Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Interview with Christopher Cvitanovic #oceanoptimism

Dr Chris Cvitanovic is an Interdisciplinary Research Fellow specialized in knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement and the governance of marine resources, working at the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania. Contrarily to most researchers we interview, Chris also has experience working for the government, which gives him a unique approach and understanding of science and policy making, which he certainly shares with enthusiasm and a good dose of humor.

FEME: How do you think that social sciences could better interact with environmental sciences?

Chris: I think that both disciplines already have an appreciation of each other, but unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate into more integrative and interdisciplinary research.  I think that researchers need to work towards understanding what each discipline can do by accepting their own limitations, by respecting their differences, and by trying to negotiate the way that the individuals can work together. I think if science is going to be interdisciplinary, the individuals really need to drive it. People need to step out of their comfort zones and collaborate as broadly as possible.  

FEME: We heard that you worked for the government for a while, so, what was your main motivation to quit this job?

Chris: Ah, good question! I joined the government wanting to make a difference for conservation, but over time I became disillusioned with how the government used scientific information and the way that decisions tended to be politically driven, opposed to environmentally driven, or socially driven. I became really interested in how to change that relationship so that we make decisions based on evidence instead on a political will. So I left the government because there weren’t a lot of people doing research in that space and I thought it was a good space for me due to my background. So I left the government to try to improve the way the governments use science in their decision-making processes.

FEME: What was the main lesson you learned when you worked for the government?

Chris: My main lesson was that government employees are people, just like you and I. There is this big cultural gap between scientists and decision makers, and often we think quite negatively about decision makers. My biggest lesson was that decision makers and policy makers are very passionate, they are just like scientists, they want the best outcome. There are things that stop them; political agendas or institutional factors such as bad leadership. However, I think that on roots levels everyone wants the same: a better marine environment. And I think we can harness that passion that everyone has, that passion for conservation. The thing I learned is that we can actually work together as a scientific and a management community to achieve really good things. 

FEME: And how can you apply these lessons in science?

Chris: I like to share what I have learned with people like yourself and students who have not had that sort of exposure to the government. I think a lot of the way we train our students, we don’t expose them to policy or management; they know it is there, but they do not understand it. So, for me, it is what I am trying to give back to the next generation of scientists; to help them understand how they can influence it. I think for me it is about still trying to do research on how we make it better and about pushing the case for trying to do things better and using the energy of the next generation of scientists who are trying to improve things.

FEME: What changes you would like to see in scientific community in the future?

Chris: I would like to see a greater appreciation for everybody, a more inclusive research culture.  I think that there is still a lot of negativity towards certain disciplines or the way certain disciplines operate, there is still a lot of negativity towards the government and the government officials.  We need to embrace our differences, and work together to solve the worlds big problems.

I also think we need to be a lot more positive and I would like to see more ocean optimism, instead of always saying the negative story. As a scientific community there is a lot of good stories to be told. And I think if we tell the good stories, as much as the bad stories, if not more, I think we can actually get a lot more of the public interested, engaged and excited about trying to influence their behaviour. So I think as a scientific community we need to try to engage with the community and, make them feel positive about what they can do to help ocean conservation. #oceanoptimism 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Whale hunting in Brazil and what we didn’t learn from it!

To this day, our knowledge on Brazilian whale hunting is still blurred, only few articles and books approach this subject and even those leave tremendous gaps about an activity that is supposed to have killed more than 4 thousand whales per year along the Brazilian coast in its prime years. Although it may sound bizarre for the younger ears, whale hunting only ended in Brazil in 1986. With such a recent past we may wonder if we have learned anything from an activity that almost drove many whale species to extinction that may help us avoid the same mistake with other species. 

Even though there is no definitive evidence, some researchers believe that the first indigenous living in Brazil also hunted coastal whales, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. However, large-scale whaling only began after 1602, when Portugal issued the first whaling license for Brazil. The first whaling installation was built in the island of Itaparica, Bahia state, followed by several others from the south to the north coast (states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Santa Catarina and Paraíba). In the next two centuries whales, mainly southern right whale, were exploited without any kind of control. In its first years, 3 to 4 thousand whales, mainly southern right female whales with offspring, are estimated to have been annually killed. The massacre of the adult reproductive females and their calves could not have a different result: in 1786 the annual catches of southern right whales fell to a thousand and kept declining until 1819, when only 59 individuals were hunted. As the catches of southern right whales declined, the target species changed in a desperate attempt to keep the activity profitable.

Whales were hunted mainly for its fat, but practically nothing of the animal would go to waste. The fat was melted to make oil lamps to illuminate houses, streets and sugar cane mills. Part of the oil produced in Brazil was exported. The fins were also exported to Europe and used in various objects, such as umbrellas, brushes, and corsets. The meat was not really appreciated; it was first distributed among the slaves, the free workers and the poor, then later followed by an unsuccessful attempt to popularize its consumption. When that failed, the meat started being exported to Japan.

Whaling was first done on small rowing and sailboats with manual harpoons. It was only in 1911 that a new Norwegian technology, using an explosive harpoon and large steam-powered whalers, arrived in Brazil, boosting the industry and accelerating further the already exhausted resource. To make matters worse, in 1912 the Brazilian government offered significant concessions aimed at revitalizing the whaling industry by attracting foreign capital and technology. At this point, other species were already being exploited as well, mainly the humpback whale and occasionally minke, and sperm whale.

Imbituba-SC, anos 50 – Foto de João Hipólito do Nascimento (1920-1992).
There was no regulation for whaling in Brazil, until in 1923 a general decree forbade the catching of calves and females with offspring. In 1967 Brazil finally joined international agreements banning the hunting of blue whales, but it took the country another 19 years of much fight and pressure from environmental groups and the media to finally ban whaling in 1986.
By the time of the ban, most of the whales used for oil were commercially extinct, but by then the focus had already changed. In the 1950’s Brazil aligned its interests in modernizing its fishing with the Japanese’s interest in whaling for meat and also in fishing the Brazilian waters. For Japan, even the small whales that visited the coast of Brazil were worth the effort, and they did hunt the Brazilian coast legally until 1986. Therefore, the Brazilian whaling history compromised large and small species alike, including whales that were good for their oil or not. It is estimate that eight species have been seriously affected, and only a few so far have given signs of recovery.   

Exploiting a resource to near extinction without any regulation, with subsidies to modernize and increase the catch capacity of the fleet seems like a perfect recipe for an ecosystem doom. Under such catastrophic events, we would expect people to learn, but instead we chose to follow the footsteps of our not so old whalers. Our targets have changed, we like the big fish now, but as they also go, we move on to the smaller ones as well. And we are cooking our recipe for the fish doom in a not so low a fire after all...


A história da Caça de Baleias no Brasil: De peixe real a iguaria japonesa. William Edmundson e Ian Hart. Disal Editora. 311 p. 2014.
A history of Whaling in Brazil: from royal fish to Japanese delicaly
. William Edmundson and Ian Hart. Ed. Pub. Pequena. 234 p. 2017.

By Ludmila Damasio