Duke’s Global Fellowship Recipient James Tremlett, talks to us about Marine Conservation.

Guest Blog by James Tremlett, Marine Conservationist and Social Scientist, Recipient of Duke’s Global Fellowship in Marine Conservation.

Could you briefly tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau and for the past few years have made my home in Pōneke. I grew up relishing any contact with the natural world, and so far I have been blessed to be able to pursue that passion professionally. I appreciate strong winds and good poetry and don’t go surfing nearly as much as I would like to. Like any good conservationist, I am also very fond of whales.

What inspired you to pursue studies in marine science?

As an undergraduate at the University of Auckland I remember being torn between terrestrial and marine ecology. Eventually I was drawn into the marine world as I became aware of the urgency of the conservation challenges facing us in the oceans. The habit of making important life choices while surfing may also have helped swing my decision somewhat!

I also studied geography to try to understand the social, cultural and economic drivers of environmental change. This helped me focus on my current professional interests: the usefulness and limitations of spatial management tools for marine protection, and the maintenance of artisanal and indigenous fisheries for food security and socio-ecological resilience.

This is me! (photo credit James Tremlett).
This is me!

What were you doing prior to your fellowship?

I have been privileged to work as a conservation scientist on a number of ocean-focused projects in Aotearoa and around the world. I have worked on commercial fishing vessels as a scientific observer for the New Zealand government and as an analyst on New Zealand oceans policy for a private think tank.  Directly before heading to heading to Duke I was working with small island communities to establish and monitor locally-managed marine areas in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea.

How did you hear about Duke’s Global Fellowship in Marine Conservation, and what led you to apply?

A good friend passed on the information to me. Duke has an excellent reputation for high-quality research in the environmental sciences and applied conservation. The focus of the fellowship on pragmatic, achievable solutions to conservation dilemmas was very appealing to me.

What is it, in your opinion, that makes it worthwhile to study in the United States?

New Zealand has some really first-class scientists and academics. But because of our size students can’t always be exposed to the same depth of expertise that is available in places like the US. Duke has gone out of their way to arrange guest lectures from scientists who are some of the best in their fields globally.

Mwanus fishing village. M'Buke Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. (photo credit James Tremlett).
Mwanus fishing village. M’Buke Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. (photo credit James Tremlett).

What has been your favorite part of the Fellowship so far?

It has been a privilege to engage with a group of people from all over the world who have dedicated their lives to the protection and stewardship of our oceans. I’m continually inspired by my fellow Fellows, both what they’ve achieved so far and the big plans they have for the future.

Aside from your studies, what are you most looking forward to seeing or doing while you’re in the United States?

Growing up in Aotearoa we are exposed to so much US media that many things here seem familiar, even when visiting for the first time. However during my short visit I’ve been challenged on some of my preconceptions about the US and been very impressed with the friendliness and hospitality of the people here. I’m looking forward to connecting with friends and colleagues in Hawai’i on my way home.

What do you plan on doing after your program at Duke?

In September and October I am going to be joining an expedition to the Kermadec Islands to take part in a study of humpback whales. Colleagues from the University of Auckland and elsewhere will be attaching satellite tags to whales to track their migration routes to the Antarctic. You can follow our progress, as well as read about previous Kermadec expeditions, on our blog here.

In collaboration with partners elsewhere in the Pacific, I’m also working on a project promoting marine education amongst our young people, with the aim of slowly reconnecting our communities with the ocean. We’re very excited about this one, more information will be coming soon!

Mwanus voyaging canoe, used for inter-island transportation and subsistence fishing. M'Buke Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. (photo credit James Tremlett).
Mwanus voyaging canoe, used for inter-island transportation and subsistence fishing. M’Buke Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. (photo credit James Tremlett).

What are some of the biggest challenges marine ecosystems currently face, and what solutions do you think we will need to implement to fix them?

Like all other natural systems, the oceans are affected by climate change – and just as importantly, the climate is affected by changes in the oceans. We’re only just beginning to understand how deep the links between ocean and climate are, with some scientists suggesting that what we call ‘climate change’ should better be called ‘ocean change’. On a global scale the oceans are warming, rising and becoming more acidic. The great currents that circulate heat around our planet are changing in ways we don’t understand. These processes are occurring at different rates in different locations, and will fundamentally alter many marine ecosystems.

Then there are a whole suite of challenges relating to the industrialisation of the oceans through aquaculture, energy production and deep-sea mining. Plastic debris is now abundant in every ocean of the world, and is becoming integrated into marine food chains. A particular focus of my work has been the effects of industrial fisheries. If we look into the history of coastal societies, we see that fishing predated all other human impacts in nearly every coastal and marine environment. It has always been at the centre of coastal livelihoods, but is now occurring on an industrial scale though production networks that entirely separate consumers from the act of pulling food from the sea.

These are the biggest problems imaginable, and need serious commitments by governments and international bodies. Addressing these challenges will not be easy and are likely to require significant changes to our economies and consumption practices.

What do you think it will take to get people to realize the severity of the issues facing marine environments?

Because we spend most of our time on land, marine issues are harder to grasp for almost everyone, ocean scientists included. It’s harder for us to track the degradation of a reef or an estuary in the same way we spot changes in a forest or grassland. For an archipelago nation like ours there is great potential to get people out on the coasts, in the water, learning the dynamics of what’s happening in the sea.

Our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Pacific are well aware of the threat to our oceans, and are showing a lot of leadership in this. In Aotearoa we need to remember that we are also a Pacific people, and that in a sense we all whakapapa back to the ocean. Lasting, fundamental change needs to be grounded in this awareness of our collective place within the natural world.

Do you feel that we’ll be able to adjust our world to a sustainable model of development and resource use?

Eventually we will have to! Overfishing is an example. Major fisheries are now overexploited in every ocean of the world. In my lifetime we will either witness a global effort to reduce pressure on wild fisheries so they can be sustained into the future, or see irreversible collapse of major fish stocks with catastrophic effects for food security and human development. We can choose to adjust our economies and societies now, or be forced into a far more painful adjustment later on.

What are a few simple, small changes people can make in their daily lives that would have a huge impact on the world they live in?

We can be conscious of what we consume. We can dispose of our plastics responsibly, and can simply refuse to buy single-use plastics: those you use once and throw away. We can plant trees, especially around waterways. In Aotearoa, we can all grow a few basic veggies. We can walk or take a bicycle short distances to the shops. We can give our neighbours some friendly encouragement to do the same. We can take our kids to the beach and teach them the importance of caring for our moana.

What do you think about recent initiatives to raise awareness of the problems facing aquatic ecosystems, such as President Obama’s declaration of June 2015 as World Oceans Month, or the upcoming Our Ocean conference this October in Chile?

Raising awareness is always good, but it needs to be backed up with solid changes to the way we function as states and societies. It will be very interesting to see what happens in Valparaiso in October, and how the outcomes are communicated. There is often very little participation of ordinary people in such international decision making. I would like to see these conferences become more accessible to the world, more democratic?

What advice would you give to students thinking about pursuing similar studies and work to yours?

Get used to not having much money! You will get to see and do amazing things, but nobody ever got rich through conservation. If you’re still at university, think carefully about the field you want to contribute to, and then work very hard to get good at it. Remember that for an employer, practical skills are immeasurably more valuable than academic grades. Cultivate relationships – emails are easy to ignore, so identify people you can learn from and physically bang on their doors. But always guard your enthusiasm, and never push yourself so hard that you lose your passion for the world you’re fighting to protect.

* * *


The United States looks forward to Chile hosting the next Our Ocean conference on October 5-6, 2015, and is working closely with the Government of Chile to maintain momentum from the first conference. More details on the Our Ocean 2015 Website.