Centennial Story 58: Nicolas L Gutierrez (PhD, 2011)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve known I wanted to be a marine biologist (of some sort). My first experience with marine biology was during a high school class trip to Patagonia. I was thirteen, and got to see right whales, elephant seals, and penguins in their natural habitat, something that was out of the ordinary for someone growing up on the margins of the River Plate (Montevideo). Then, during my first year at university, I was lucky enough to join the Uruguayan Antarctic science program to study breeding success in Gentoo penguins. That venture took more than seven years, passing through population dynamics of penguins, to smelly studies of the diet of Antarctic fur seals, to routine impact assessments of human activities at King George Island.

In Spanish, we say, “la tercera es la vencida” (the third time’s the charm), and I finally got to the fisheries world by applying for an internship at the Fisheries Institute in Uruguay. My job was to understand the spatial patterns of a newly developed scallop fishery under the supervision of Omar Defeo, who later became a mentor for my BS and MS degrees, and a dear, long-time friend. Omar was not only instrumental in introducing me to the fisheries world, but also in convincing me that fishery science was not only fun, but also very much needed in our country and region. A few years later, and thanks to a Fulbright scholarship and SAFS generosity, I was boarding a plane to Seattle to meet my PhD supervisor, Ray Hilborn. This was part of an effort to improve my quantitative skills and to learn as much as possible from SAFS faculty and an outstanding cohort of students (including the “Latino group”—Julian Burgos [PhD, 2008], Alex Aires da Silva [PhD, 2008], Carolina Minte-Vera [PhD, 2004], Alex Zerbini [PhD, 2006], and many others).

Diving the kelp beds off Point Loma, San Diego California ca. 2009. Being able to connect with fishers in the field was a highlight of my research.
Diving the kelp beds off Point Loma, San Diego California ca. 2009. Being able to connect with fishers in the field was a highlight of my research.

During my time at SAFS, I took some of the most challenging, but rewarding and motivating, courses of my career. Luckily, I was not the only one struggling with homework and labs, so I joined forces with my course mates and spent hours trying to decipher André Punt’s mind-boggling, clever exercises. But man, that feeling of actually solving them! Of course, not everything was 450s and 500s; Ray was kind enough to send me to Southern California to dive with Peter Halmay, a sea urchin fisherman leading an exciting community-based data collection program. This allowed me to understand fishery problems firsthand, and not just from the perspective of a scientist or manager, but also from the perspective of the fishing community itself. I used the data I collected to develop a spatially explicit, individual-based model that can be used to explore alternative scenarios related to cooperative fishing, and I also became very interested in understanding the basis for successful co-management, which led to a rewarding paper in Nature.

After six years at SAFS, I decided to take up a position at the London-based Marine Stewardship Council, where I then became the Head of Research. Fisheries certification was taking off back then, and I saw this role as a great opportunity to apply my quantitative and analytical skills, together with some strategic thinking on how to use market-based incentives to improve fisheries sustainability. I now work for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) based in Rome, Italy, where I support the design and implementation of programs to assist countries in their tuna resource assessments, fisheries research, and management activities. I also work alongside academic and research centers to develop capacity building programs on fisheries assessment and management, particularly in data-limited situations and for developing world fisheries.

Speaking to government officials and industry representatives on the status of global tuna fisheries (photo from local newspaper “El Mercurio”, Manta, Ecuador - 2017)
Speaking to government officials and industry representatives on the status of global tuna fisheries (photo from local newspaper “El Mercurio”, Manta, Ecuador – 2017)

My time at SAFS was a true inflection point in my career. The available courses are not only highly diverse, but they also have the right combination of highly skilled and experienced teachers, hands-on labs, lectures by outstanding scientists showcasing real world examples, and in some cases, exciting field work (Ray’s course in salmon management in Aleknagik, Alaska is hard to beat). SAFS is not just about academic training, but also about working with fishers, managers, policy-makers and industry to truly understand how fisheries science works in the real world. I will be forever grateful for that opportunity.

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