50 Years from Today

Mike Wallace of 60 minutes fame complied  a book entitled “The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today: 60 Of The World’s Greatest Minds Share Their Visions of the Next Half-Century.” He asked me to write an essay on my vision for the future but it did not make the final cut. For whatever it’s worth I’m posting it here:

50 Years From Today
Brian Tissot: Marine Ecologist

Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Captain Nemo – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

For me the future holds both fear and beauty, both the possibility of chaos and the promise of a better world.  I live in hope. When I think of the future my thoughts naturally turn to the ocean, both my life’s work and my life’s inspiration. Born into a Navy family (my father retired as a Rear Admiral) I was accustomed to the constant traveling from place to place, mostly near the ocean as it were.  When I turned 13 my family moved to San Diego, California and I lived a dozen blocks from the beach. Somehow, looking at the ocean back then in 1970,  I connected like never before, I was hooked and have never looked back. First it was surfing, then snorkeling, scuba diving, marine biology.  A marine ecologist.

Perhaps my most profound moments when thinking about the future are when I reflect on the past. How different things were back then, how the people were different, the places were different, but most of all the ocean.  It makes me think: how will now seem to folks in 2057? Back in the 1970s the ocean off California was colder, rich, and teeming with marine life.  During fierce winter storms kelp ripped from the ocean shore would create huge piles on the beaches. Fishing was terrific and it was easy to catch 20 rockfish (the limit back then) in a couple hours on a boat; 4 abalone could be found along the shore within an hour. Now things are quite different. The ocean is warmer and less productive, kelp has largely disappeared and along with it abundant rockfish and abalone. Along the Pacific coast the entire ocean has warmed and there have been major shifts in marine life. During El Niño events, fish from the tropics have been found in the Pacific NW!  Much of this, I believe is due to human-induced warming of the Earth, which will be a key part of our future. Another piece, perhaps even more important, has been inability to successfully manage our marine resources for future generations. Both of these represent major challenges that will shape our future in 50 years.

The ocean is a key part of our future, just as it has been throughout human history.  The 20th century saw the largest population increase in human history, from less then 2 billion to over 6 billion souls. However, growth into the 21st century are predicted to make this look mild: the world is projected to have 10 billion by 2057 and 19 billion people by 2100!  As it is now the majority of people live within 50 miles of the ocean and depend, either directly, or indirectly upon it for resources. The ocean provides us with food, medicine, transportation, energy, and inspiration. A healthy ocean protects our shores from storms and hurricanes, moderates our climate, and provides balancing of the planets key elements that control climate change.  We have also learned a lot about the ocean and in turn about global processes.  In 50 years we will need the ocean even more, I predict, food, energy and living space.  Food represents a challenge as most of the world’s fisheries are at or close to their maximum sustainable use or are overfished. Even with vastly improved fishery management, which is doubtful given the economic and social pressures on today’s fisheries, the gains are modest.  One solution which is being tried is open-ocean aquaculture: using the ocean sea to cultivate wild fish in large underwater pens. Early studies suggest this is a promising approach but we need to be careful about potential impacts to existing ocean life.

Energy from the seas is one of the more exciting possibilities. Projects are already in place that create energy from ocean waves, tides, temperature differences, and from the mixing of salt and fresh water. In 50 years the ocean will likely provided a much larger, environmentally cleaner and sustainable source of energy. Space represents one of the most interesting uses of the sea. There are already floating amphibious houses in the Netherlands, which float as rivers and the sea rise. Due to global warming sea level is predicted to rise over one feet by 2057, causing flooding problems in major cities such as London, New Orleans and low lying islands throughout the world. In these places, and others, floating homes might be an adaptive way to deal with changing conditions. But why stop there? Why not build entire cities at sea that are anchored and or perpetually cruising  around the world, like the proposed Freedom Ship. Even more, many see floating cities as the best way to learn how to colonize space, another strong possibility as we move into the next 50 years.

But technology, for all its marvels and promise, will not create a better world in 50 years. For every gain in advantage over the natural world also allows us to destroy it, and destroy us even more. Ultimately, more important than what we will do in the future, is how we will do it.  I hope our expansion into the sea  will require us to cooperate and live together as a planet, to create a world-centric moralistic perspective.  The ocean truly is the last and final frontier on the planet, our last chance to prove our humanity, our ability to learn and grow together, and most importantly to share.  As we grow, as the land fills with people, we will turn to the ocean more and more for its wealth. I see two possible future paths: to continue our deeds of the past, to take without limit, to plunder the ocean resources and damage its capacity to nurture us. This pattern has been our story so far.

But I believe in another path, one that unites us in a common humanity. For although the human race has many differences, we have many more similarities. My thinking has been very much influenced by the writings of Ken Wilber, an amazing scholar and philosopher with a integral view of the universe, a melding of eastern and western philosophy and a powerful vision for the future. Ken’s vision is that our ongoing environmental conflicts are not really about industrialization, or pollution, or fighting over increasingly scarce resources,  but about a lack of mutual agreement about how to deal with these issues. Our conflicts arise from our inability to listen and learn from each other, to reach a mutual understanding and agreement based on a global moral perspective.  And although our differences are what make us strong, and adaptable to the changes which are forthcoming, it is ultimately our similarities that we must honor as well.  And this is something we can work on right now by listening, understanding, and learning from each other, by realizing that each of has something to contribute.

So, as we turn to the ocean in the next 50 years for our food, energy, medicines, and places to learn, live and dream, we are faced with the challenge of sharing this rich, vast, but largely uncharted frontier. A place with few shared human laws but many universal truths. I believe in a future where when we turn to the ocean for salvation, human laws and universal truths merge, and we learn how to move forward as a vibrant, healthy, sustainable planet.

The Demise of the Black Abalone

To be honest, I love the abalone. Ever since I first saw one as a kid in the 1960s I have been fascinated by this most unusual of snails. Like most people I was first attracted to their taste; abalone are a real delicacy. ani14However, the more I learned the more fascinated I became with them as living creatures. Having been around for at least 65 million years there are about 70 different species, and they are well adapted to their environment: wave-swept shores across the globe. In the cold oceans of the world they feast on nutrient rich kelps and grow to enormous sizes. The world record red abalone is 12.3 inches according to Buzz Owen, a professional abalone diver and the world’s expert on abalone. When you see abalone underwater you quickly realize they are really cool giant snails with complex tentacles sticking out in all directions to sense their environment and a big foot which they extend into the moving water and grabs pieces kelp as it drifts by.


As a surfer I was drawn to the black abalone, which lives in the nooks and crevices along the California shore and my fascination ultimately led me into a life of scientific research beginning in 1979. At first I was interested in what they ate and how fast they grew but I gradually became fascinated by their ecology which lead me to the California Channel Islands in the mid-1980s. At that time the black abalone was so abundant they literately formed a carpet of snails which covered the shore at Santa Cruz Island where I begin to study them in 1986.


They were so common they formed stacks of 5-6 abalone deep in some areas. But alas, I was witnessing the last stand of the black abalone in southern California. Beginning in 1987, and for reasons still not entirely clear, they began to wither and die, forming huge piles of empty shells along the shore. As years went by they declined over 99% in my study areas on Santa Cruz Island. Then the mass mortality, which was discovered later to be caused by a bacterium, moved on and wiped out most of the abalone in southern California and eventually migrated up the coast as far as Cayucos in central California. In the process, this plague wiped out >95% of historic black abalone populations. To get a feel for what happened here’s a sequence of photos from a site I studied on Santa Cruz Island from 1986-1999:

sci111986: pre-mortality


1988: peak mortality


1999: most all gone

Yes, millions upon millions of abalone died in a few short years yet I imagine for most of you this is the first time you have heard of it. Such is the plight of the lowly, and mostly unappreciated, invertebrate. If 1,000 sea lions or sea otters died it would be on the front page of every newspaper but the black abalone disappeared from most of California’s shores with nothing more that a few small articles. As you can imagine it was horrifying for me to watch and very depressing. When I am back on Santa Cruz Island the empty shores, one time covered by abalone, feel barren and haunting.  Black abalone are still around but where I used to count thousands of abalone I now find only 1 or 2. Finally the Federal government took notice and beginning in 2004 I helped work on the science of their diminished status which eventually resulted in the listing of the black abalone on the endangered species list in 2009. One would hope that at some point they will return to their former glory, but it certainly won’t happen anytime soon.

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A Hatteras Odyssey

One of my favorite classic surf films is from my senior year of High School when I lived in the east coast. During spring break 1975 Dave Bence, Frank Dorenkamp, Pat Fulks, and I went on a surf trip in my ’66 VW camper van and Frank’s Chevy Vega to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina from Alexandria, VA. Although the surf at Hatteras was decent (by east coast standards) a cold storm pushed us south in search of waves and we ended up in Florida and surfed Sebastian Inlet and New Smyrna Beach with Dave’s cousin Lee as our guide. It was a wonderful trip! Although I do remember getting seriously sunburned.

At any rate, the film, which I mostly shot and edited, provides a nice feel for those laid-back times: the VW experience, the long road trip, the changing landscape, the camaraderie, and the surfing  It also shows the old position of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which was moved in 1999. The video was filmed with my Minolta 8mm camera.

There are many other classic surf films (plus others) on my Dr Abalone youtube channel.

The music is by Pink Floyd “Time”, Doobie Brothers “Rockin’ down the Highway”, “Black Water”, Wishbone Ash “Leaf and Stream”, Honk “High in the Middle” and Doobie Brothers “Ukiah.” This is the original music we played back then on the trip.



Here’s the Deal: Why I Blog

Ok, why read my blog? I’ve been thinking about starting one for quite some time and decided that I would like a public space to share my work, my passions and experiences. Although my life has not been extraordinary, and I’m not famous, I have had an interesting life and the opportunity to do some cool things. In short, I was born in the late 50s into a military family and raised as a Navy “brat”, moving every 2.5 years or so. I was lucky: my Dad was an accomplished naval aviator and I had a wonderful mother who largely raised me while Dad was away. I also had an older brother who introduced me to new stuff, like surfing and Jimi Hendrix, when I was a kid. One thing about the Navy is that we were almost always fairly close to the sea; if not, my Mom would take us there because she loved it too. So over time, I developed a close affinity to the ocean, the one constant in my life.


Pacific Beach, 1970

Having made that connection it was a natural progression to surfing when I lived in San Diego and eventually into a career in marine biology. In junior high, I became very interested in film-making and took movies of many of my early surf trips in the 1970s using an 8mm camera. Some of these are posted on my YouTube site along with movies of skateboarding, the thing you did when you couldn’t surf. Naturally, when I went off to college the primary criteria was good surf, so I ended up at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo; a wonderful school near great waves, and lucky for me, excellent professors in marine biology. I eventually went on to get my Ph.D. in Zoology at Oregon State University, which is where the “Dr.” comes in, Doctor of Philosophy that is. Philosophy of the sea to me.

Bt in 1975

Cal Poly 1975

So, what about the abalone? Well, they were the link between surfing and marine biology. You see, after a day in the surf, I would comb the shoreline and eventually discovered abalone living in the nooks and crannies. I was very intrigued by abalone and have studied them most of my life.  Hence, “Dr. Abalone.” Since finishing graduate school in 1991 I have had a wonderful career in marine biology, first at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, at Washington State University Vancouver, now most recently at Humboldt State University.


Surfing the Oregon Coast, 1988.

So this blog will cover a whole range of topics that relate to my story and might be of interest to those that love the sea, marine life, surfing, making films, science fiction, and other stuff. My goal is to write stories of general interest from a “popular science” perspective although my interests are much broader than that. I put a lot of thought into my posts, which takes time, so I’m not a prolific blogger. Hopefully, however, you will find what I have to write about interesting. 

BT in Baja

Dr Abalone in Abalone Heaven! Natividad Island, Baja California, Mexico. Photo by John Steinbeck.