What Exactly is Marine Conservation Biology?

Learn the difference between marine biology and marine conservation biology—and what the scientists in each field tend to focus on

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Guest Blogger

This blog was written by Dr. David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist and public science educator based in Washington, D.C. Renowned for his witty social media presence, he has written for the widely-read ocean science blog Southern Fried Science, and his science writing has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, Scientific American, Gizmodo and Scuba Diving Magazine. Follow along with him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and stay tuned for his future contributions to the Ocean Conservancy blog.

If you read my first blog for Ocean Conservancy, you may have noticed that I identified myself as a “marine conservation biologist.” While many people may know that a marine biologist is a scientist who studies organisms that live in the ocean, my introduction as a marine conservation biologist tends to inspire some questions from readers. For example: “What’s the difference between marine biology and marine conservation biology?” and “What exactly does a marine conservation biologist do?” Today, I’m here to answer these questions for you. Let’s dive in!

What is conservation biology?

I’ll start by referencing a powerful essay that was published in 1985, the year after I was born. The Endangered Species Act and the entire environmental movement in the United States were relatively new, with ideas on how to move forward actively discussed by passionate environmentalists and concerned scientists. Michael Soule, who died earlier this year, described conservation biology as an entirely new discipline of science. This type of biology was designed to be practical, focused, applied science that borrows methods and approaches from other closely related fields like ecology, biology and environmental science. By “applied,” I mean that we’re not just talking about learning new information about our natural world for the sake of knowledge. While that is, of course, incredibly important work (because there is so much more still to learn), we’re talking about something different here: using scientific approaches to answer specific questions with immediately obvious real-world implications.

Gerald Schombs Unsplash

In the case of the Endangered Species Act, for example, we’re of course focusing specifically on preventing the extinction of endangered species. With growing recognition of the threats facing the environment, it was no longer enough to just learn more about the ocean in general. It became more and more clear that it was necessary to learn specific information to try and help stop these problems. Essentially, conservation biology is the use of science to learn how to most effectively protect wildlife and wild places, and marine conservation biology is exactly that, but specifically centered around the ocean.

Marine biologists study living things in the ocean with the open-ended goal of learning more about them. Marine conservation biologists take a more applied and specific approach; for example, they ask not just “Where do sea turtles go?” but “Given that these sea turtles are endangered, what can a greater understanding of their habitat use and how it overlaps with potential threats tell us about how to protect them from threats so their population can recover?”

While the boundaries between marine conservation biology methods and marine biology methods may be blurry at times, an important difference is what happens next. Traditionally in the scientific field, publishing a peer-reviewed paper with the results of your study in a scientific journal represents the end of a research project. Many marine biology papers note that their results may be “significant for management” in some way, but they’re rarely specific about what the current issue is with management or what specifically should be changed due to these new results.

Marine conservation biology papers often dive much deeper into detail about a proposed policy change, as the goal of many studies is often to find out what needs to be done to solve a specific real-world problem. In marine conservation biology, while publishing a paper is often an important step, it’s not the end of the process—in order to protect our ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it, we need to then make sure that the public and decision-makers know there’s a problem in the first place. Then, we must work to pinpoint and communicate what we can do to solve it, either ourselves or by partnering with people or organizations that will communicate our key findings to leadership (or communities that influence those leaders).

What does a typical day look like for you as a marine conservation biologist?

As a marine conservation biologist, many of my days are pretty similar to those of my colleagues in “pure” marine biology, spending time on a research vessel collecting data or digging into academic databases, analyzing samples in a lab or writing up results for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. But unlike several of my colleagues, I also spend a lot of time publicizing and communicating about science, making sure that the right people know what was found, why it matters and what we need to do about it. While this isn’t technically part of some of my job descriptions and isn’t for everyone, I know it’s a vital step in turning scientific results into policy action. Rather than mostly working closely with scientists alone, I also work with environmental advocacy groups, science journalists and government decision-makers on a regular basis.

David Shiffman 1

As you can see, a significant difference is who we frequently collaborate with. Most marine biologists, if asked, can easily name five other scientists in their field, but not necessarily many others in external fields and disciplines. Marine conservation biologists, on the other hand, tend to have colleagues much more diversified in their type of work, such as environmental advocates who advocate for issues related to what they study, journalists whose beat includes their area of expertise or government officials who make decisions that affect their study system.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the role of a marine conservation biologist is also notably different from that of an ocean conservation advocate, such as some of the fine folks who work for Ocean Conservancy. For some, their job is to directly lobby government officials for change, though conservation advocates also often have scientific training and may participate in scientific research projects, too. With that, many environmental non-profits like Ocean Conservancy do employ marine biologists, marine conservation biologists or both, as do academic institutions. In sum, both marine biologists and marine conservation biologists have important and diverse roles to play in a variety of fields!

When did you know you wanted to be a marine conservation biologist?

I’ll first note that I’ve known I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was a toddler. It was in college that I transitioned into the applied side of marine conservation biology as I learned more about the various threats facing the ocean and the core need for scientific data to solve some of these increasingly pressing problems. Today, I use scientific methods and approaches to understand specific threats to endangered species that live in our ocean and what solutions can be used to help protect them.

I’ll end by saying that there are so many paths to a career in the realm of ocean conservation, and my path is just one of them. I hope that this blog helps lift the curtain to show you the “behind the scenes” in the life of a conservation biologist and the type of work we do in the field of ocean conservation!

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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