Rider of rough Seas
Marine ecologist James Lindholm finds nuance in the polarizing debate over trawling.
By Amy G. McDermott
James Lindholm stepped into a firestorm when he decided to study the environmental impacts of trawling along the California coast. The fishing technique— in which huge weighted nets are dragged along the seabed — has long raised deeply rooted tensions between fishermen, conservationists and the federal government. But Lindholm, 48, solid and athletic, isn’t afraid of a challenge. Trophies from triathlon competitions line the shelves in his large office at California State University, Monterey Bay; there are no participation medals.
Where other scientists shy away from politically charged research, Lindholm dives into those turbulent waters, in a career dedicated to science that informs management. Beginning in the mid-1990s, he set his sights on trawling, first in New England, and then along the Pacific coast. In the last five years, his research group at CSU Monterey Bay has compared different kinds of gear in a variety of marine habitats and found that the environmental reality of trawling isn’t black and white.
Over the past two decades, Lindholm has shown significant negative impacts of trawling in some areas, and negligible consequences in others. His papers have informed both pro- and anti-trawling campaigns, as well as a landmark meeting in 2013 between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, local fishermen, and conservation nonprofits to revise commercial fishing grounds in the bay.
While trawling has nuanced environmental impacts, it is often legislated as all bad, or all good— leading to outright bans in some places and little oversight in others. “As a society we tend to either let things happen all the time, everywhere, or we ban them,” Lindholm says. “I’m not interested in demonizing any particular gear, or any particular community,” but an all-or-nothing approach “demonstrates no nuance to the environmental challenges we have now.”
But acknowledging that nuance raises concerns on both sides. Some environmental groups worry that allowing trawling anywhere is a slippery slope to trawling everywhere. And fishermen also raise a cautious eyebrow, worrying that Lindholm’s research will lead to increased federal regulations on their harvesting gear.
Caught between two extremes, Lindholm “is willing to take on projects most people would think are intractable,” says Andrew DeVogelaere, research coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Addressing trawling? “Most people wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
But Lindholm dives right in.
For the Greater Good
Lindholm credits his civic-minded family and seaside upbringing with his focus on applied ocean science today. “I grew up in a household where people dedicated their lives to careers that supported other people,” he says. “That was where it came from.”
Born and raised in Morro Bay, about 15 miles west of San Luis Obispo, Lindholm grew up on the California coast. Both of his parents worked as public servants: his father was a district attorney and his mother, a probation officer and juvenile counselor. “Everybody worked their butts off all the time,” Lindholm recalls, smiling as he leans back in the large swivel chair behind his desk.
As an undergraduate close to home, at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Lindholm studied political science, and took an extra year to minor in philosophy. “I was interested in trying to understand things that I hadn’t really experienced before,” Lindholm says.
But the ocean was his first love, so after college, Lindholm began a master’s program in environmental science through Boston University at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. By the end of that first year, he recalls, he “had a meeting of the minds” with marine scientists around him, and immediately enrolled in Boston University’s ocean conservation Ph.D. program.
At the time, the northeast cod fishery was in the midst of collapse thanks to decades of overexploitation. Lindholm saw a pressing need for science to inform management, to avoid similar disasters in the future. He wondered how fish used local coastal habitat, and how popular fishing methods, like trawling, were changing the landscape.
What began as a simple question bloomed into a career-spanning obsession. It crystallized in the early years after Lindholm earned his Ph.D., when he worked as a researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, or NOAA in Boston.
“I would sit at my desk and get a big fat binder of science,” he says, recalling piles of new marine research. “And because it didn’t deal with the fire drill that I was dealing with on that particular day, it went up on the shelf. That’s such a huge waste of effort.”
After three years, he was fed up with the disconnect between research and policy. Peer-reviewed research often “doesn’t match with the expectations or goals of the people who are actually doing the management or the policy making,” Lindholm says, his easy smile fading. “I really wanted to come back to academia to help make that link more solid.”
And strengthen the link he did. In 2007, Lindholm moved to CSU Monterey Bay, to found the Institute for Applied Marine Ecology, or iFAME. “This whole rationale is precisely that: to do science in support of specific needs at whatever level of government necessary.”
Today, iFAME works in partnership with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to monitor trawling impacts off of San Francisco. The institute also surveys fish populations along the California coast and Florida Keys, and tracks seafloor recovery from trawling in the Gulf of Maine, among other projects.
Downstairs from his office, in the light-flooded biology building on the CSU Monterey Bay’s coastal campus, Lindholm’s lab is awash in posters and photos of his research team. Graduate student Larissa Clary sits in front of two huge computer screens, watching black-and-white video footage of the bay’s soft, sandy seafloor.
A long, thin fish undulates on the screen in front of her. It looks like a little white line. “That’s actually an animal,” Clary says, laughing. “Anything that we’re seeing, we’re recording.”
Last year, the research team published results of an investigation of the environmental impacts of bottom trawling off Morro Bay. To carry out the study, the researchers trawled eight study plots off Point Buchon and Morro Bay, using traditional gear at both low and high intensities. The researchers used a small submarine to take video footage of the muddy, sandy bottom immediately before trawling, and then two weeks, six months, one year, and 18 months later.
When they analyzed the footage, the scientists looked for consistent differences between the seabed at trawled and untrawled sites, but “we couldn’t really find an impact,” Lindholm says. The sandy seabed seemed to recover very quickly from trawling efforts— much faster than other, more delicate environments.
Anything popping up off the seafloor —like boulders or anemones— can be an important home for fish, and an obstacle to trawling gear, Lindholm says, as he draws a flowery anemone on the lab’s dry erase board. In some places, such as seamounts and deep coral reefs, trawling nets rip up the ground, making it inhospitable for wildlife. “If you’ve got one of these 1,300-year-old deep water corals, if you knock one of those over, that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t recover,” Lindholm says. “But some habitats might. “
Lindholm’s lab has turned their attention to soft sandy habitats, where fish nestle into shallow depressions on the bottom. A weighted net might stir things up, but there’s no permanent damage, the researchers say. The fish can always wiggle into a new spot.
It’s a controversial finding, though, because many environmental advocacy organizations, including Greenpeace, argue for an absolute ban on trawling. And some staunchly anti-trawling groups fear that Lindholm’s work undercuts their mission.
“James absolutely is not saying trawling is OK everywhere and never has an impact,” says Geoff Shester, California program manager for the conservation nonprofit Oceana in Monterey, California. But “we have heard many [trawling] industry folks hold up his studies and say, 'Look, trawling is OK.’ With any very site-specific scientific study, it can be misinterpreted to apply more broadly.”
Lindholm understands that fear, “but as long as we’re going to try to feed people,” he says, we’re going to need guidelines and parameters to take fish. But at the same time, “you have to be intellectually honest,” he says, and share the science no matter whose side it supports.
Fishing, like many other human activities, changes the environment in many ways. Lindholm wants to provide as much information as possible to make informed decisions about those tradeoffs.
“He has stepped into a firestorm, but he stepped in in an intelligent way with a fireproof suit,” Shester says. “He's been very cautious not to advocate,” he adds. “If there were 100 Lindholms up and down the coast doing this type of work, we would be far better able to manage our fisheries without damaging the ecosystem.”
Since conducting their initial work in Morro Bay, Lindholm’s team has turned its attention to teasing out the nuances between types of trawling equipment. In follow-up studies, they’re now comparing changes to different areas of the sandy seabed that have been trawled with two separate types of gear. Both use weighted nets: one drags along the bottom, while the other is raised on large wheels, keeping more of it off the ground. The team is counting the diversity of species at each site
Lindholm is quick to caution that applied research like his should never be directed toward a specific end. “We aren’t saying we want to demonstrate X,” he says. “What we want to do is provide science in a context that can be utilized.”
And that’s not just for trawling. Right now, Lindholm is also working on several other monitoring projects, focusing on fish behavior off of California, and in National Marine Sanctuaries across the US.
In one of those projects, divers will swim behind large cameras, recording video footage to collect data about the undersea environment. Today scuba teams take notes and observations but don’t usually collect video, Lindholm explains, eyes twinkling as he kneels over one of the large white cameras in his lab. “So by collecting imagery at scuba depth,” Lindholm says, hoisting the camera up to his chest as if swimming with it, “we can do similar analysis to what we can do with [submarine] footage.”
While applied science is his focus, there is room for basic research too, Lindholm says, without any clear relevance to management. “ I think we should have more science across the board, absolutely,” he nods. But in the face of massive environmental problems, Lindholm emphasizes, we can’t just hope that the answers will pop out of research that isn’t targeted toward policy. “We have to conduct dedicated science to answer these questions, or we’re in big trouble.”
Born and raised in California, Amy founded Hawkmoth in 2014. She earned her master's at Columbia University, studying the evolution and conservation of coral reef fish in the tropical Indo-Pacific and is now a banana slug, in UC Santa Cruz's Science Communication Program.