Faces of GCMP: Tara Whitty


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Who are you and where do you currently reside?

I am an NSF SEES Postdoctoral Fellow in the Gulf of California Marine Program and with Too Big To Ignore, the global network for small-scale fisheries.  My other title is Conservation Assessment Scholar at the Center for Marine Biodiversity for Conservation.  I’m happy to be based in San Diego, which is where I grew up, though I spend a lot of time traveling to different field sites.


What are you studying/researching?

Broadly, I study social-ecological aspects of marine conservation, with a focus on the interface between small-scale fisheries and conservation.  A key idea in my current research is the concept of stewardship, which can be understood as both an ethic (a feeling of responsibility) and actions based on that ethic (e.g., management of important local resources).  As part of a global group on stewardship, I am particularly interested in how stewardship ethics emerge or are developed, and how governance can support or act as a barrier to the expression of stewardship by small-scale fishing communities.  At the moment, my fieldwork looks at the perspectives of diverse stakeholders in the Upper Gulf of California with respect to future scenarios for vaquita conservation. I also will have fieldwork in Madagascar and Myanmar that focus on more broad examples of communities being engaged as stewards of their own resources.

How did you get interested in the topic?

I have always been interested in efforts to “make the world a better place” for nature and for people, and ended up gravitating toward conservation ecology in college.  I was able to do fieldwork in some fantastic places, studying fascinating questions in behavioral ecology; however, I always felt that something was missing. Most of these field experiences were in developing countries, where the human context (including poverty) was very obviously intertwined with conservation.  It became clear to me that conservation must consider the well-being of local human communities, for practical reasons (conservation will likely work better if local communities support it), but also for ethical reasons.  For my dissertation, my PhD co-advisor Lisa Ballance introduced me to the topic of marine mammal bycatch in small-scale fisheries. This proved to be a perfect topic for studying the human side of conservation and is how I started working on small-scale fisheries.

Where do you want to end up with your research/what is the “end product”?

For me, the most important end product would be a measurable and positive impact on conservation, both for nature and for human communities.  I would like my work to go beyond academic papers and conferences, and to guide the conservation community toward more productive and creative ways of developing solutions.

What is your greatest achievement pertaining to your work?

I’m still very early in my career, and I still feel like I’m figuring out how to do this type of research.  One of my main achievements has been developing a social-ecological approach for studying the problem of marine mammal bycatch in small-scale fisheries.  With this approach, we study the ecological, social, and governance aspects of the conservation problem, which helps us identify obstacles to and opportunities for solutions. I call this the conservationscapes approach.  I’m proud of the idea, which builds on the brilliance of many esteemed colleaegues, and I think it has great potential for improving how we study this serious conservation problem.  It can also be adapted for other conservation issues.  It has gathered a bit of interest among my close colleagues, who are interested in using it, and I’m looking forward to spreading it further.

What is the most fascinating component of your research?

I’ll be candid: for me, conducting interviews is not as exciting as getting on a boat or scuba diving and studying animals. But, for me, I find the information that I get from interviews is more interesting in many ways.  Beyond basic information, like information on how people fish, we also can learn about how they see their world – what they dream for, what they worry about, why they do what they do.  And that’s fascinating!

Also, because this research is related to several different disciplines and fields of work, it is an area where many exciting ideas, approaches, and methods come together in fascinating ways.  For example, I’m learning about design thinking, also known as human centered design, which is being increasingly applied to community development and also has exciting potential for conservation!

Describe your dream and hobbies.

One dream would be to build my career as a conservation assessment consultant, where I could operate at the interface between communities, conservation groups, academic institutions, and government agencies to facilitate communication, guide the development of creative and effective solutions, and help apply those solutions in a meaningful way.  A more abstract dream is to see more empathy and creativity in the conservation community, and to see communities truly incorporated in the conservation planning process.  Among several others, my top hobbies include traveling, playing in the ocean, learning new languages, dancing, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.

Who do you admire and why? (it doesn’t have to be in your field)

This is a long list!  I’ll choose a group of people who inspire me: my young research colleagues working on marine conservation in Southeast Asia, where I did my PhD research. This is a group of enthusiastic, talented, and dedicated people who work hard to promote conservation in their home countries.  They do not have many of the resources available to students and researchers in the US, but they persevere and do amazing work.  They are always eager to learn as much as they can and to help build capacity for research and conservation in the region, they communicate actively among each other, and they keep their eyes open for exciting new ideas and approaches.  On top of all of that, they are an absolute pleasure to work with and to have fun with.

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