Ocean Defender

On daytime TV, in film, and on Capitol Hill, scientist Lisa Suatoni opens people's eyes to the plight of the seas.

A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.

It was that fateful day in high school when her father sent her to scuba-diving camp that Lisa Suatoni found her lifelong passion: the ocean. When she headed off to college, it was to study biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lisa Suatoni

Several decades have passed since Suatoni had her epiphany, and her fascination with the oceans remains undiminished. Armed now with a master's degree in environmental science and a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Yale University, Suatoni serves a dual purpose as an NRDC scientist: She analyzes and translates technical studies for the organization's policy and advocacy teams, and she finds new ways to inspire public concern about the oceans’ increasingly grim prospects.

Suatoni is quick to point out that we have done a tragically thorough job of wiping out most of the large fish in the sea: Between 75 percent and 90 percent of all tuna, sailfish, swordfish, and cod are now gone. But whereas we tend to notice this kind of thing on land—say, on an African savannah that is clearly devoid of lions and giraffes—most of us don't notice when there are fewer billfish swimming around.

More troubling still is the invisible threat that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide pose to the sea. We worry about how climate change will affect humans and animals on land with little regard for what's happening in the oceans. There, carbon pollution does more than make things hotter—it also makes seawater more acidic. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it creates carbonic acid, which in turn dissolves the carbonate shells of things like shrimp (which people eat) and of creatures that form the basis for the entire web of ocean life, such as krill (which whales eat) and phytoplankton (which krill eat).

"We are so terrestrially biased," Suatoni says. "Nearly every bit of land goes through zoning, but there is no comprehensive planning for oceans. We need to figure out what we have, first of all, and we need to manage those resources in a way that the ecosystem can handle."

Suatoni spent more than a year reviewing studies of commercial fish populations in U.S. waters and the effect that the fishing industry has on their health and survival. In 2006, with the help of Suatoni's scientific analyses, NRDC and its partners were finally able to close loopholes in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that allowed fishermen operating in U.S. waters to catch more fish than many populations could sustain. She then worked with NRDC's oceans team to create what advocates call a spatial plan for the sea, which would govern use of the oceans much as land use is regulated.

John White Photos/Getty Images

She has also been shining a spotlight on how ocean acidification affects the fishing industry. Research she published in a February 2015 issue of Nature Climate Change explored the impact of acidification on coastal communities in 15 states. Led by Suatoni and Julia Ekstrom, a former scientist in NRDC's Oceans program, the study found that economies that depend on the shellfish industry, like the Louisiana Bayou and New Bedford, Massachusetts, could face collapse due to acidification.

In her role as public educator, Suatoni was invited to speak to executives at Warner Brothers about the effect of global warming and acidification on the world's oceans in 2008. She showed a series of animations and graphics to illustrate the invisible threats to the ocean's chemical balance and marine life. She soon found herself on TV with Ellen DeGeneres, elbow-deep in a bowl of water and handling a sea cucumber while explaining to DeGeneres and her audience how overfishing is devastating the oceans. Funny as it was serious, the segment communicated a crucial message to millions of viewers.

Suatoni's experience on Ellen reinforced her belief that people need to be able to see clearly the effects of our actions on the oceans. Words simply cannot convey the damage we're doing, particularly as it relates to ocean acidification. "The nature of the problem is chemical," Suatoni says. "The relevant scientific terms—'pH' and 'carbonate saturation states'—seem to trigger chemistry daze. I thought we could circumvent this problem by using simple animations to illustrate the chemical processes."

She went to NRDC's film team with the idea of making a movie, and they were sold. So were Howard and Michelle Hall, the cinematography team behind the IMAX films Deep Sea and Under the Sea, who agreed to contribute spectacular underwater footage to the project. The Discovery Channel liked the idea too and agreed to air Acid Test, the half-hour documentary that Suatoni inspired, on its Planet Green network. The film was supported by Warner Brothers and Universal Studios and funded through an Entertainment Industry Foundation grant.

"Lisa is passionate, articulate, and funny," says Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC's Oceans program. "Those traits make her very effective as a communicator, whether on national television or on Capitol Hill."

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