April 22, 2020
Q&A: Dr. Malin Pinsky on climate change, fishery success stories, and becoming an Oceana Science Advisor
BY: Emily Petsko
Dr. Malin Pinsky is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist who holds a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University. He is currently an Associate Professor within the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he heads up the Global Change Ecology and Evolution lab. His team of 17 researchers studies ongoing and projected changes in the ocean, including the effects of climate change on fish and other marine species. As an Oceana Science Advisor, his guidance and expertise help inform Oceana’s “Save the Oceans, Feed the World” campaign.
In a recent interview for Oceana Magazine, Pinsky spoke about his background, experiences with Oceana, and ongoing research.
Oceana: Of all the biology concentrations, why did you choose to pursue a career in marine ecology?
Pinsky: I didn’t start out as a marine ecologist, but I became fascinated with the field after college, following a couple of key experiences. First was a chance to work as a field technician on a research vessel in Antarctica. The marine wildlife were just stunning. The ocean surface looks pretty featureless, but it hides such rich diversity that becomes apparent once you know what to look for. Secondly, during an internship with Oceana in 2003, I realized that there was a real need for new science to guide ongoing ocean conservation and ocean policy. The ocean isn’t an endless resource that can keep giving and giving.
You mentioned your internship at Oceana’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. What stands out in your memory from your time there?
I learned so much in those few months about the relationship between science and public policy. During my first couple of months, I helped out on Capitol Hill and advocated for increased funding for the federal fisheries observer program. I vividly remember a conversation with a Republican staff member who pointed out that her boss would be happy to support marine conservation as long as we could link it to military readiness. She even gave an example: Certain limits to offshore drilling would leave more space for Air Force training. That helped me see that conservation isn’t – or at least doesn’t have to be – partisan. I also learned that I didn’t want a career wearing a suit and lobbying! It helped bend my career back towards science.
Fifteen years later, you became an Oceana Science Advisor. What brought you back?
I got into science and research because I want to be able to inform more effective conservation in the ocean. I don’t want my research to simply end up in published papers that a handful of other researchers read. Working with Oceana is a great opportunity to make our research useful.
Your research tends to focus on ocean ecosystems in a state of flux. What changes have you witnessed over the last decade?
Many of the most dramatic changes we’ve seen have to do with marine animals on the move. Some species have extended hundreds of miles further north, while others, like lobster, have largely disappeared from southern New England.
How do marine animals differ from land animals in their response to climate change?
One of the biggest differences we’ve seen is that marine species are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They’re often disappearing faster and shifting their ranges faster than species on land. Part of the reason is that it’s pretty hard to escape warming water as an ocean animal. They can’t duck into the shade or find cool spots as easily as can animals on land, and their body temperatures pretty much match water temperatures.
It’s no secret that marine ecosystems are facing an array of problems, including but not limited to climate change. Have you observed anything that gives you hope for a better future for our oceans?
The headlines in the news tend to be pretty grim, but that actually obscures a lot of success stories out there that don’t get as much attention. Fisheries in the U.S., for example, are largely doing well, including many overfished species that have now been rebuilt. The fact that recovery is possible, and even happens quickly in some cases, really gives me hope.
What are you working on now?
I’m concerned about the impacts of climate change on coral reefs. Corals face a pretty bleak future with ocean warming, but one of our projects right now is trying to figure out designs for marine protected areas that would help facilitate the evolution of corals to make them more resilient in warmer waters.