, he was hired as the first faculty member in a new marine science group at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. It was a busy time. He taught 15 different classes in the first two years, sometimes staying just a chapter ahead of the class. He started teaching two-week summer workshops in quantitative underwater ecological surveying techniques, or QUEST, training scores of divers to monitor the health of reef communities. He also gave public talks about coral reef conservation, ecology, and human impacts like pollution and overfishing. At a meeting in 1994, Lisa Choquette of Dive Makai, a scuba tour operator, told him aquarium collectors were destroying the West Hawaii reef, with many species of fish being harder to find.

“This was the first I ever heard about it,” says Tissot.

The issue had been simmering since the early ’70s, when the state required collectors to obtain permits and file monthly reports. In the ensuing two decades, several forces came to a head. Saltwater aquariums grew in popularity, aided by improvements in tank technology and jet travel that could speed colorful, tropical fish to pet stores.

Permits and reports did little to slow collecting. But it did provide a paper trail of the trade’s growth, from fewer than 100,000 fish collected in 1973 to more than 400,000 in 1995. The bulk of collecting also shifted to the Big Island, as much of the reef around Oahu was overfished and destroyed by hurricanes in 1982 and 1992.

At the same time, a growing number of tourists were visiting West Hawaii and availing themselves of snorkeling and dive services like Choquette’s, while many Hawaiians and mainlanders were moving to the Big Island.

Tina Owens was among the newcomers, arriving from Oahu in 1993. Then, as now, the ocean was a huge part of local life, be it through snorkeling, scuba diving, catching word of a humpback whale on the Ironman triathlon swim course, or taking in the ocean view from homes along the flanks of Mauna Loa.

“Here people have their faces in the water all the time,” Owen says one afternoon over lunch and a beer with Tissot at the Kona Brewing Co.

The view out her scuba mask in the early ’90s was alarming.

“I had a number of dives where I could literally count the yellow tang on one hand,” she says, referring to the most frequently collected fish. “Those were dark years, but that’s when people started getting upset about it.”

Frustrated by a lack of legislative action, Owens formed The Lost Fish Coalition and began pushing for a total ban on fish collecting. She got 4,000 petition signatures in favor of the ban and wrangled 400 pieces of testimony to committees weighing the proposal. Shortly before a hearing on the ban, she picked up the phone and heard a voice say, “You’re dead. You just don’t know it yet.”

ABOVE THE WATER, scores of tourists are taking advantage of the 65-foot Kanoa II’s sybaritic delights: the high-dive platform, the 20-foot water slide, Mai Tai specials at the bar, lunch.
Underwater, a fair number of guests in snorkels and scuba gear are drinking in the scenery that gives Hawaii’s coral reefs an estimated recreation and tourism value of nearly $400 million: strikingly banded butterflyfish, solid gold yellow tangs, and the parti-colored reef triggerfish, Hawaii state fish and owner of one of the longest Hawaiian fish names, Humuhumunukunukuapua‘a. Mullets shimmer past, possibly to escape a trevally. Playing rhythm to the chorus of bubbles and surf is the gentle ticking sound of black durgeon fish picking algae off the coral.


Brian Tissot surfaces near the Red Hill replenishment area. WSU photo

Tissot surfaces, pops out his snorkel, and mentions a school of dark fish with bold orange splotches on and near their tails.

“Those are Achilles tangs,” he says. “You don’t see them very often. They’re very coveted by collectors.”

But while the other fish seem abundant, Tissot says he can’t tell by simply looking if their numbers are up or down. That requires counting, which he started doing in the mid-90s as the aquarium debate gathered steam.

At the state’s request, Tissot and a University of Hawai‘i colleague ran multiple, 50-meter transects, tallying fish on industrial-strength waterproof paper in two protected areas and nearby areas open to collecting. One pair of sites was by the Old Kona Airport, where Tissot first dove in 1980. The other sites were at Red Hill, a stone’s throw from the Kanoa II’s mooring.

The results were dramatic. Seven species that accounted for 90 percent of the aquarium trade were significantly reduced in unprotected areas. The areas had roughly half as many moorish idols, Potter’s angelfish, longnose butterflyfish, and yellow tang. Four-spot butterflyfish were down 75 percent. Meanwhile, fish outside the aquarium trade were unaffected.

“The collectors couldn’t believe it,” says Tissot. “They said, ‘How did you know the fish weren’t there some other time?’ Because those others were, and at multiple sites, and aquarium fish were not there dozens of times. They couldn’t believe it. They didn’t want to believe it.”

Tissot shared his preliminary findings with a legislator who went on to forge legislation to ban collecting in certain areas. Owens’ coalition agreed to the compromise and in 1998, the legislature passed Act 306 barring collecting in “Fish Replenishment Areas” that covered more than 30 percent of West Hawaii. A broad-based fishery council—including collectors, dive tour operators, fishers, divers, and community representatives—picked nine areas covering 35 percent of the coast.
A hearing on the replenishment areas drew more than 800 people and was the largest ever conducted by the Department of Aquatic Resources. More than 93 percent of the attendees supported the areas.

But not everyone was happy. Tour operators and community members were upset that the new rules didn’t have enforcement provisions. And while the collectors are a small industry in Hawaii—four or five dozen people grossing less than $2 million a year by the latest estimates—they felt singled out for using what they thought was a seemingly limitless resource.

At Tissot’s suggestion, Claudia Capitini ’03 MS canvassed the fishery council’s players for her master’s thesis and found the collectors felt the council’s conclusions were too heavily skewed by scientists.

One collector told her, “there needed to be more than biology” behind the decisions.

“Nobody had ever done this before and here is a case where you have an information asymmetry,” says Capitini, who now carries the title of “sustainability maven” for an environmentally friendly products company. “You have people who have a lot of information about why these fish are important, about what the habitat is like, on a level that’s different than the people who live there.”
Capitini notes that similar asymmetries appear in other ecological disputes, like the debate over global warming.

“This happens all over the world,” she says “This is not new.”

TISSOT IS NAVIGATING his rented Chevrolet Impala along the waterfront’s Ali‘i Drive on his way to a dive shop, then to Kahalu’u Beach Park for some snorkeling. He passes one of Snorkel Bob’s ubiquitous dive shops, and the thought of its owner and namesake, Robert Wintner, has Tissot seeing red. And purple. And green.

As the aquarium fishery issue continued to simmer, Tissot started thinking about the reef’s people as well as its fish. He used something called “integral ecology,” which applies the theories of biochemist and New Age philosopher Ken Wilber and others to the human-nature interface, in this case, marine protected areas and their management.

Wilber’s philosophy can be a bit hard on the mind, so sit tight for a second. As Tissot explains in an article for World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution, the Integral Model describes evolution as taking place in four dimensions or “quadrants”: the exterior-individual quadrant (behavioral), the exterior-collective quadrant (systems), the interior-collective quadrant (cultural), and the interior-individual quadrant (experience). It gets even more intense, which is what one should expect from an author with a book subtitled, “A Brief History of Everything.”

Woven into the map of quadrants are color-coded stages of development. They start with beige, which is akin to the selfish early years of a human’s life built around survival, warmth, and shelter. Two stages up is red—the impulsive self, aligning with power, taking what you need, being what you are, and doing what you want.

The blue stage sees a life of meaning bounded by rules and law. In here, says Tissot, you can find politicians, law and order, organized religion, environmental regulation. Orange features incentive-based achievement, rationalism, science and knowledge. Stages above that start to recognize stages below and move toward a sort of broad-minded enlightenment.

It’s all pretty far afield of science, which, in a way, is the point. Science is one way of seeing the world. By looking at all quadrants and all levels, an ecologist can start to consider the various perspectives of, say, a fishery, and recommend solutions that, as Tissot writes, “honor each perspective while maximizing the sustainability of the system as a whole.”

Aquarium collectors are blue, says Tissot. “This is perfectly legal. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Environmental organizations are “all over the map.” The mainstream ones will be orange and blue. More radical environmental groups, like Friday Harbor’s direct-action anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, are red. For that matter, Snorkel Bob, who sits on the Sea Shepherd board, is red too.
“The colors are unimportant,” says Tissot as he steers the Impala into a rival dive shop’s parking lot. “It’s where they’re coming from and why.”

TEN MINUTES before it is scheduled to start, the sign-in sheet for Tissot’s talk has a handful of signatures. But when it comes time to speak, nearly 50 people have filled the chairs.

Their body language suggests they are a circumspect lot. One woman videotapes the proceedings with a small handheld camera. Tissot is wearing one of his dozen-plus aloha shirts, this featuring Hawaii’s state flower, bird, and tree. His speaking has the breathless quality of a nervous person, but the words come easily. When he asks how many people are divers, half the hands go up.
He packs in a lot, first framing the West Hawaii fishery as part of a bigger picture that has 30 million aquarium fish coming from some 30 countries, but mostly the Philippines and Indonesia. Fishers will stun fish with cyanide and dynamite; run rough over reefs, and rove about, flaunting local laws. If the trade is banned in Hawaii, “probably one of the best managed systems in the world,” says Tissot, even more of it will move to less regulated areas of the globe.

He recapped the late-90s research showing that seven of ten aquarium species were down in collected areas.

“That says, ‘Yeah, collection does have a big impact,’” he says.

But later, he shows how much that story changed once 35 percent of West Hawaii was closed and the fish had a chance to rebound. In less than three years, fish densities in replenishment areas shot up to be even with those of no-take areas. From there, the densities in each went up and down together in a cyclical pattern. Overall, the fish in the newly protected areas went up 74 percent.

“They replenish fish very quickly,” Tissot says.

Even more striking is work showing genetic relationships between parents and offspring that end up 15, 49, 140, even 184 kilometers away.

“What it demonstrates is all these populations are all connected, which is really good,” Tissot says. “So if you wipe out a population in one area, it will be reseeded from somewhere else, which is what you want.”

Still, there are some species that have continued to fall off, a reason some managers and fish advocates are pushing regulators to create a “white list” of fish that can be caught. And both the number of permits and number of fish caught have roughly doubled since 1999, building the case to limit the entry of collectors into the trade.

Such changes would be in keeping with adaptive management, the iterative decision-making process advocated by, among others, Compass and Gyroscope author Kai Lee. Near the end of his talk, Tissot puts up an image of Lee’s book. The compass, he explains, is science, data, monitoring. But the gyroscope comes from the public, which is all over the West Hawaii fishery—in the dozens of Fisheries Council members putting in tens of thousands of hours, in the local Division of Aquatic Resources workers, in the network of people swarming the Big Island, living with their faces in the water, and turning out for talks like this and others put on by the local Sea Grant.

The resilience of the community, says Tissot, is key to the fishery’s sustainability.

“You’ve got to have good science, but you have to have a resilient community, one that is engaged, responds together,” says Tissot. “With those things, you’re going to keep this fishery going. You’re going to keep the reefs healthy, you’re going to keep the fish in high abundances. If something goes wrong and you see big declines, you do something different, but that’s what management is about. And most fisheries don’t respond like this.”

The crowd is a mix of tough and perceptive, noting small details like the difference between the average change in fish numbers and absolute change. But given the heat that surrounded the fishery 15 years earlier, it’s a remarkably calm, even encouraging reception. Two collectors even thanked Tissot, and one said Tissot’s research has become “a cornerstone of the debate.”

“I’ve never had two aquarium collectors in one night thank me,” Tissot says the next day.

Snorkel Bob was a no-show.

See the original article at Managing Nemo and don’t miss his web exclusive on A Brush with Snorkel Bob.

Diving with fish, turtles and sharks (oh my!)

Diving underwater can be a surreal experience. Diving is one of the few adventures that transports you to a totally alien environment, one that is naturally devoid of human life. Unfortunately, the ocean world is far from free of our influences and finding pristine conditions is often limited to remote areas far from human civilization. However, there are still many places in the world where diving can be an amazing experience on any given day. Since I was young I have been fascinated with the ocean and spent many hours watching my favorite TV shows such as Sea Hunt, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Johnny Quest, and of course, the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.  After I started surfing in 1970 I always wondered what it was like to be underwater for extended lengths of time and cruise around. Seven years later, I because SCUBA certified in the Philippines while my Dad was stationed at the Subic Bay Naval Station and my life was forever changed. At Subic I experienced 100 feet visibility, coral reefs, and some amazing places. When I returned to college in Central California from the Philippines I was faced with 1-10 foot visibility (on good days) and cold water.  However, I was so passionate about diving I used to sit in 5 feet of murky water with a tank of air for hours just looking at the bottom and sea life. Ah, those were the days.

Me SCUBA diving at Puako, Hawaii, 1995. Photo by John Coney.

At any rate I went on to a long career in marine biology and over 1,000 Scuba dives in California, Oregon, Washington, Mexico, French Polynesian, Indonesia, Micronesia, the Philippines and Hawaii. Although there are so many memorable dives that I could write about here, one stands out over the years that I keep thinking about. When I lived in Hawaii (on the big island) I often went diving on Kauai with my friend and colleague, Carl Stepath; a marine biology professor at Kauai Community College and Founder of the NGO Save Our Seas. Carl lived on the north shore of Kauai at Haena Beach and adjacent to some spectacular diving spots. One summer morning in 1999 we got up early and went diving at Tunnels, a popular dive and surfing spot and a dive I’ll never forget.

It was a very calm and clear morning with the sun just rising in the east. As we walked into the water against a spectacular backdrop of island mountains I knew this was going to be a great dive. Since it was early and we were the only people on the reef the fish and turtles were undisturbed, dare I say “sleepy” and easy to approach. I had my Sony VX1000 video camera in an Iklelite housing (then state-of-the-art digital equipment) and wanted to film the reef “as is” with no humans in the frame, just focusing on the reef and its inhabitants. To enhance the mood I used music by George Winston of one of my favorite Doors song “Crystal Ship” on his “Night Divides the Day” album.

Before you slip into unconsciousness
I’d like to have another kiss
Another flashing chance at bliss
Another kiss, another kiss

I’ll let the video speak for itself but it was a surreal dive and one I still dream of often. The sun reflecting off of the surface, the ring tail surgeonfish milling about, the turtles “waking up” and swimming to the surface, mixed schools of surgeonfish feeding on the shallow reef.  This is what I imagine the reef to look like without people around. But of course that is impossible to know!


Green Sea Turtle

So what about the sharks you might ask? Well, two things: one, this is a common place to see white-tipped reef sharks which rest during the day in the caves under the reef. They are relatively small and not aggressive towards humans and this is a great place to see them; second, this is the very place that Bethany Hamilton was attacked, and lost an arm, from a Tiger shark in 2003. As you hopefully have heard, Bethany survived and made an amazing recovery documented in the film Soul Surfer; an inspirational film which illustrates the power of faith in the face of tragedy to transform one’s life into a motivational experience.

Of course, hearing this you may not be rushing out to dive at Tunnels anytime soon so here is some data to keep in mind. First of all, shark attacks are relatively rare, even in Hawaii. According to the SAS Shark Attack file, since 1908 there have been 238 shark attacks In Hawaii, with 27 off Kauai and 9 of those off the north shore not far from tunnels, one being fatal (in 1981). So overall, the chances of an encounter, let alone a fatal attack are very, very small considering the millions of people that play in the ocean each year. Moreover, thanks to Dr. Kim Holland and his crew at the University of Hawaii who have been tagging tiger sharks in Hawaii and tracking their movements via the Hawaii Tiger Shark Tracking Network we know that these large predatory fish travel far and wide in search of prey. As an example see the map below of a female tiger shark over a 10 month period swimming all over Maui and over to the big island. So the chances of an encounter are serendipitous at best. Of course sea turtles, which are on the rebound in Hawaii, are know prey of tiger sharks, so swimming in areas where their are lots of turtles may increase your chances of seeing a tiger shark, however slightly.


Track of tagged tiger shark (12.2 ft. female) between Oct 18, 2013 and Aug. 8, 2014. Data from Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

At any rate, here’s the video and I’d love to hear your comments. Enjoy!

Man with his burning soul
Has but an hour of breath
To build a ship of truth
In which his soul may sail—
Sail on the sea of death,
For death takes toll
Of beauty, courage, youth,
Of all but truth … John Masefield (1878–1967)

Playing Chess during the Vietnam War

2906cFinally, there it was: “Pawn to Queen’s Knight Four.” I raced into my bedroom to my chess set and made the move. Staring at the pieces I smiled and immediately thought of my next move. But then I had time to think: it would be months until his next move. They call it the Game of Kings but to me it was a connection to my father during the Vietnam war. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s my father was mostly overseas defending our country in Vietnam. His combat and command tours read like a chronology of the war:

  • Lemoore, California: USS Bon Homme Richard, 1963-65
  • San Diego, California: USS Constellation, 1966-68
  • McLean, Virginia: Pentagon, 1968-69
  • San Diego, California: USS Thomason, 1970-71
  • Alameda, California: USS Enterprise, 1971-1974

So for most of my childhood years staying in touch wasn’t easy and it was mostly through the FPO (Fleet Post Office). These were tumultuous and difficult times for our country and they were particularly difficult for members of the military and their families. My father was a naval aviator and as the war escalated in the mid-1960s, so did the number of pilots being shot down, either being killed or ending up as POWs or MIAs. The nightmare was seeing the official Navy car with a Chaplain in the back seat drive down your street, wondering where it would stop to deliver the bad news. As my Dad was in command positions, first the leader of an Attack Squadron, then CAG (Commander, Air Group), then the CO (commanding officer) of the USS Enterprise my Mom often went to comfort the wives during these moments. This daily possibility took quite a toll on my mother over the years, especially during 1967 when we lost so many pilots as the air war escalated in North Vietnam. To give you an idea of what people were dealing with, one of our close family Friends, Capt. Pete Sherman, was shot down in June 1967 but not declared MIA until October 1973. His body was eventually recovered from North Vietnam in 1991.

Sherman Wall

Capt. Sherman’s name on the Vietnam Memorial

We dealt with the war mostly by not talking about it and instead looked forward to receiving an audio tape in the mail via the FPO from my Dad. Every month or so my mother, brother and I would sit around a reel-to-reel tape player and listen to messages my Dad sent. He would talk about how he was doing and then talk to each one of us in turn. This is where the chess came in and I waited anxiously to hear his next move. Finally, “Hi Brian, Knight to Queen’s Bishop Three.” We each had a metal chess board with magnetic pieces, me in my room and him aboard ship in Vietnam. It was a great way to stay engaged and not think about the war and all its realities.


One of the worse moments for us was Sept.1972 when the USS Enterprise was deploying to Vietnam out of the Alameda Naval Air Station. Berkeley and the People’s Blockage was out in force protesting the war and supporting the SOS (Stop Our Ships) movement to get members of the crew to leave the ship and prevent further deployments to Vietnam. Earlier that year the USS Ranger had been sabotaged by a Navy Fireman who dropped a paint scraper into a gear box, destroying one of the engines, so tensions were very high. In addition to protesters at the main gate at Alameda there were people in a small flotilla of boats trying to stop the ship from leaving port. 

When the Enterprise finally left Alameda she had an 18 vessel Coast Guard escort to the Golden Gate Bridge. As the ship passed under the Bridge all traffic was at a standstill with protesters waving signs and screaming angry words at the ship below. Believe me, we didn’t want our father to leave either but he was doing what his country asked of him. To add insult to injury, a moment I will never forget, when we pulled up to the main gate a protester saw the commander “eagle” on my Mom’s car and spit in her face. In contrast to today’s troops, Vietnam veterans and their families were welcomed with scorn and contempt, not esteem. These were sad times for our country.


Stop Our Ships Demonstration in San Francisco, 1973. Photo: Steve Rees

“Bishop to King’s Knight Five,” and so the game went on. Using derivative chess notation (it’s mostly algebraic now) we sent our moves back and forth, California to Vietnam. A few weeks or a month later, Vietnam to California. It was fun and went on for years. As the months and years passed we slowly worked on our game. Although I don’t recall if we every finished the game looking back it was mostly to have something special between us, just him and I, a way to connect across the vast distances in all the chaos and hate, something to focus on besides the possibility that he might not come back. Looking back on those trying times this is what I remember the most.


My Dad’s plane, 1964. Off the USS Bon Homme Richard.

After the war my Dad went on to make Rear Admiral and was Commander Carrier Group Five/Task Force 77 out of Subic Bay before retiring from the Navy in 1981 after 36 years, He worked for Northrop International until 1991 and is now retired in the Monterey, California area. He’s very proud of his military career, as am I. For more information see his Wikipedia entry. I still occasionally play chess with my Dad and enjoy playing with both my kids.

My old chess set used to track chess moves my father in the 1960s.