What if we get it right? Reflections on WSN 2020

Michael Esgro, OPC Marine Ecosystems Program Manager & Tribal Liaison

This past weekend, nearly 900 marine scientists convened online for the 101st Western Society of Naturalists (WSN) annual meeting. Against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a growing nationwide movement for racial justice, WSN 2020 felt different. The very fact that the meeting was held over Zoom, rather than in the packed auditoriums and meeting rooms that characterized WSN conferences of my grad school yearswas a reminder that science cannot be separated from human well-being. In addition, this year’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion (including WSN’s first-ever diversity plenary!) came as a long-overdue recognition of the link between social equity and environmental resilience, although it’s clear that we all have work to do when it comes to operationalizing some of the recommendations that were presented. 

Over the course of three days at WSNI eagerly devoured session after session of 15-minute talks, filling my notebook with new developments in monitoring technology, marine protected area science, fisheries ecology, restoration practice, and sustainable aquaculture. These findings will directly inform my work – in the coming weeks, for example, I’ll be following up with speakers who presented in two special sessions on kelp forest ecosystem resilience, to ensure that the most cutting-edge science is represented in OPC’s upcoming Action Plan for kelp research and restoration in California.  

A few moments that stood out for me: our partners at the California Ocean Science Trust highlighted key findings from a state-supported scientific working group that is exploring the role of California’s MPA network in providing climate resilience. At Saturday’s ocean-climate symposium, Dr. Kerry Nickols explained how kelp forests may help to mitigate ocean acidification at the local scale. I was excited to be part of a team that presented a new inventory of “de facto” marine protected areas on California’s central coast and their potential contributions to conserving critical deepwater habitat. And in yet another sign of the times, there was an entire session dedicated to innovative and creative ways of keeping field research moving during the COVID era. 

More than anything, however, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, an ocean hero whose areas of expertise include both marine ecology and community engagement. Her question to WSN’s attendees: “what if we get it right?” In other words, what does all this science mean for people? If we move beyond the Keeling Curves, grim IPCC reports, and news of environmental collapse, what is our positive vision for the future? What kind of world do we want to live in, and how do we build it together? 

I’m proud to live and work in Californiawhere we have a strong vision of what it means to get it right – our state’s leaders are striving to build a more equitable and resilient society, a “California for All.” I left WSN 2020 feeling fired up to continue that fight for California’s coast and ocean, and grateful for the opportunity to hear from a diverse group of scientists in this most unusual and pivotal of years. 

Categories: Climate Change, Equity and Environmental Justice, Kelp, Marine Protected Areas, Strategic Goal 1: Climate Change, Strategic Goal 2: Equity, Strategic Goal 3: Biodiversity, Sustainable Fisheries and Marine Ecosystems