Carl Safina

  • President, Blue Ocean Institute

Carl Safina is a prominent ecologist and marine conservationist and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, an environmental organization based in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He has also been a recreational fisherman since childhood. “I love the... More

Carl Safina is a prominent ecologist and marine conservationist and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, an environmental organization based in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He has also been a recreational fisherman since childhood. “I love the hunt and know the thrill of the kill,” Safina told William J. Broad for the New York Times (September 22, 1998). “But I’m not sure we should be doing it. They [the fish] need a break.” After reaching the conclusion that, if overfishing were to continue at the current rate, entire populations of fish might cease to exist, Safina became an advocate for the very creatures he grew up hunting. The winner of both a prestigious Pew Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship, Safina has written or co-written three books—Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World’s Coasts and Beneath the Seas; Seafood Lover’s Almanac; and Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival.

Carl Safina was born on May 23, 1955 into a middle-class Italian American family in the Ridgewood section of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. His father, a schoolteacher, raised canaries, and in second grade, Safina began breeding pigeons in the family’s backyard. When he was 10 the Safinas moved to Syosset, New York, a short distance from Long Island Sound, off the north shore of the island, where Carl and his father often went fishing for bass. As a teenager Safina played the drums in various jazz and rock bands. (He worked his way through college by entertaining at private parties and weddings in the New York metropolitan area.) When a classmate from Syosset High School recruited him to help with a bird-banding survey on Fire Island, off the south shore of Long Island, Safina’s love for wild birds, or “living jewels,” as he has called them, was ignited. He attended the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, where he earned a B.A. degree in environmental science in 1977. He then trained hawks and worked briefly with falcons for the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit organization. He also investigated suspected illegal toxic dumping sites for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. He next entered a graduate program in ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey; he received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in ecology in 1981 and 1987, respectively.

Beginning in 1979 Safina had also worked for the National Audubon Society, primarily studying hawks and seabirds. While observing foraging terns in the waters around Long Island for his doctoral degree, he noticed declines in creatures that shared the terns’ realm–striped bass, tuna, marlin, sharks, and other fish, as well as sea turtles. Safina began to think that fish needed just as much protection as the birds he had been studying. “People never thought of fish as wildlife,” he told Joe Haberstroh for Newsday (June 19, 2002). “They just thought fish was something that wound up in the fish store, or on a plate in a restaurant.” One day in 1989, while he was fishing in the Atlantic Ocean about 50 miles off the coast of Fire Island, he noticed some fishermen catching “ridiculous amounts” of bluefin tuna, as he recalled to William J. Broad. “Somebody got on the radio and said, ‘Guys, maybe we should leave some for tomorrow,’” he told Broad. “Another guy came on and said, ‘Hey, they didn’t leave any buffalo for me.’” That offhand comment affected Safina profoundly: he realized that, through overfishing, entire species of fish could literally vanish. He began referring to global overfishing as “the last buffalo hunt.”

In 1990 Safina founded the Living Oceans Program at the National Audubon Society, where he served for a decade as vice president for ocean conservation. Concurrently, from 1991 to 1994, he served on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to which he was appointed by the secretary of commerce. In 2003 he co-founded and became president of the Blue Ocean Institute, an organization dedicated to inspiring among humans a closer relationship with the sea and helping more people realize its power and beauty. The Institute is designed to inspire, rather than demand, conservation by using science, art, and literature to build a “sea ethic” and a greater appreciation for the oceans and their inhabitants.

Safina’s first book, Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World’s Coasts and Beneath the Seas, was published in 1998 to rave reviews. In it Safina described his travels with high-seas fish and fishermen; in the salmon rivers, forests, and coasts of North America’s Northwest; and among the coral reefs of the tropical Western Pacific Ocean. He also recounted his experiences with individuals whose work might destroy or preserve those locales. The book was praised for its readability, poetic descriptions of the sea, and heartfelt pleas for conservation. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Library Journal Best Science Book, and won a Los Angeles Times award for nonfiction and the Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction. According to Contemporary Authors (1999), Richard Ellis characterized Safina for the Los Angeles Times Book Review as “an ecologist with the soul of a poet” and Song for the Blue Ocean “a frightening, important book.”

In 2000 Safina co-wrote (with Mercedes Lee and Suzanne Iudicello) Seafood Lover’s Almanac, a guide for those who love to eat seafood but are concerned about depleting fish and shellfish populations. The volume includes tips on recipes, suggestions for healthful eating, and information on nutritional values, along with alternatives to eating overfished species. Many reviewers lauded the book for educating readers about how to balance a seafood diet with a conservationist sensibility. The volume won the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation’s outstanding achievement award.

Despite the attention he devoted to fish in his previous two books, Safina did not forget his first love, birds. In an article for Time magazine’s Earth Day edition (April/May 2000), he considered the plight of the albatross, writing, “Like the albatross, we need the seas more than the seas need us. Will we understand this well enough to reap all the riches a little restraint, cooperation, and compassion will bring?” His next book, Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival (2002), followed a Laysan albatross, which he named Amelia, throughout one breeding season, detailing both the dangers Amelia and her kin faced and the remarkable feats they accomplished, such as living for up to 60 years and flying, as individuals, millions of miles in total. In a review for American Scientist (July 1, 2002), David Blockstein called the book “an honest first-person account of field biology in action.” “Thought-provoking, witty and beautifully written,” Blockstein wrote, “the book recounts dramatic adventures (both human and avian), philosophically explores life and death, and chronicles the relationship between humans and nature.” In 2003 Eye of the Albatross won the John Burroughs Medal, which has been awarded annually since 1926 to works that combine scientific accuracy, descriptions of fieldwork, and creative natural-history writing. Eye of the Albatross also garnered the inaugural National Academies Communication Award for explaining a scientific topic to the general public better than any other book published that year.

Safina has engaged in many successful conservation efforts. He has helped ban high-seas driftnets and overhaul federal fisheries laws in the U.S., and has persuaded fishermen to call for and abide by international agreements to restore depleted populations of tuna, sharks, and other fish, as well as creatures that constitute bycatch or bykill (marine life unintentionally captured by fishermen), such as dolphins and sea turtles. In 1995 he was a force behind the passage of a new fisheries treaty through the United Nations, and in 1996 the U.S. Congress incorporated some of his ideas in the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which required rebuilding of marine-life populations depleted by fishing. In the late 1990s Safina also raised awareness of declining shark populations, and by 1998, in the absence of an official recovery plan, he and other activists had succeeded in persuading several prominent restaurateurs in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., to remove swordfish from their menus. “Everyone has to be part of the solution. There’s little use in commercial and recreational fishers pointing fingers at each other,” Safina said in an article for AScribe Newswire (August 26, 2004). “Commercial fishing is not all bad and recreational fishing is not all good. A fish doesn’t care if you are a commercial or a recreational fisherman. It only cares if it surrounded by water—or on ice.”

In 2000 Safina won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly known as the “genius” grant. He has been using the prize money, which is distributed over the course of five years, to fund his research and the travel it entails. His other honors include the International Game Fish Association Conservation Award, the Pew Charitable Trust’s Scholar’s Award in Conservation and the Environment, the American Fisheries Society’s Carl R. Sullivan Conservation Award, and recognition from Rutgers University as the most distinguished alumnus to graduate from the ecology and evolution program. He has received honorary doctorates from Long Island University and SUNY. Audubon magazine named him one of the top 100 conservationists of the 20th century, and the World Wildlife Fund named him a senior fellow in its Marine Conservation Program. Safina is a visiting fellow at Yale University, an adjunct professor at SUNY–Stony Brook, and an elected member of the Explorers Club. In addition to his books, Safina has written upwards of 100 articles for scientific and popular journals. Seizing every opportunity to enlighten the public about the continuing dangers to marine wildlife, he also lectures. He appeared on the Bill Moyers PBS special Earth on the Edge (2002). “I predict that over the next few years,” he wrote in Science and Technology (Summer 2003), “consumer education will become the largest area of growth and change in the toolbox of ocean conservation strategy.”

Safina is greatly concerned, as he told Current Biography, with the “embattlement of reason and science.” He believes “that information must be conveyed in the context of values, and that we must reinvigorate veneration of reason and fuse it with a renewed quest toward truly traditional values of peace, compassion, generosity of spirit, and love.” Although he is not religious in the conventional sense, he finds spirituality in nature and the creatures he studies.

Safina lives in Amagansett, on Long Island, with Patricia Paladines and her daughter Alexandra. They have several pets, including a rescue dog, a king snake, a rose-haired tarantula, a rabbit, and a goldfish. Like his work, Safina’s leisure activities take him outdoors; besides fishing, he enjoys snorkeling, scuba diving, clamming, kayaking, and bird watching. His next book will focus on his travels with sea turtles.

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Carl Safina's Presentations

TEDxOilSpill June 2010

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The oil spill's unseen culprits, victims: The Gulf oil spill dwarfs comprehension, but we know this much: it's bad. Carl Safina scrapes out the facts in this blood-boiling cross-examination, arguing that the consequences will stretch far beyond the... More

The oil spill's unseen culprits, victims: The Gulf oil spill dwarfs comprehension, but we know this much: it's bad. Carl Safina scrapes out the facts in this blood-boiling cross-examination, arguing that the consequences will stretch far beyond the Gulf -- and many so-called solutions are making the situation worse.

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PopTech 2008 October 2008

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Oceans in Balance: Carl Safina spends a lot of time on the ocean and what he’s seen is beyond alarming. A reformed fisherman (at one point he was even hunting Mako sharks), Carl noticed over the years that the fish he was after were becoming... More

Oceans in Balance: Carl Safina spends a lot of time on the ocean and what he’s seen is beyond alarming. A reformed fisherman (at one point he was even hunting Mako sharks), Carl noticed over the years that the fish he was after were becoming scarcer and scarcer. One day chasing tuna, he experienced a moment of epiphany that changed him from hunter to protector.

The creatures in the sea, he realized, were as much part of our world as we are and yet we’ve been treating their habitat both like an endless food source and a dumping ground. In 1990, he founded the Living Oceans Program at the National Audubon Society, where he worked for a decade. Then in 2003, he co-founded the Blue Ocean Institute, whose goal is to use science, art and literature to inspire a closer relationship to the sea and implement conservation solutions.

As part of the Pop!Tech opening remarks, Carl showed the crowd images of baby albatross chicks stuffed with swallowed cigarette lighters, hundreds of carcasses of sharks who were killed just for their fins, and the vast waste of unwanted fish that’s the sad outcome of commercial shrimp fishing. Carl says that in the (relatively) short time we’ve been on the planet, we’ve eaten 90% of the fish in the sea. In the same way our endless quest for land has wiped out whole species of animals, so has our desire for unfettered access to seafood erased entire populations of fish.

So what can we do? In keeping with a key theme of the conference, one simple action is to consume less. And when you do eat seafood, ensure you are eating something that has been safely, sustainably caught or harvested. The Blue Ocean Institute provides a Guide to Ocean-Friendly Seafood on its site to help us make more informed choices.

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