NOAA Teacher at Sea
Assigned to the NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28-June 7
Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Florida
Date: May 21, 2013
Hi everyone! My name is Elizabeth Nyman, and I just finished my first year as an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. UL Lafayette is a public university with about 16,000 students, located in a region with twin claims to fame: a center for Acadiana/Cajun culture (and food!) and the heart of the Louisiana offshore oil industry. Ocean resources are very important to southwestern Louisiana, both living and mineral. My students and their families live near or in some cases on the water; their favorite places to vacation are the beaches on Florida’s panhandle.
I have been teaching undergraduates since 2007, mostly courses on international relations and comparative politics. All professors have to have their own areas of arcane specialization, and mine is international maritime law and conflict. I do research and teach about maritime piracy, island tourism and sustainable development, and international maritime treaties like the Safety of Life at Sea, written to protect future ship passengers after the sinking of the Titanic.
I tell people I have the best career in the world, and when they hear more about what I do, most people agree. I got my Ph.D. in political science from Florida State University, in Tallahassee, FL, about two hours drive from where I grew up in Jacksonville, FL. The first week of graduate school, I was supposed to find a topic for my First Year Paper, a sort of mini-thesis designed to throw us into the world of high level research. I sat through hours of my professors talking about what they did, and doodled in the margins of my notebook. One doodle said “international conflicts over oceans?” and that became the topic of my paper.
(See, I was paying attention! Honest!)
For my dissertation, I received a grant to study an international fishery dispute between the Caribbean island states of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. It wasn’t much money, but I was a grad student and thus very, very skilled at living on nothing. And I wanted to spend as much time in the Caribbean as possible. Other students were talking about their plans for dissertation research, visiting archives in major cities or traveling to presidential libraries. And strangely enough, people who had always wondered why anyone would care about international ocean politics suddenly wished they’d chosen that as a topic.
But make no mistake, ocean politics are serious business. I don’t need to convince my students of that – they know the economics behind offshore drilling, as well as what happens when things go wrong. They know how much the region known for its seafood depends on shrimp and other fisheries. The resources of the ocean are big business, and sustain livelihoods across the state and across America.
Thing is, fish don’t stay in one place, and today’s American fishing vessels compete with others around the world to catch fish as they dart in and out of national waters. Fish that are unfortunately running out, according to the FAO– about 30% of the world’s marine fish are being overfished, meaning that more are being caught than are being born to replace them. Another 57% are being caught at capacity, or about as many are caught as are born to replace them.
Now, I’m no biologist, and one of the things that has always been a mystery to me is how we know what we know about fish populations. We know that close to 90% of the world’s fish are being caught at or above capacity – but how do we know what “capacity” is? How do we know if a population is in decline?
I applied for the Teacher at Sea program because I wanted to be able to answer questions like this. My students are intelligent and curious, and I usually get asked about the science behind the policies at least once a semester. I talk to them about NOAA and the work they do, but I wanted the opportunity to experience it for myself. It’s one thing to read about research, and another thing to understand it by taking part in it. I am excited that I get the chance to have this experience, and will be able to better bridge the gap between understanding the science and understanding the policies.
I am fortunate enough to be assigned to the Pisces, a ship involved in fisheries research off the coast of my home state of Florida. The Atlantic and the Gulf are my waters, in a sense, where I have lived and worked for almost my entire life, and these are our fish. They belong to all of us, those who live on the coast and those who only come for a visit. I can’t wait to learn more about them, to finally fill in the scientific gaps in my knowledge.
Pisces, here I come!