Working across generations, cultures and disciplines: my experience with the IUCN Red List and the Marine Biodiversity Unit

By Emilie Stump

Four months after arriving in Vancouver, I’ve just finished my first term at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. After just four short months of exposure to the scope and scale of thought and action present here, I am fully assured that I am exactly where I should be, which leads me to reflect on the experiences which have led me to this dynamic, engaging, and inspiring place.

Prior to joining the Project Seahorse Team, I served as a research assistant with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Marine Biodiversity Unit (MBU), working with a small, dedicated team to meet an ambitious goal: Assess the conservation status of 20,000 marine species under the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria.

This initiative, called the Global Marine Species Assessment Project, was designed address knowledge gaps in our collective understanding of extinction risk in the ocean—prior to the year 2000, less than 1% of the species published on the Red List were marine organisms. Given the increasing recognition that human activities could affect marine populations, we needed to quantify the scope and scale of vulnerability in the ocean and gain an understanding the intrinsic and extrinsic processes and drivers behind increased vulnerability.

The Red List process collates information on the distribution, habitat/ecology, population trends, and threats to individual marine species and uses that information, along with expert analysis using quantitative criteria, to categorize any given species into one of nine categories according to level of extinction risk. The results can be viewed and downloaded online as species-specific, peer-reviewed Red List Assessments (complete with range maps!).

These comprehensive documents have been used at the global, regional, and national scale to inform management and decision making, set conservation priorities, and inform conservation outreach. Many assessments are used as the basis for national endangered species listings; for example, the reef-building coral Red List assessments completed by the MBU contributed to the recent listing (final rule passed in 2014) of a subset of 20 of those coral species on the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), bringing the total number of coral species listed on the ESA to 22. These corals are now subject to monitoring, enforced protection, and restoration efforts within US waters.

I gained respect not just for the product but for the process of our Red Listing efforts. I attended 3 workshops in West Africa (Senegal, Ghana, Gabon) and one in Europe (Belgium) from 2012-2014, where I served as an English/French translator and workshop facilitator. As workshop facilitators, our task was to teach the Red Listing process and guide a group of 10-20 regional and global experts in diverse fields including ecology, ichthyology, fisheries management, conservation, and local governance towards a consensus on whether species X qualified for category Y. The goal was unanimous consent of all experts involved. This process was sometimes wrought with tension and conflict arising from the mingling different intellectual and cultural perspectives and backgrounds of the participants and facilitators. This was particularly true in the case of commercially important fishes, which were often seen not as wildlife in their own right, but as resources. Another key challenge was using the best available data, flawed and limited as it sometimes was, to assign a Red List Category to a given species. I gained an appreciation for nuance and for taking action in the face of uncertainty. 

My experience as an IUCN Red List workshop facilitator gave me an appreciation for diverse perspectives, mutual respect, working across disciplines, achieving consensus based on full inclusion rather than selective exclusion, the art of compromise, and the power of working together towards a shared goal --even if it’s really uncomfortable sometimes! It is the pursuit of these values that brought me to UBC, the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and Project Seahorse. 

The month-long road trip here was pretty awesome too...