Encourage reading and lifetime education. We learn new things every day without really knowing how they might be important later. I attribute my early work in Chesapeake Bay restoration and on terrestrial wildlife issues to a better understanding of interactions between fish and their habitats. I am still learning to apply the importance of that connection.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Schwaab, Senior Vice President, Oceans Program for Environmental Defense Fund. Eric is an accomplished conservation leader with experience in government and the foundation and non-profit sectors. In his role as Senior Vice President for the Oceans program, he leads a global team of scientists, lawyers and advocates working to create thriving, resilient oceans. He brings more than two decades of experience driving complex conservation initiatives to scale. Eric, who served as head of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), has deep expertise coordinating environmental policy while working with stakeholders on all sides to ensure the best possible outcomes for the environment and fishing communities. At NMFS, Eric led the transformation of U.S. fisheries management, including widespread adoption of science-based catch limits and catch shares. He represented the United States in negotiations of international fishing treaties such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), as well as important bilateral negotiations with other countries such as Mexico and Canada. He has led government agencies at state and federal levels managing coastal and ocean resources, ran a conservation grant-making program at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and was chief of conservation programs at the National Aquarium and the chief program officer at the National Park Foundation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Eric! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in suburban Baltimore, where I was fortunate enough to have the Chesapeake Bay — the environmental heart of Maryland — right in my backyard. While people do not typically think of Baltimore as a place with great access to rich, natural resources, there is actually plenty to do if you enjoy the outdoors. From cycling and hiking in extensive river valley parks, swimming along the Eastern Shore and Atlantic beaches and enjoying the mountain climate in western Maryland, where the mountains are reminiscent of New England, Maryland has a lot to offer outdoor enthusiasts. Looking back at my childhood, where I was surrounded by and took great advantage of such natural wonders, I had no idea that my future career would be focused on protecting our environment and fishing communities, from Maryland, across the United States and now globally.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
In my early 30s, I was well into my career and had just been appointed head of the Maryland Forest Service. At the time, there were a lot of changes underway, as urban sprawl was chewing up forests and really undermining the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. Those early restoration efforts had been directed at addressing point sources of pollution — things like sewage treatment and plant outflows. Yet the emerging impacts were actually associated with the many diverse actions of people across the watershed, such as lawn and agricultural fertilizers, and urban runoff from roads and parking lots. Since we all had a responsibility, we decided to shift the focus of our agency so that people across the watershed can become part of the solution. That is when we came up with impactful solutions such as having forests serve as critical natural filters, and creating more streamside forest buffers. Shifting our focus in this way was definitely an “aha moment” for me — and part of a big transformative shift for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Even today, in my line of work, I’m seeing that transformative shifts are phenomena that repeat themselves around the world. It is the collective decisions of billions that have a real impact on our environment, so empowering people in communities to come together, take responsibility and be part of the solution together will be critical to environmental success.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
This ties in nicely with my last response about making sure you are involving others. Working closely with others gives you a chance to learn what leadership means for yourself. Fairly early in my career, I was able to attend a summer program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. There, I was fortunate to find a group of people that had thought a lot about leadership in the public sector. The leadership model at the Kennedy School was built not on formal authority within an organization, but instead on vision, strategy, the ability to build coalitions for action that can happen from any level within or outside an organization. At EDF and in past roles, I have consistently tried to create space for others to take on leadership opportunities on any given issue. In fact, a major tenet of our EDF work is empowering communities, individuals and fishermen to take responsibility for encouraging and enacting sustainable practices.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
We are focused on working with local and national governments, multilateral and bilateral institutions, local communities and academic partners around the world to reform fisheries management. Our goal is global fisheries reform that provides food security and economic wellbeing for the billions of people around the world that rely on fish. A focus on fisheries engages people not just from a purely environmental perspective, but one that also serves their social and economic needs. This helps both enhance awareness of our connections to a healthy environment, but also builds greater commitment to action.
Due to climate change, the planet is currently on a trend that will have traumatic implications for aquatic resources and the people that depend upon them. We are already seeing changes to fish distribution and fish productivity, two things which have pretty strong implications for not only ocean health but food security for people around the globe. We have seen some of that already and it will get a lot worse, unless we take steps to address carbon pollution and other sources that are contributing to climate change. We also know that in conjunction with limits to future climate change, improved science and sustainable management can help fisheries adapt to changes already underway.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks things that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
Let me tell you about a few things I have done myself. First, I’ve made a conscious decision to be more environmentally sensitive and economical when I travel. We are now on our second Prius plug-in / hybrid car. It’s nice when you can save money and do your part to reduce carbon pollution. Second, I have a reusable water bottle I take everywhere to avoid single-use plastic water bottles. Third, I make an effort to use the EDF Seafood Selector so I can stay aware of which seafood choices are best for the environment. No matter what sustainable choices you make, don’t underestimate the weight these actions have; everyone can make an impact and we all have the power to make a difference.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
1. Get outside. Explore and appreciate our natural environments and their connectedness. I was lucky to grow up in the Chesapeake Bay region, where things we care about are all interrelated. If you want fish and crabs, you better take care of the watershed.
2. Encourage reading and lifetime education. We learn new things every day without really knowing how they might be important later. I attribute my early work in Chesapeake Bay restoration and on terrestrial wildlife issues to a better understanding of interactions between fish and their habitats. I am still learning to apply the importance of that connection.
3. Find an environmental organization you believe in and offer your support. Whether through donations, spreading the word on social media or volunteering, parents providing their support can encourage children to make the time and effort for causes they believe in.
4. Support research efforts. Climate change is something that the world doesn’t fully understand, and we need more research in this area. Supporting good, credible research is the only way we can learn what we’re truly up against.
5. Learn from your children. Honestly, one of the things I came to understand more recently is that young people today get sustainability much more so than my generation. They have grown up with recycling, energy conservation and the limits on our natural world. They have a few things to teach us in that regard.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
We work on this challenge every day with fisheries. We know that sustainably managed fisheries are more productive, more profitable and more environmentally beneficial. Interestingly, we are also increasingly learning that they are more resilient to climate change. It is also important for businesses to embrace technologies.
For example, EDF recently collaborated on new research published in August in the journal Marine Policy that suggests that Japan’s fishing fleets could generate an additional $5.5 billion (USD) in annual profits while supporting a 30% increase in populations of fish in Japan’s waters by 2065 if they adopt policies that promote conservation and offer fishermen the right incentives.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been fortunate to benefit from a long list of people who gave me opportunities to take on new professional challenges. This example I’m about to share is what got me started in fisheries management.
I was running the Maryland forestry, wildlife and natural heritage agency at Maryland Department of Natural Resources when former Secretary John Griffin approached me about taking on the challenge of leadership of the Maryland Fisheries Services. Making the move to fisheries management entailed much greater social complexity in working with diverse fishing communities, expanded geographic responsibilities due to the migratory nature or many of our aquatic resources and a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to the health of aquatic ecosystems. That opportunity set me on the path, and gave me perspectives that ultimately led me to working on global ocean issues at EDF.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, there are already a lot of talented people working on our climate challenges. And there is nothing more important to our future. But I do think that the people working at the intersection of economy and environment are particularly well positioned. We have to make it easy for people to make the right choices. So, while I’m not sure I can inspire a movement in that space either, I hope, in a small way I can help inspire progress at the intersection of environmental health, economic opportunity and community-based leadership. By putting easy-to-adopt tools into the hands of individuals and local communities, we have an opportunity at a sustainable future.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
My favorite quote comes from my father. “Pursue your professional passion, the job opportunities and money will take care of themselves.” This early career advice came at a crucial time in my life, when I began a career in natural resource management when there were limited job prospects and the environment seemed like a bit of an afterthought. Now, we are at the cutting edge of our most important challenges and I have had decades of great experiences and the opportunity to make a meaningful impact.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!