Rod Fujita: Works to Save Our Seas

By Scheer, Roddy | E Magazine, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Rod Fujita: Works to Save Our Seas


Scheer, Roddy, E Magazine


Rod Fujita, an Oakland, California-based senior scientist with Environmental Defense who was instrumental in setting up marine reserves in the Florida Keys and the Channel Islands of California, is the author of Heal the Ocean: Solutions for Saving Our Seas (New Society Publishers). He is the recipient of a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and serves on the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee.

E Magazine: What compelled you to make the transition from basic scientific research to join the staff as a senior scientist of an environmental advocacy organization?

I received my Ph.D. in 1985. I did a series of post-docs looking at salt marsh ecology and nutrient dynamics and pollution. Then I got a research fellowship looking at coral reefs in the Florida Keys. That was the first time I got to spend a lot of intimate time in a marine ecosystem.

At Woods Hole and on the Oregon coast for my other work, the ocean environment is kind of hostile. It's hard to get in the water, and it's cold in the winter. Tides are big and there are lots of waves. You can only get a glimpse of the marine ecosystem through experiments and the occasional foray. But in the Florida Keys I was camping out on a coral reef called Carey's Fort Reef--it's about five miles off shore of Key Largo. I was in the water three or four times a day, diving, conducting experiments and making measurements.

I bonded with the ecosystem in a different way than I had before. It just struck me how beautiful and fragile it all was. Prior to that experience, I had not been politically active at all. I was really focused on basic research and publishing scientific papers. But when I leaned that there was an effort underway to open up some oil and gas tracts to exploration right in the Florida straits, affecting the Keys and the coral reefs there, it dawned on me that I ought to do something about it.

Much of your current work has focused on reforming fisheries policy. How dire is the situation?

Over the last 15 years, I've been working primarily on the San Francisco Bay delta restoration. In the last few years I've refocused on the ocean, working off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington, trying to reform federal fisheries that have been overfishing various stocks and damaging habitat. I played a role in the establishment of the marine reserve network around the Channel Islands down in southern California, also as a tool to protect ocean ecosystems from the effects of fishing.

Right now I'm engaged in various attempts to get the trawl sector under control. Various scientific studies have shown that trawling is quite a damaging way to harvest fish, but my take on it is that it's really a logical manifestation of the way we manage our fisheries. It's not that trawlers are by nature rapacious or greedy. They're doing the rational thing when you examine the incentives that they face. Nobody tells them what their share of the catch ought to be. There's no incentive to conserve, obviously, because any fish that they don't catch is going to be caught by somebody else.

So it's kind of inevitable, really, that people will build bigger and bigger boats and buy more boats and use bigger and bigger gear that's more powerful to maximize their share of the catch. One project that we're engaged in is trying to reform that system of management so that the incentives to over-exploit the resources will be replaced by incentives to conserve the resource.

What specifically needs to be done?

There's a couple of different ways we're working on that. One project is to change the management regime to a system of catch shares so that the fishermen receive a percentage of the allowable catch and can plan their fishing business around that share in a more rational way. They can get more money by catching fewer fish and causing less damage to the habitat.

Another effort involves a private sector buyout of trawl boats that have been damaging the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary for several decades now. …

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