Feb252009
Q&A with Marine Biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum
Written by Ava

I had the great honor of doing a thorough one-on-one interview with the fascinating Sheril Kirshenbaum, a Duke University author, sometime Congressional staffer, researcher, musician, freelance writer, and acclaimed science blogger

But above all, she's a marine biologist who cares about the creatures and climate she studies and how they are affected by the world...and that's what The Reef Tank loves best of all.

Let's pick her brain, shall we? 

How did you get started in marine biology and why did you pick it as your study of choice? Was it about marine biology that got you hooked?

I expect most of us are born naturally curious about the world. I’ve yet to meet a 6-year-old who isn’t captivated by whales, dinosaurs, or space exploration. Science provides us the opportunity to ask questions and to figure out how things came to be the way they are. And how could I not be hooked on marine biology?  Horseshoe crabs older than dinosaurs?  A terrain more elusive than the moon?  Deep sea vents?  There’s nothing cooler on earth!

What do you do in the marine biology field?

I started more generally in biology as an undergrad and focused on understanding critters. Later I got involved in larger scale issues involved in marine management and conservation.  Graduate work in fisheries honed in on the ever-charismatic sea cucumber and I developed an affinity for echinoderms.  My research involved lab work to determine how fast they grow and reproduce.  I also did population modeling to study the way they move and how fast they can be sustainably harvested, while partnering with fishermen and state governments folks to make sure we maintain a viable population..

Later, I moved to DC where I worked with Senator Bill Nelson on ocean policy through the Knauss Sea Grant Fellowship, which places marine scientists in Congressional offices to advise members.  Since then, I became a writer mostly because I want to share what I’ve learned with interested people beyond the ivory towers of academia in order to broaden public understanding and appreciation of science and the marine environment.

Tell me about your blog.

I share The Intersection with science journalist Chris Mooney where we write about a variety of topics from marine biology to policy to science in the media and beyond.  We have a lot of fun working together and it’s reflected in our projects. We helped to found the ScienceDebate initiative and recently co-authored the forthcoming book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future about the growing rift between science and society—and what we can do about it.

What are your interests and how do you fit them into your busy schedule?

I love music and play drums and keys. I also love riding my bike, reading everything, singing, painting, daydreaming, hiking mountains, and playing in tide pools.

What sort of marine conservation initiatives are you involved in?

I support many projects internationally from the implementation of marine protected areas to the development of better local fisheries practices among communities.  I speak to students and groups often on what we can all do to make a difference and write extensively on topics like ocean acidification and algal blooms. Most of all, I like to emphasize that each of us can make a difference.

What is your opinion on aquarium maintenance and reef keeping?

I expect most people who love aquariums also love the marine environment as much as I do.  As long as we try to be responsible about where critters come from and don’t support destructive practices that destroy critical habitat or put unnecessary pressure on already threatened species, aquariums can be terrific for education or as a hobby.

In another interview you did with Seed, I read a comment that someone wrote saying he is extremely impressed because he is not a scientist but that you’re interesting without dumbing down the science.  How would you talk marine biology or aquarium keeping with members of the TRT forum who love their hobbies, but wouldn’t call themselves scientists and don’t like to get into scientific-based talk.

I often don’t like to get into ‘scientific based talk’ either.  But fortunately, what’s important isn’t all that complicated, but mainly common sense.  We like fish and healthy oceans and we want to ensure they’re around for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.  We also don’t always realize how necessary oceans are to all of us, so I’ll post my Top Ten List of reasons why oceans are vital:

  1. Ocean critters generate a good deal of the oxygen we breathe.
  2. We're talking 99% of the habitat, 97% of the water, and 71% of surface on the planet!
  3. Oceans drive climate and weather through transfer of water and heat.
  4. Most U.S. commerce travels through the nation's ports.
  5. Oceans account for a $20 billion recreational fishing industry... not to mention, a $60 billion annual seafood industry.
  6. And we're talking $8 trillion estimated in oil and gas reserves.
  7. They support nearly 50 percent of all species on Earth.
  8. Over 50% of our nation's population lives in coastal counties.
  9. Oceans mitigate the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere at their own expense... (okay, and ultimately ours).
  10. Marine animals and plants produce a ton of compounds that prevent and treat human disease.  Like sea cucumbers...
What kind of affect would you say global warming and climate change has on marine life?

Climate change is particularly bad for oceans, and in turn, dangerous for us.  Anyone who keeps an aquarium likely understands the importance of pH.  All of the excess CO2 we’ve been hearing about from Al Gore is not only going into our atmosphere, but also being absorbed in oceans which results in ocean acidification--meaning that the pH of oceans is becoming less basic.  As a result, scientists are already observing changes in survival and behavior of aquatic animals.  Species that depend on shells may be most at risk because as TRT readers probably know, pH impacts calcification.

Warmer seas also have a habit of increasing the strength and length of storms.  In areas already vulnerable to sea level rise, it leads to the destruction of mangroves—natural fish nurseries where juveniles develop.  Warmer temperatures also cause the little zooxanthellae to leave their coral hosts—what we call coral bleaching. Folks who care about coral should be very concerned.

Do you believe that people who have aquariums and hold tropical fish and/or corals are doing something detrimental to marine life?

Not if they keep aquariums responsibly.  

Many of us are familiar with Finding Nemo where a recreational diver caught a clownfish for his office tank.  This kind of collection often does more harm than we realize, well beyond removing a single individual.  I’ve been diving in reefs throughout the tropics and what we accept today as ‘pristine’ is only a shadow of the biodiversity that was there a few decades ago.  People have decimated a great deal of important habitat and there’s a lot dead coral down there, which makes me sad to see. Once abundant fish populations are also dwindling because of connections through trophic interactions.  There’s a terrific group called Shifting Baselines run by a friend of mine Randy Olson that makes films and PSAs about the problem.

As I wrote above, I think most people love aquariums because they are also fascinated by and appreciative of the marine realm.  It’s a sentiment we ought to encourage if we plan to save oceans.

In your opinion, how can reef aquarists contribute to marine conservation?

Continue reading about aquaculture’s impacts on marine habitats and share what you know with friends, family, students, teachers, and community. Also, remember that climate change is going to be one of oceans greatest threats, so save energy when you can.  Often, your health and wallet will benefit as well when you limit the amount you spend on gasoline and power.  Encourage others to think about their actions too because we’re in this together.

Alone, personal actions may seem small. But a lot of people, doing a lot of small things, adds up to real positive change.

Anything else you’d like to add?


Thanks for the interview!

Check out Sheril and Chris Mooney's extensive, topical science blog, The Intersection.
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April 14, 2009     

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