In the second instalment in our series of Q&As with Blue Ventures staff, we ask Shawn Peabody, our Madagascar Country Director, some searching questions about science, conservation and superpowers…
What is your scientific background?
I have a BSc from the University of Maryland in Environmental Science and Policy, but I mostly focused on the policy part. I’ve managed to pick up a fair amount over the years working for another marine conservation organisation and then BV.
I’m very lucky to work in an organisation that is overflowing with scientific expertise. I can rely on the knowledge and experience of others when considering important scientific questions that affect our work.
I have a strong community background, which started with spending 2 years in a remote village in northwestern Madagascar as a Peace Corps volunteer (2005 – 2007) and then another 4 years living in small villages in the southwest working directly with communities on conservation, education, health and development projects.
Why do you do what you do?
At university I did a lot of environmental policy research in my coursework, and as a research assistant for a government-sponsored research lab in my evenings and weekends. I liked learning about policy, but it’s an inherently conflicting and painstakingly slow process, so that drove my interest towards on-the-ground conservation work.
One night in the library I stumbled upon a collection of short stories written by former Peace Corps volunteers and I had an epiphany that the Peace Corps was the perfect next step. During my Peace Corps service, I learned a tremendous amount about conservation issues and how communities perceive environmental problems, conservation organisations and government institutions. I saw firsthand how on-the-ground conservation work is also often a conflicting and painstakingly slow process. Realising that nothing is easy, and that both paths – policy and practice – are challenging, I do prefer working in the field. It takes you to some of the most amazing places on earth, and brings you into contact with diverse and interesting groups of people (more so than lobbyists and bureaucrats for example).
With my current position, I get to deal with both sides of this process – the policy issues and the on-the-ground conservation issues – so I get the best and worst of both worlds.
What is one of the strangest things that has happened to you while working in conservation?
Two years ago, I made my first visit to the Barren Isles. This is an archipelago about 15-50km west of the sleepy town of Maintirano. The islands are one of the most remote places in the world – you can’t even see Madagascar from most of them. Never having been to this region of Madagascar, I was curious to see the marine and terrestrial habits, to see whales and even the famed cats and rats that rule (plague) some of the islands.
I climbed off a small sailing pirogue (canoe) on Nosy Marify island, where there is a semi-permanent population of migrant fishers. A group of children and a few adults came out to meet our pirogue and help us drag it up onto shore. As we’re pulling the boat, I’m marvelling at the incredible hardiness of these people who live in the middle of the ocean on an island with no fresh water, trees or vegetation. The island is completely covered by water every high tide on spring tide, when the people simply throw all of their possessions (and children) into their pirogues, drop an anchor and wait for the tide to go back down. I’m staring at their make-shift tents and clotheslines where clothes and octopus are flapping in the wind interchangeably, when one of the island women says to me in Malagasy, “Hey, I know you! Aren’t you the vazaha (foreigner), Shawn from Andavadoaka?”
She was a migrant from one of the villages we work with in the south. She’d travelled 1,000 km from her home over the last few months and was currently living on the island. She’d seen me at one of the reserve festivals we’d held in her village a few months before. Here I was, arriving at what felt like “the end of the earth” and there’s somebody who knows me giving me a welcome tour of the island. Weird.
What is the best / worst thing about being a conservation scientist?
The best thing is seeing real success in the field, for example, the opening of a temporary fishery closure which yields big catches for local communities, thereby securing their buy-in for more ambitious conservation initiatives in the future. Another example is attending the sale of sea cucumbers from our community aquaculture programme and seeing families receiving significant cash payments from this alternative and sustainable livelihood activity.
The worst thing is the political setbacks, for example, witnessing the failure of the international community to achieve consensus on protecting seriously endangered shark species, the lack of political will at the national level to take action on managing fisheries such as sea cucumbers that are clearly collapsing, or the decisions by some local communities to exploit marine resources in the short term rather than sustainably manage them for the long term.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Travelling to some of the most beautiful places on earth and interacting with the people that live there. I speak Malagasy fluently (learned during Peace Corps) and have lived here for a long time. I feel like I have a special connection to this country and really enjoy exploring it and also working with communities to improve the future of the country.
What is your favourite species or group of species and why?
Oddly enough, I like sea cucumbers. They aren’t the most charismatic of animals, but they’re highly valuable, both to the ecosystem for the filtering and cleaning services they provide, and to traditional fishers as they fetch high prices on international markets. The sea cucumber fishery in Madagascar has the potential to bring in huge revenues to both fishers and the government for an unlimited time period – if it is managed sustainably. Currently this is a major problem that requires a national level solution.
What would your scientific superhero power be?
I would like the power to determine the exactly correct Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) of any fishery just by seeing a single individual. My determination, turned proclamation, would be understood and believed by everyone around the world so policymakers, fishers and consumers would instantly alter their behaviour to the level that maximises the long-term productivity and sustainability of those fisheries.