EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
AARON SCOTT, HOST:
Do you remember as a kid what you wanted to be when you grew up? Maybe an astronaut, soccer star, veterinarian, the president? Well, Alfredo Giron - he remembers.
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ALFREDO GIRON: When I was 7, in second grade, my mom got for me a book about marine mammals. And it was about seals, sea lions and walruses. And I just was in love with it. I was like, I'm going to be a marine biologist.
SCOTT: But as he grew up in Mexico City, he grew out of that childhood dream.
GIRON: I started thinking, no, maybe engineering in something. And eventually, I settled down for engineering, bioengineering. I was lucky enough to get into a lab where they allowed me to do all sorts of techniques that bioengineering professionals will do. And it was not my thing.
SCOTT: But the college admissions clock was ticking, and he needed to decide where to apply.
GIRON: And suddenly this ray of light illuminated that old book in the bookshelf. I opened it, and I was like, you know what? I wanted to be a marine biologist. And I remember I loved it. So I looked up online, where can I study this in Mexico, and when is the deadline to do it? The deadline was, like, one week away.
GIRON: So I just jumped for it.
SCOTT: Alfredo went on to get a Ph.D. at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Since then, he's focused on using data and science to make fishing more sustainable. He's co-founded a science-based conservation initiative called dataMares and an early career oceans professionals program at the U.N.
And he now works at the World Economic Forum, an organization that cultivates leaders to influence political objectives. There, he leads the Ocean Action Agenda, with the goal of making sure the world's fish populations thrive for years to come. It's a huge task considering the state of the ocean and its fisheries.
GIRON: When we think about the ocean, there's two big things to highlight. The first one is there's a lot of degradation that has happened over the last several decades. We can see that in fisheries in some populations literally collapsing, some species shrinking over time.
SCOTT: So not just shrinking in population, but literally, the fish are getting smaller over time?
GIRON: Yes. Yes because you select for the larger ones, and they are basically removed from the population, and you keep the smaller ones but also because as you run out of big ones, you start fishing them before they can grow that big. We have also seen a lot of plastic pollution. We have seen a lot of impacts from climate change in many different ways - increased storms, coral bleaching...
SCOTT: But Alfredo sees hope, too.
GIRON: But let me stop there with the doom and gloom. Some countries have been very successful in replenishing their fish populations. We have seen an increase in the number of countries that are pledging to protect their oceans and actually, also an increase in action. We have seen a lot of companies making commitments to make sure that their supply chains are actually free of illegal activities, free of forced labor, which, surprisingly, is still an issue in this century.
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SCOTT: So today on the show, finding hope in the ocean despite all of the challenges. We track Alfredo and his collaborators' ongoing efforts to conserve the global fish population in a tale of ingenuity on the high seas. I'm Aaron Scott, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SCOTT: Alfredo, I want to start with a basic question. What makes a fishery sustainable? How do you determine the right level of fishing so that the population will continue to thrive?
GIRON: There's a concept known as the maximum sustainable yield. Basically, how much can you extract of a population without reducing it for future catch? And this concept is based on the idea that when you have a number of fish, you expect them to reproduce at a certain level.
It's very difficult to implement in reality because, of course, environmental variability plays a big role in how many of those newborns are successful and can join the population. Different countries, different agencies use different exact methods to estimate these things. But in the end, this is about extracting without decreasing the total number of the population.
SCOTT: Which is complicated almost beyond comprehension. I mean, we're talking the entire ocean here, which means all the countries and the companies and the individual boats have to basically work together to make sure they're not fishing beyond that maximum sustainable yield you mentioned. And so one of your main focuses right now is on illegal, unregulated and unreported catch, which is a whole basket of things from boats fishing in protected areas to fishing without authorization to taking more fish than they report - things that potentially mean they're catching beyond the sustainable limits. Would you give us a sense of what sort of problem this is globally?
GIRON: Yeah, it's a problem of a huge scale and implication. The statistic is that up to 20% of the fish that is captured in the world comes from illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.
GIRON: One of every 5 fish that are consumed in the world come from illegal, unreported or unregulated sources. That's a lot.
GIRON: That's billions of dollars a year.
SCOTT: So a huge problem that seems like it would be impossible to monitor because how do you keep track of thousands of fishing boats out on the high seas with nobody around for miles? And yet, this is the problem that you're trying to solve. Would you tell us about it?
GIRON: So the project that we are working on is primarily with industry. And we found two main things that are challenging. The first one is that there's a lot of data out there that can inform these things. They need experts to be looking into this. And, sometimes, they don't have that kind of capacity. The second big challenge is exactly what you just mentioned. When a vessel comes back from the trip, they give a report. And as a buyer, as a company that is buying that fish, you basically need to trust what the captain is telling you.
SCOTT: About where they went and where they fished.
GIRON: Exactly. So one of the big requests that we have gotten is, how can you help us to verify activities at sea or at least to illuminate a little bit those activities at sea? So from that, we were able to put together a collaboration between several organizations. I am currently at the World Economic Forum. When I started this project, I was also part of Stanford University.
We also partner with Global Fishing Watch, which is an NGO that for the last decade or so has developed all the technology to understand what vessels are doing at sea. They use GPS technology, and then they use artificial intelligence and machine learning to convert those tracks into insights about when someone was fishing, when they were just waiting, when they were meeting with another vessel.
And the last partner is called FishWise, which is an NGO in Santa Cruz, Calif., who has lots of experience working with companies and helping them understand, these are the risks that you are facing, and these are the solutions that you can implement.
SCOTT: And so you're having to put together a lot of data based on different databases based on satellite data. What are you finding?
GIRON: Oh, we are finding a lot of very interesting information. Most of these vessels are operating legally. Most of them are following all the rules, are reporting properly. And we can see that and verify it. However, as you might expect, not everyone is like that. But what we are encouraging our industry partners to do is, can you go back and ask more questions? Can you try to clarify whether this is actually a problem or whether we are missing some key piece of information? And I think that's actually the way to go because it's not about, we found a problem. Cut that relationship. It's about, we found an issue. Let's work together on it and see how far we can get to solve it.
SCOTT: Alfredo, you're part of a number of international groups who are focused on using science to make fishing more sustainable, especially at the U.N. And one thing you've talked about is that creating sustainable fisheries is as much about managing people as it is about managing fish. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
GIRON: Yeah. Thank you. I love this topic. It is one of my favorite things to talk about. I think that fishery science started very focused on the fish. We thought that by understanding what is the maximum sustainable yield and making sure that we had the right fishing gear and establishing the right quotas, we were going to be able not only to have sustainable fisheries but also to provide decent living conditions for the fishers. We have realized that that's not the case.
First of all, there's a lot of social dynamics that happen. There's lots of places, especially in developing countries, where fishers are not even owners of their own boats. There's other places where there's just so many boats that the fisheries are overexploited no matter the quotas because people just have to keep fishing and have to keep eating. And there's a lot of pressure from international markets that comes in sometimes to some of these communities and that offer great deals for some products.
What happens then? People want to take advantage of the opportunity to fish as much as possible, but that takes away the long-term vision of what we do if we run out of fish that we depend on. There's a lot of social dynamics that need to considered when we think about managing fisheries sustainably. And there's a lot of work to do with the communities themselves because they have to be on board. They actually have to have their own ambitions and their own goals because otherwise, nothing will work.
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SCOTT: Before we got off the call, I had to ask Alfredo what we as consumers can keep in mind when we're at the seafood counter at the grocery store or ordering at a restaurant to make sure that we're buying seafood that's caught sustainably. His first recommendation? Look for certifications.
GIRON: There's the MSC certification, for example, which has a very good track history of being rigorous and successful in how they evaluate stocks. And so if you see that blue check in a product, you can be certain that it underwent a rigorous process.
SCOTT: If there's not a certification, then he says you can visit the website seafoodwatch.org. It's run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
GIRON: And Seafood Watch allows you to look up the name of the fish or the species - flounder, grouper, shrimp, whatever - and the country where it comes from. Most of the packaging states those two pieces of information. So Seafood Watch will give you general recommendations of whether that is normally sustainable.
GIRON: His third recommendation, avoid shrimp. Wild-caught shrimp often involves trawling the ocean floor, which catches and kills a lot of other marine life, as high as 10 kilograms for every kilo of shrimp caught. And as far as farmed shrimp...
GIRON: More often than not, farmed shrimp are grown in farms that were built in places where there used to be coastal lagoons or mangroves. And what that means is they literally are destroying that coastal ecosystem that provides a lot of protection for storms, for sediments to be aggregated.
SCOTT: You're going to have a lot of unhappy listeners coming after us. Alfredo, it's been a joy to talk with you. Thank you for sharing some time with us.
GIRON: Thank you so much for having me, Aaron. It's really fun.
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SCOTT: Today's episode was produced by Thomas Lu and Rebecca Ramirez, edited by senior supervising editor Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Brit Hanson. The audio engineer for this episode was Kwesi Lee. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Our senior director of programming is Beth Donovan. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.
I'm Aaron Scott. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE.
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