RESEARCH

whalers.jpg

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated so:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges.
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

—Rudyard Kipling, "The Explorer"

As an environmental geographer, I research how people make healthy and sustainable use of natural resources in contexts characterized by societal and environmental change. I am involved in several concurrent research initiatives, all at various stages of progress. Each is described below and publications resulting from these projects are available on the CV and Publications page. 

Breadfruit Agroforestry: Cultural and Sustainable Connections

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) has fueled two major human migrations: one across the Pacific and the other across the Atlantic; one of heroic exploration and the other of cruel enslavement. As the first proto-Polynesians set out from southeast Asia to embark upon their voyages of discovery that would eventually result in the finding and settlement of every major Pacific island group, they brought along familiar food crops to plant in their new island homes. One of these—probably called by a name like kuru, from which the Tahitian ‘uru and the Hawaiian ‘ulu derive—was a large, starchy tree-fruit, propagated not by seeds but by cuttings or saplings. This food saw the explorers through their long voyages and, owing to its preservability, kept their settler descendants alive through periods of island famine. Half a millennium later, as European colonial governments were busy cruelly engineering the large-scale forced movement of Africans to the Americas to work their newly established plantations, they sought a food source both cheap and nutritious to fuel their enslaved workforce. Captain Cook’s botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, recommended breadfruit and soon the British government was financing large-scale voyages to import the tree from Polynesia to the Caribbean, the most infamous of which was the mutinous voyage of the HMS Bounty. By and large, the enslaved workers detested breadfruit. Perhaps surprisingly, considering its vastly different histories in the two regions, breadfruit is very popular in both Polynesia and the insular Caribbean today. Recently, it has been promoted as a solution to food shortages in developing nations around the world and as the next great “superfood” in wealthy developed countries. This potential is complicated by the effects of climate change, owing to breadfruit’s specific needs for narrow temperature ranges and precipitation levels. At the same time, as the cultivation of traditional, staple crops in some parts of the world becomes untenable in the face of climate change, breadfruit may provide a viable alternative if issues of cultural/culinary acceptance and techniques of propagation and cultivation can be properly addressed.

 
Faroe Islands Whaling: Cultural Heritage and Food Production amid Environmental Change

Small-scale fisheries and whaling operations can be conceptualized as integrated socio-environmental systems that are essential for the food security/sovereignty and cultural identity of many island communities. Anthropogenic pollutants, emitted primarily from large, developed, mainland countries, degrade the marine environment and negatively impact human health when they affect marine food webs. Health risks due to pollution may prompt local authorities to advise the avoidance of certain foods, which can cause economic and nutritional challenges as consumers seek to replace these foods in their diets. When the affected food products are derived from cultural keystone species, or when the food procurement activities such as fishing or whaling are integral to an island community’s cultural heritage, islanders face the risk of cultural heritage loss through the disintegration of socio-environmental systems. To avoid the associated cultural loss, some innovative and resilient island communities have identified ways to balance the protection of human health with their loyalty to cultural heritage through adaptive, alternative, or symbolic means. This project uses the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, a traditional whaling society, as an indicator community to analyze the dynamic impacts of environmental pollution on the health and culture of whalers, fishers, and other coastal and island-based subsistence communities. Findings explore the nuanced ways that local community members in the Faroe Islands have exhibited cultural resilience through their negotiations of the risks presented by the ongoing pollution of the long-finned pilot whale, a cultural keystone species and the main target of the Faroese whaling operation, while maintaining meaningful connections to their cultural heritage through creative, innovative and resilient island-based initiatives. (with Elsie Sunderland of Harvard University and Yoshitaka Ota of the University of Washington, supported by the US National Science Foundation's Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems [DISES] program)

 
Caribbean Whaling: Environmental and Human Health Implications

This project is a study of the human and environmental implications of whaling in the Caribbean. A few countries in the region continue to host active and legal whaling operations to produce food for local consumption (as in the photograph above). Worldwide, whaling is not a common form of human-environment interaction, but—as evinced by the endurance of Moby-Dick among the canon of American literature—one that illuminates certain aspects of the human condition in a way that far exceeds the actual scope of the activity. My research has shown that whaling also amplifies specific issues of relevance to the environmental sciences, including adaptation to climate change (and other forms of environmental change), food security, international environmental conflict, and ecotoxicology. The current focus of my whaling research is environmental health. As apex predators in the marine food web, the whales taken in the Caribbean accumulate high concentrations of environmental contaminants, making the consumption of their tissues a risk to human health. My research methods involve both the laboratory analysis of tissue samples from landed whales and dolphins and the statistical analysis of data from more than a thousand interviews on people's dietary habits. The results, taken together, suggest that whale-based food products in the Caribbean are both highly popular and heavily contaminated, thus further complicating an already problematic socio-ecological system. The current state and future directions of this research are explained in my recent virtual poster for the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, which can be viewed here