Who doesn’t love a good fish story, or for that matter, a good fishing story? Jim McClintock, the University of Alabama at Birmingham marine biologist best known for his many explorations of Antarctica — he’s a professor and director of UAB in Antarctica, who has not only taken students to visit the ultimate land down-under, but is one of the few living men in the world to have a spot on the map named after him, namely McClintock Point on the coast of Antarctica — is also an avid fisherman.
He’s connected his love of fishing, his love of writing and his recognized authority on climate change (in 2010 he was one of 25 scientists selected by the National Academy of Sciences to develop a definitive work on the subject) in his new book: A Naturalist Goes Fishing.
“The book highlights nine different regions of the earth as far away as the islands of New Zealand and the continent of Antarctica where I fished to catch fish for my research, to as close to home here as the Cahaba River and the Gulf of Mexico,” McClintock said. He uses the book to tell stories about his adventures in the great outdoors, but also to teach some significant lessons his travels have taught him about climate change and what it means for the planet Earth.
So far his book has been featured in Science News, Coastal Living and Scientific American, and other magazines have expressed interest. As he gave Weld this interview, McClintock was also preparing for a local television appearance and book signing.
Weld: What is a naturalist, and how did you figure out you were one?
McClintock: I consider myself a naturalist from the day I started turning over rocks and looking for insects in my front yard and going to the beach and looking through tide pools when I was seven or eight years old growing up on the coast of California. I’m not sure I knew I would become a naturalist in a professional context until I was well into college and had discovered marine biology.
I actually started out as an English major in college and so I loved writing and I had a keen interest in nature already. But it was the discovery of marine biology because of a professor … you know how you have those teachers that become instant mentors, and that’s really what triggered it, and going off to a marine station as a student to work and study. At that point, I knew what I wanted to do and I think becoming a specialist in marine biology, working in Antarctica, and then my love for the out-of-doors — canoeing on the Cahaba River, backpacking in the Smokies, going down to the coast — collectively these provided me opportunities to learn about the natural history of our state of Alabama and I guess, at some point, I decided I could be called a naturalist.
Weld: You wrote a book about fishing, but I think it’s about more than that. What made you write this book?
McClintock: The book was really spurred on by my strong feelings about conservation and biology. And this stems from my extensive experience working in Antarctica, where over the past 15 years I’ve personally witnessed climate change impacts on the natural system, on marine organisms on the ice. And the realization that there’s really only a handful of people who’ve been able to actually see entire communities change over a period of 15 years. And this tends to be in polar environments where changes happen very quickly. So I felt compelled as a scientist that I want to reach out to the general public and share what I’ve experienced and seen.
And to do this I thought that maybe I could take advantage of my interest in writing for the general public, speaking to the general public with the objectivity of a scientist and being very cognizant not to bring politics into the situation, as climate change often does, and just share this story.
The book is great fishing adventures, it’s natural history, it’s travel around the world. But the narrative has to do with our rapidly changing environment and how these natural habitats where fish live are being impacted by climate change and ocean acidification, overfishing, pollution. And some optimism — some of the things we’re doing right to sustain these fisheries and move forward as a society.
Weld: How much do you think the general public knows about the actual current effects of climate change?
McClintock: Well, I think there is a growing consensus in our country that, a large proportion, 70, 80 percent of Americans now realize that something’s happening. They either have personally witnessed it or they’re sensing that the scientific consensus is very broad and real. So that’s good news. When it comes to translating into action items, to actually confront climate change and turn things around, things are a little bit slower. And I think that there’s a need to begin to do that. There are signs, positive signs, politically, in terms of business communities, corporations that are stepping up.
I was struck recently by this major global company called Siemens… the CEO had an editorial in a major newspaper announcing that the company, a huge percentage of their energy use, was going to be transferred over to renewables. They were redoing their fleet of vehicles with natural gas… Their carbon footprint was significantly going to be reduced and it struck me as very positive now when you begin to see corporate America stepping up and beginning to take this seriously.
Weld: What do you hope people who read this book will take out of it?
McClintock: I hope that the book will inspire them to consider what’s really going on, how rising temperatures are affecting their natural environments. How ocean acidification is posing a problem for fisheries, how overfishing, all the way back to what we learned from Garrett Hardin in the “Tragedy of the Commons” [published in Science, December 1968] where you have all these individual interests fishing out of the same metaphorical pond, the resources are soon gone. And there needs to be communication and coordination to regulate those fisheries and keep them sustainable.
So I hope we get the message that more and more so these things are confronting us, environmental issues in all aspects of our life. And while I don’t address specifically the action items in the book, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. What can we do as individuals to address climate change?
Weld: What would you say people can do?
McClintock: You can think of something that you can do personally, whether it’s something as simple as recycling, insulating your doors at home – something you can do at the individual level. Giving time to environmental organizations, if you’re capable, giving funds to groups that are in these areas of climate change…
And more recently I’ve really thought long and hard about the fact that – this is probably because I live in the southeast where religion is such a strong component of our life here — that there is this strong tie between stewardship of the Earth from the perspective of spirituality and the environment, and that the two can go hand-in-hand. I mean, how powerful would it be if we all could hear a sermon every now and then about stewardship of the Earth and what we could do [in] climate change? I’m recommending or suggesting that people might talk to their rabbi, talk to their priest, talk to their leader at church and nudge them to give a sermon about stewardship of the Earth and how climate change plays into that.
Right now people are very aware of Pope Francis’s stand on climate change and how it may differentially impact the poor in a negative sense. So it really … can be a spiritual issue for people, too.
Weld: Thinking about the book from just the perspective of the fishing adventures, what stands out?
McClintock: I think one of my favorite locations is the first chapter, which highlights the Chandeleur Islands. … It’s a national preserve, a small group of islands clustered off the coast of Louisiana, far enough off-shore that you don’t see people. They’re well protected. Yet, they’re very fragile and vulnerable. Hurricane Katrina cut them in half. The oil spill coated them. But out there, you are one with nature.
The sky is immense, as big as any skies I’ve seen in Montana or Florida. Beautiful cloud formations. The islands are made of low-lying vegetation, mangroves, salt marshes, very shallow water with sea grass. You fish amongst these islands for speckled trout and redfish and while you’re fishing away the day, there’s no sounds, except the sounds of the water, the wind and you’re looking up and seeing frigate birds soaring above your head, in these vast, sort of tornadic formations higher and higher until they’re just little specks. It’s just a fantastic experience. And when we go out there we go out there for four days and so we’re really immersed in that, and the camaraderie of your fishing buddies.
One my favorite stories is my fishing buddy Ken Marion tossing his line in the water, and as he tossed the line, it arced up into the air and a sea gull just happened to come under the line and as it settled to the sea, tangled the seagull up in the line. The seagull was thrown down to the water. It wasn’t hurt or anything but it was sitting on the top of the water attached to the line. And Ken had a nice little bait at the end of the line, and as they headed over to the seagull in their boat to free it from the line, they noticed the seagull suddenly went underwater completely, and then bobbed back up. And then bobbed back down again and bobbed back up. They couldn’t figure out if it was having some sort of a behavioral attack, you know, something going on. And as they approached the seagull they noticed a flash of silver under it. And they realized that a big speckled trout had taken the bait, and the seagull had become a feathered bobber.
They were able finally to get the seagull free and one of the biggest speckled trout that Ken had ever caught in the Chandeleurs was under that seagull.
Weld: Was there any one of the places that you visited where you learned something particularly significant?
McClintock: It’s important that you realize that these fishing trips, particularly afar, are not driven by the fishing, per se. I happened to have a sabbatical in New Zealand, so I took the advantage of going fishing. I happened to take UAB students to Costa Rica, to teach them about tropical ecology, and we give them a half-day off. So I get to go fishing for half the day.
But one of the things that struck me about the Costa Rica beaches was they’re incredibly littered with plastic. Up on the high level where the high water comes you see all sorts of plastic bottles and cups. And this always struck me as something that could be taken care of. Take a bunch of bags down to the beach and get a bunch of concerned people to pick up the trash and you’ve done your job.
Well, I discovered that actually what happens to this plastic is the sun and the ultraviolet radiation breaks a lot of it down into very, very tiny particles that then re-enter the ocean because the tide comes in and sweeps them. Marine biologists such as myself are just amazed to discover that a lot of marine life has plastic inside it because of these particles that are getting into the ocean. So if you look in the guts of fish, you look in the guts of plankton — plastic. And this can be a problem because it deters with their nutrition. That was a surprise to me.
Something that I talk about in one of my chapters is how plastics have become a major issue in our oceans. There’s actually a place called the “garbage patch,” the Pacific garbage patch. It’s hundreds of square miles of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Floating trash. Because the way the ocean currents come together, it focuses them in this one area.
Weld: Where is it?
McClintock: It’s up in the north Pacific, sort of halfway between Japan and the U.S…. I read somewhere that somebody has come up with a company with a barge that has a big mouth, that drives through all this material and they’re trying to scoop it up and then recycle it.
Weld: How long as this garbage patch been there?
McClintock: Oh gosh, I want to say, at least several decades, if not more.
Weld: Do you think that learning these kinds of things might motivate people to think about what they’re doing?
McClintock: I really do. You know, we live in one of the most biodiverse regions of our country. A lot of people don’t realize that Alabama has some of the highest diversity of wildlife anywhere. For example, on the Cahaba River, the diversity of fish is unparalleled. And mussels and clams, bivalves that live in the river. It’s thought to be sort of the evolutionary center of their biodiversity. So we have a treasure here.
Just as we’re undergoing a renaissance here in Birmingham right now and this wonderful building of community downtown, I think a realization that we live in this natural environment that is unparalleled is going to add quality to our state and our city and our people. And I think that whatever I can do as a naturalist, as a writer, as an author, to help people to appreciate what they have — the more you appreciate what you have, the more you want to take care of it.