From Shinnecock Bay to the UN, Ellen Pikitch is saving the sea.
On a mild winter morning, Ellen Pikitch opens the sliding glass doors of her East Quogue home, strolls across her back lawn and gazes over her proximate study area, Long Island’s Shinnecock Bay. A professor at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) and the executive director of the school’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, Pikitch studies the fisheries ecology of the 9,000-acre bay. But her ultimate zone of influence is global. For more than four decades, Pikitch has been working to save the planet’s oceans from the twin threats of overfishing and pollution. She is perhaps uniquely positioned — by temperament and by training — to address these challenges on both the hyperlocal and the global stage, where she has gracefully assumed the role of a traveling expert on fisheries management.
In early 2013 Pikitch started to discuss with diplomats, global leaders and other eminent scientists the possibility of writing into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals a stand-alone goal for oceans.
Pikitch, who was recently named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been contemplating marine biology since she was a little girl. A native of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, she spent her childhood summers walking the Coney Island beach and marveling at the men-o’-war, skate-egg cases and killifish that washed up, floated or swam near shore. Pikitch enrolled at the then-experimental John Dewey High School, in Gravesend, Brooklyn, because it had a marine occupational program. There, she excelled at math, ripping through every course offered before the end of her sophomore year, and volunteered at the New York Aquarium. Steered by a prescient high school teacher, she took more math, on weekends, at City College of New York, then launched into a CCNY scholarship program that would allow her to complete a concurrent BS and MS in math.
Living at home, Pikitch would wait until her parents and her younger sister had gone to bed before attacking her work. In the dark and silent apartment, she’d puzzle out math problems until 2 or 3 in the morning. If she was stuck, she’d go to bed, dream the answer and write it down in the morning. That capacity for singular focus has never left Pikitch: She enters a similar zone on board research vessels, when lapses of concentration can be dangerous, or even fatal. “I like to be 100 percent immersed in the task at hand, with no distractions,” she says. “Working intensely on complex problems are my peak experiences.”
After earning her master’s and PhD in zoology — focusing on fisheries science, which married her math and marine chops — Pikitch taught at Oregon State University and then the University of Washington. In the years to come, she’d study corals, sharks, sturgeon and forage fish, among other marine organisms. And she would publish: Over her lifetime, she’s written more than 160 peer-reviewed articles, books and book chapters on fish science and management. Working with fishermen and regulators, Pikitch has successfully pushed for policy changes on bycatch and fishing gear, a U.S. prohibition on shark finning and the U.S. listing of beluga sturgeon as endangered. Her study organisms may have changed over the decades, but her overarching research goals have not. “I focus on ecosystem-level processes,” she says. “How many fish are in the sea, how many can be sustainably harvested, at what size and at what time.”
In 1996, Pikitch moved back to New York City to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, where she put together a program to evaluate marine sanctuaries, which limit the type and amount of fishing that can be conducted in designated areas. “We wanted to see if these protected areas work,” she says. Over the next seven years, Pikitch would visit scores of developing nations and establish programs that operated in four oceans in 18 countries. She also spent a fair amount of time doing fieldwork, probing Kazakhstan rivers in hip waders, for example, conducting research that led to a global ban on the trade of wild sturgeon caviar and a U.S. ban on imports of beluga caviar. As she became more aware of other marine and freshwater habitats, from the tropics to the Arctic, she says, “I began to understand how imperiled marine life was.” It was time to take more concrete action: When the Pew Foundation asked her, in 2003, to set up an institute that would commission research on critical threats to marine ecosystems and spur better conservation policy, she leaped at the chance. She’s been running the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science (IOCS), first housed in Miami but now at Stony Brook, ever since.
We’re working step by step,” Pikitch says, “building on lessons we learned in the field and in the lab.
Widely admired for her ability to explain complex science to the media and the public, essential to conservation work, Pikitch has testified frequently at congressional, and in the EU, parliamentary hearings. “Ellen is extremely well spoken when in the spotlight,” says Christine Santora, assistant director for policy and outreach at IOCS, who’s worked with her for 13 years.
Since the late ’90s, Pikitch has also been speaking at United Nations’ forums on ocean conservation. In early 2013 she started to discuss with diplomats, global leaders and other eminent scientists the possibility of writing into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — an aspirational, international blueprint for the next 15 years — a stand-alone goal for oceans. The Millennium Development Goals, which covered the years 2000 through 2015, contained no specific mention of oceans. And during those years, Pikitch says, “all the indicators of ocean health went down: the number of overfished fish populations and coral reef health. Plastics are way up; the size of dead zones is up — they now occur all over the world. And the number, duration and frequency of algal blooms, which deplete the water of oxygen and block sunlight from reaching plants and other creatures, are also up.”
For a UN symposium, Pikitch assembled a scientific panel — people from China, Chile, Israel, the U.K. and Palau — with just a few calls.
Pikitch and other ocean advocates began to press for their own goal with quantifiable targets, but not everyone was thrilled with the idea. There was a feeling that if the UN adopted too many goals, other priorities would get short shrift. But Pikitch persisted, and in September 2014 she and a cadre of political leaders, diplomats and scientists made their case at a High-Level event during the UN General Assembly. The gist of their message: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), of which there are already 11,000 in well over 100 nations, work. Evidence shows that moratoria on fishing help to protect coral reefs and penguins, and that protected areas help to create jobs and increase revenue from tourism, rebuild fish stocks, allow fish over many generations to regain their normal size (fishing pressure creates smaller fish over time) and even increase fish populations outside their limits.
Pikitch remembers that autumn day at the UN. “The room was buzzing with excitement,” she says. “There was a feeling that it could happen.” And it did: Within a year, the goal was cemented as SDG number 14, which calls for the implementation of “science-based management plans to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible,” and by 2020, “to conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas” — a plan known as 10 x 20. It’s now up to Pikitch, other scientists and global decision makers to hammer out where these MPAs will be designated, and how they will be managed, enforced and sustainably financed — a monumentally complicated process for which Pikitch is ideally suited.
“Ellen excels at gathering a diverse group of scientists and figuring out a way to reach agreement,” Santora says. “She can assess where there is already consensus, determine which topics need the most work, then find a way to tackle those topics and draw the best out of the participants. Those are unique qualities for a scientist.”
Says Mark Newhouse, chairman of the Ocean Sanctuary Alliance, a partnership of UN Member States and leaders from across disciplines dedicated to meeting SDG 14 and whose board of scientists Pikitch chairs: “Ellen’s worldwide reputation and network of contacts throughout the marine science community is extraordinary. For a UN High-Level Symposium, she assembled a scientific panel — including people from China, Chile, Israel, the U.K. and Palau — with just a few phone calls.” When he first met her, in 2014, he says, “I was immediately struck by her deep knowledge of the problems of fisheries today, and by her passion in trying to do something to fix them. Her work in Shinnecock Bay shows that she naturally moves from understanding to action.”
Pikitch has no doubt that SDG 14 will be met. Science has more data than ever on the health of the oceans, which has in turn created a greater sense of urgency that something must be done. Researchers have more and better technology for enforcement and monitoring the oceans — including new forms of radar, drones and computer programs that track fishing vessels in real time. And after decades of rigorous studies, Pikitch says, “it’s clear that when MPAs are set up appropriately, you can both protect biodiversity and sustain and enhance fisheries outside those areas.”
Pikitch works in Stony Brook’s Discovery Hall, where a shark’s jawbone, the size of a circular saw blade, rests on a shelf among her large collection of hand-carved sharks, conchs and barracudas. But she gets most of her writing done in a small room of her sunny house in East Quogue. At low tide she can pull on rubber boots, walk a few steps to the beach, and peruse one of the many clam nurseries her colleagues at SoMAS’ Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project (ShiRP) have established to filter the bay’s polluted waters.
Thanks to its shallow, protected lobes and its abundance of aquatic vegetation, Shinnecock Bay was historically a hugely productive spawning site and nursery for both finfish and shellfish. But changes in the bay’s ecology have, over the last several decades, decimated the eelgrass beds upon which so many marine species depend for food and for protection from predators, and which also dampen tidal currents and prevent erosion of underlying substrates.
ShiRP, founded through the private philanthropic support of the Laurie Landeau Foundation, LLC and the Simons Foundation, is working to return the bay to a thriving estuarine environment using a combination of science and community involvement. Today, the most significant threat to the overall health of Shinnecock Bay is the steady stream of nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — that leach into the water from crumbling or inadequately maintained septic tanks. The nutrients trigger massive blooms of algae known as red and brown tides.
“It’s not just brown water,” says Pikitch, who serves as ShiRP’s co-principal investigator with SoMAS Professor Christopher Gobler. The algal blooms affect fin- and shellfish mortality, growth rate and the entire bay’s productivity, from the bottom of the trophic chain to the top. In the absence of intervention, the bay’s eelgrass beds are predicted to completely disappear by 2030. Beyond environmental and economic impacts, the blooms present a serious threat to public health: They can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, and in rare cases, permanent brain damage. High levels of these toxic algae lead to periodic closures of the bay to shellfishing.
ShiRP conducts baseline surveys of water quality and biodiversity and compiles data gathered from trawls, probes and wireless monitors, some of which record the pings emitted by acoustic transmitters that Pikitch has attached to summer flounder. ShiRP scientists and local volunteers also plant eelgrass seed in bare areas with marginal water quality; after two years, the beds appear to be spreading. While Pikitch’s focus is on finfish, her colleagues at ShiRP plant baby oysters in protective cages suspended in the bay, just outside the University’s Marine Station. Researchers track their growth and survival rate, and when the oysters are large enough to resist predatory crabs, they are released into the bay, where each bivalve can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.
Oysters can be tricky to get started, but Pikitch has high hopes for the million adult clams, each of which can filter about 10 gallons of water a day, that ShiRP has planted in nurseries that are off-limits to commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting. If all goes well, those bivalves will eventually repopulate the bay beyond the relatively small nurseries, thus improving water quality for every creature, from plankton to Atlantic sturgeon, that lives here. “We’re working step by step,” Pikitch says, “building on lessons we learned in the field and in the lab.” For now, ShiRP is concentrating on the most impaired areas — the western half of the bay, which has less exchange with the ocean, via Shinnecock Inlet, than the eastern half.
Pikitch acknowledges that ShiRP has little power to address the spigot of pollution that continues to pour into the bay, but at least that input has been quantified. If ShiRP can get 33 million clams established and keep them protected, they’ll filter or absorb all those nutrients — a net gain.
Globally, 2015 was the hottest year on record. But it was also a remarkable year for the Earth’s oceans. Oil companies and several nations abandoned plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea; in the U.S., Congress banned from consumer products plastic microbeads, which threaten aquatic organisms when they end up in rivers and oceans; global leaders began organizing to halt illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and 195 nations pledged at the Paris climate talks to limit global warming — which contributes to ocean acidification, sea level rise, coral bleaching and other threats to marine life — to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And then there’s the UN milestone, SDG number 14.
Pikitch is proud of her role in that process, but as a lifelong conservationist and unabashed advocate, she would prefer to see far greater restrictions on fisheries than what the UN has called for. “There should not be places where industry can catch as many fish as they can,” she says. “Don’t we have enough examples from around the world that without very stringent regulations in place, fish populations will collapse?” For nearly our entire history on Earth, she continues, “most of the ocean was unfished. Essentially, it was one big protected area. Now, 98 percent of the ocean is open to fishing. It’s pathetic that only 2 percent has protection of any kind, and that of that percentage, only half is completely off-limits to fishing.” She pauses. “We can do better than that, can’t we?”
Elizabeth Royte is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic and Harper’s.View Gallery Watch Video