One Scientist’s Quest to Protect Our Oceans—and Us

Fighting threats like climate change and pollution, Tufts alumna Katie Matthews helps sustain marine ecosystems and the life they support, including our own

No one knows better than Katie Matthews, J99, that the fate of Earth’s oceans and its people are intertwined. As chief scientist at Oceana, the largest international organization advocating for oceans, Matthews harnesses scientific evidence to protect the planet’s marine ecosystems and all of us who depend on them.

The job involves advocating for policy changes that support sustainable fisheries management, marine ecosystem conservation, biodiversity, and transparency in governance—or as she puts it, “all of the things that you need to have sustainable ocean management.”

Matthews credits Tufts—and specifically the course Geology 1, with its “amazing field trips” led by Associate Professor Emeritus Bert Reuss—for setting her on her career path. After earning a degree in geological sciences from Tufts, she spent a decade in research, picking up a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Earth and environmental science from the University of Pennsylvania and then working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, before switching her focus to environmental policy.

On the occasion of Earth Day 2021, Matthews spoke with Tufts Now about how we can protect our imperiled oceans and where she finds hope for the challenges ahead.

Tufts Now: Ocean environments are threatened now as never before. The United Nations has underscored the need for solutions by declaring 2021-2031 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. What do you see as the biggest current threats to the oceans?

Katie Matthews: Certainly the overarching threat to the oceans is the climate crisis. And that covers not just the literal global warming, but an increase in ocean acidification with the burning of fossil fuels adding more carbon dioxide to the air which leads to more carbonic acid in the seawater. You're looking at, obviously, significant sea level rise and coastal flooding. You have decreased oxygen content in the water, which is a problem for the things that have to use their gills to breathe.

But at the same time, you cannot ignore the near-term impacts of overfishing and destructive fishing, pollution and the other ways we are degrading the oceans. Our oceans have to be healthy and abundant now if they are to remain resilient in a warmer and more acidic future.

How is climate change affecting the ocean?

Climate change overlays all these other ocean issues. Overfishing–that has happened for decades, long before we had any idea that the climate crisis was a threat. But you need to understand it as part of a larger whole now, how warmer waters impact fish survival and migration, which in turn impacts so many other species, including humans. It’s important to think about the ocean as this global, interconnected system. Particularly for people living along coastlines, who are most reliant on the ocean for food and economic opportunity, it’s important to make sure that their waters are managed in a way that gives them a sustainable livelihood and a nutrient-rich, climate-smart food source.

How do you make a difference on such a big global issue?

Part of my job is to work on very country-specific national policy needs. So we’re working on protecting the absolutely gorgeous Chilean Patagonian fjords from harmful aquaculture practices in their salmon industry. In the Philippines, we're working on getting fishery management plans in place for sardines; that’s a country that relies heavily on its ocean, but it still needs to implement science-based management for its marine resources.

We are also now pushing for the creation of data-driven fisheries rebuilding plans, with hard targets and deadlines, in Canada—a country that knows fishery collapses all too well, having seen 40,000 jobs disappear when their cod did. And Oceana continues its long-time involvement in stopping the expansion of oil drilling in US waters; we continued to be a voice of opposition through this last push to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling.

In addition, I manage a team scoping emerging issues and projects, understanding new research as it comes out to make sure that it's informing our strategic direction and how it might apply to any individual Oceana campaigns.

What wildlife species are you focused on protecting?

One example, quite relevant to New England, is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. There are just over 350 individuals left, and only about 100 breeding females. They are getting entangled in fishing gear, particularly in New England and Canada. They're also getting hit by boats. We have a campaign to both implement whale-smart fishing practices and reduce the likelihood of ship strikes—reducing the speed of ships, creating mandatory slow zones. Right now, there are a lot of voluntary guidelines or voluntary speed limits that we find tend to not be followed. 

Protecting marine habitat is sometimes described as crucial to protect and restore ocean abundance. I like the word abundance—but is it hard for the general public to understand that narrative?  

You're right. Most Americans experience the oceans as this featureless blue expanse; you don't see the wealth of ocean life that is underneath the surface. The general public might also get the sense that we've overfished the oceans and that we should be eating aquacultured fish instead, or we shouldn't be eating any fish at all—but that’s not true.

In fact, research shows that if you manage fish populations using science-based quotas and other fisheries management tools, you can actually increase the amount of fish in the ocean and the amount of fish that you take out of the ocean, sustainably. We are big promoters of sustainable fish consumption. When you compare it to other animal proteins like beef, pork, or even chicken, its environmental footprint is far smaller–requiring less energy to produce and essentially no land or freshwater required.

The oceans have this huge potential for restoration and abundance–something essential for planetary and human health. That's important to our core ethos at Oceana.

There has been increased awareness about plastic pollution and how many creatures are killed because of plastic ingestion or entanglement. Are you seeing any progress in that area?

It’s been in fits and starts. We've seen action at the municipal and state level. New York State has banned polystyrene, Styrofoam, for use in take-out containers and packing peanuts, starting next January.

We haven't necessarily seen any progress on the federal front yet, but hopefully that changes. In 2020, the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act was first introduced to Congress and was re-introduced again this year. It’s the first time we’ve seen, at the federal level, comprehensive recognition of the marine plastic crisis.  

I think around the world, people are becoming more cognizant that plastics are a huge problem. It takes about 450 years for a plastic bottle to break down in the ocean, but even then it just becomes microplastic and winds up in sediments, the digestive tracts of animals, and even in the air we breathe. Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don't know about how plastics affect ecosystems and the life they support. Our future generations will not be able to escape all of the plastic waste we have made—and continue to make every day.

At Oceana, we realize that solving this problem means reducing plastics at the source, so that is where we've focused our energies. We're trying to use things like community organizing to build our way up from municipal ordinances to state laws, and hopefully to federal actions.

What policy victories give you hope?

There are a number of places for hope. On the plastics front, for example, Chile is about to pass a pretty sweeping plastics reduction bill that will tackle a number of things around single-use plastics, promotion of refillables in lieu of single-use bottles.  This is something Oceana has been advocating for in many of the countries where we work, and it will be exciting to see this over the finish line.

Another example is Canada, which about 18 months ago passed a modernized fisheries law that requires rebuilding plans for over-exploited fisheries and mandates management that won’t allow populations to drop again. It restored habitat protections that had been stripped under the previous government and even banned the trade of shark fins, which has driven some shark species to the brink of extinction. That was an incredible, fundamental, bedrock environmental law victory that we're very proud of.

I am also encouraged by an organization of Pacific Island states called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, the PNA. The agreement is a collection of Pacific Island countries that have a lot of tuna in their waters. These are also small, low-lying countries that generally don't have a lot of other natural resources; they kind of fashioned themselves as the OPEC of tuna. They caucus together and negotiate as a block to leverage this great resource that they have to ensure its sustainable management. This is a positive step to ensure that these tropical countries with a lot of fish in their waters have the strongest bargaining position as they're trying to best shepherd their own resources. And that work is all the more important for them, in the face of climate change, because they're going to have some serious adaptation challenges in front of them.

I think that people are now coming to understand how connected the oceans are to our bigger Earth system. And we are also seeing an increased recognition of the role of fish in food systems, which is incredibly important because not only are fish a climate-smart protein, but they are especially important for people who are going to be disproportionately impacted by climate change: coastal communities in lower-income, low-latitude countries. So figuring out ways to ensure a sustainable, nutrient-rich food source for them that's immune to drought, heat waves, and floods is important.

In the face of the complex challenges facing our oceans, are you an optimist?

Some days are hard, certainly. But the alternative to doing this work every day is not doing this work every day. And I’d much rather be, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, the woman in the arena, than to be on the sidelines. People can be the problem, but we are also the solution, and working at an advocacy organization where we do have victories—like banning offshore oil drilling in Belize, home of the second largest barrier reef in the world—keeps me going. Celebrating those victories is the fuel that drives us towards the next success.

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