Like the pages of a Jacques Cousteau book, images of whales and sharks danced in the imagination of a boy growing up in Dayton, Ohio – the birthplace of the Wright brothers. While the Wright brothers may have taken to the sky for their worldly exploration, Dr. Bryan Wallace of CI has taken to the deep sea.
Wallace's passion for ocean life stemmed from the fantasy of majestic sea creatures. "All of that seemed so exotic and so different from what I experienced growing up in Ohio, and it stirred something really deep within." Now, Wallace uses his fascination with marine life, coupled with his science background, to advance marine conservation.
Sea Turtles: A Flagship Species for Marine Conservation
As Director of Science and Strategy for CI's Marine Flagship Species Program (MFSP), Wallace uses his knowledge and passion for one of the world's most iconic ocean creatures – sea turtles – to highlight marine conservation issues. "What threatens sea turtles also often threatens other marine species and entire ecosystems," says Wallace. "They are a great flagship for marine ecosystems because people are inherently drawn to them." As a result, discussions about sea turtles often open up a broader discussion about marine conservation.
LEARN MORE: The Great Turtle Race
"Sea turtles are globally distributed and utilize different kinds of habitat such as coral reefs, sea grasses, upwellings, continental shelves and the open ocean," Wallace relates. "They can be indicators of what is happening around the world and within different geographic or oceanographic regions. When sea turtle populations are declining, they can be indicators of threats that are rampant. By understanding why they are declining, we can flag the threats of a particular region."
IN DEPTH: Leatherback migration and conservation
One major threat to sea turtles is their incidental capture in fishing gear, or bycatch. Bycatch, highlighted by Duke University's Project GloBAL (Global By-catch Assessment of Long-lived Species), occurs in a wide variety of fishing gear, including gillnets, longlines and trawls. According to a recent study Wallace published with Project GloBAL colleagues, at minimum, tens of thousands of sea turtles have been caught accidentally over the past 20 years. However, Wallace is optimistic: "If done properly, fisheries can avoid affecting sea turtles while ensuring viability of fish stocks for human consumption," he says. In fact, results of a new study show that the number of sea turtles accidentally caught and killed in the United States coastal waters has declined by an estimated 90 percent since 1990, demonstrating that reduction tools and government regulations can significantly lower accidental sea turtle deaths.
PRESS RELEASE: Scientists Estimate 90% Reduction in Accidental Sea Turtle Deaths in U.S. Fisheries
Gauging Progress: State of the World's Sea Turtles
To take the pulse of sea turtle populations around the world, Wallace and the MFSP orchestrate SWOT—the State of the World's Sea Turtles initiative. SWOT is a partnership among CI, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Duke University's OBIS-SEAMAP and other local organizations, scientists and conservationists. SWOT is creating a global network of specialists to accelerate the conservation of sea turtles and their habitats. The sixth annual SWOT Report was published in April 2011. This report included the most detailed map of green turtle nesting ever created, which won the Esri International Conservation Mapping Award.
FROM THE BLOG: Award-winning Map Reveals Nesting Sites of World’s Green Turtles
SWOT continues to expand, with a team that includes over 500 individuals and organizations who contribute through writing, photography or on-the-ground information from all ends of the globe. Wallace and his team maintain the world's most comprehensive database on sea turtle nesting, including data on all seven sea turtle species from nearly 3,000 nesting sites. The initiative provides researchers, beach workers, conservationists and others with clear, concise information that helps them improve their own work.
Rolling Back Time: A First-Hand Look at the Potential for Marine Life
Wallace knows first-hand the stakes of losing these gentle sea creatures unnecessarily, having worked with them throughout Latin America, particularly in Costa Rica. A decade ago, he served as team leader for the Leatherback Conservation and Research Project at Parque Marino Las Baulas, one of the world's few remaining sites of significant leatherback turtle nesting. He saw how development, egg poaching and accidental bycatch were affecting the species' numbers, contributing to a 90 percent decline since the late 1980s.
LEARN MORE: Eggs-tinction? Hueveros, Hawksbills and Bomb Fishing
His appreciation for marine conservation deepened still more when he had the chance to visit the Galápagos. "(My trip to the Galápagos) was special – out of this world," relates Wallace. "Even though it's changed, I had this feeling that if you could roll back the clock a hundred years, you could imagine what the Galápagos could look like in abundance. The wildness, the raw beauty of it, felt like another world. Wouldn't it be great if marine life and the oceans looked like this everywhere?"
Science and Enduring Passion: Keys to Conservation
With a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Ecology from Drexel University, Wallace also serves as an adjunct assistant professor for the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at the Duke University Marine Lab. His current roles frequently keep him indoors. "Although I don’t spend extended periods in the field, I still love getting out of the office and into nature, interacting on the ground with animals and local communities, where the conservation action really happens," he relates.
Although Wallace may not be able to live out his Jacques Cousteau fantasies every day, and instead rides the metro to and from work, his love of science continues to inspire him to work for Conservation International. "For me, the main appeal for working with a conservation NGO is working with one that bases its action on science – like CI."
"I actually get a lot out of the intellectual side – the science – getting down to the unanswered questions. It's a different response, physically, emotionally, intellectually, than working with turtles in the field and getting sandy, getting sweaty," he says. "Both are part of the job. These days, I can often step back from my desk and say, 'Yeah, what I've been working on for the last few hours – that's really pretty cool. This will make a difference.'"