Keen surfer and photojournalist Shannon Switzer Swanson, 33, focused her lens on ocean pollution after friends became ill – and two almost died of bacterial infections after being in the sea. She was recently named a National Geographic Adventurer of the year after investigating the aquarium fish industry. Mike Peake speaks to her
When did you first fall in love with the ocean, Shannon?
I went sailing from the age of about three with my dad to Catalina island, which was several hours’ away from us off the coast of California. Every summer we would go and spend time out on the water. We would anchor, then free dive and snorkel with sea lions and enjoy the kelp forests. I loved it.
When did you start to notice that the ocean was a hotbed of environmental concerns?
I first looked into coastal pollution in 2010 after returning home to San Diego after travelling. I noticed that my friends were getting sick from surfing – they had ear and sinus infections and two friends almost died from bacterial infections. It alarmed me enough to realise that pollution was a real issue that was affecting people and a coastline that I know.
What’s the biggest crime we’re committing against the ocean right now?
One is certainly plastic pollution because the rampant use of plastic seems so absurd and unnecessary – and it’s really choking the world’s oceans. The part that is most frustrating is these huge multi-national corporations who keep driving that.
Do you see evidence of discarded plastic junk when you’re travelling to far-flung places?
The more I travel the more obvious it is, because even in the most remote areas there’s an overwhelming amount of plastic waste. It’s everywhere now. Rising temperatures are an issue, too: in San Diego. There are a number of species of sea turtles that are more commonly seen in tropical waters that keep creeping north.
Can you tell us about your work investigating the aquarium fish trade?
I wanted to know what hands do the fish go through when they’re harvested from the reef and then transported from Indonesia and the Philippines all the way to someone’s home in Colorado or wherever. The emphasis for the project was that Finding Dory was about to be released and there was a concern among conservationists that Dory, which is a blue tang, could be overharvested because of increased demand generated by the film.
We headed off to Indonesia, but around Bali, which is where the ornamental aquarium fish trade has really blossomed, they no longer had blue tangs in the waters. We had to get much further off the beaten path. We found that cyanide is still an issue: it’s a neurotoxin which the fishermen squirt out of a bottle in an area that they know there’s a species they want to target, but it stuns everything in the vicinity and the mortality rate is quite high. Fish can recover but there’s a lot who don’t, depending on the concentration of cyanide. That’s the biggest concern for people who want to see the aquarium industry stopped or more highly regulated.
What are the other big issues?
One is that there are people profiting from what is ostensibly a public resource, and with aquarium fish there’s more of a push back than with fishing for food because of the tension between tourist operations and fishermen; there’s a concern that the reefs will be overfished and won’t be as marketable for other things. Also, taking too many of the fish out is not a positive thing for the ecosystem either.
Any other problems?
Yes – there’s no proper certification system in place reagarding aquarium fish. There are so many individual fishermen capturing a few dozen and the fish go through so many middle men that it can be really difficult to know for certain that a fish was really caught in a net rather than with cyanide. There’s one operation in the Philippines whose goal now is to cut out all the middle men and import directly, and they’ve gone into various villages where they source fish from and have done barrier net training and so on. So that could be come a future model for trading more sustainably.
You don’t think that banning the trade is the answer – why not?
It would just create an illicit market which would then be less regulated and even less transparent. I think also it’s a significant source of income for fishermen who don’t have a lot of other options. Like any type of fishing it can be done sustainably, so rather than trying to eradicate it, I think working with the fishermen and the people in the industry to ensure that it’s sustainable for many decades to come, would be a more productive approach.
Finally, what’s the best and worst things about working in marine conservation?
For me, there’s always a tension between wanting to conserve non-human life/the natural worlds – which is how I came to care about the ocean – and balancing that with the needs of people who really depend on these resources for their life. And I think that is both the best and the worst part of my work. I always feel torn by that dichotomy, but it’s a wonderful space to work in because the solutions we can up with and be creative about can really have positive impacts in a lot of ways.