Richard (Rick) Hamilton, PhD, is the Senior Melanesia Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Rick lives in Brisbane, Australia, and works regularly in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, which is where he was raised. His background is in anthropology and marine science and he is fluent in several Melanesian languages. The majority of his work in Melanesia adopts a “ridges to reefs” (land to sea) collaborative approach to protecting endangered ocean megafauna, coral reef fishes, and sea turtles. Through this approach Rick works directly with communities, governments and universities to improve the management of the oceans.
Rick in the News
Hear an interview with Rick on involving locals in Melanesia's Coral Triangle conservation (August 11, 2014)
See a video of Rick's current research on how logging threatens this iconic reef fish in the Solomon Islands.
The July/August 2014 issue of our magazine features an interview with Rick Hamilton.
Rick's alma mater, University of Otago, profiles his work combining science with local knowledge to achieve conservation.
A Q&A with Rick Hamilton
The Conservancy’s lead marine scientist in Melanesia, who is from New Zealand, talks spearfishing, working with locals and protecting the “elephants of the sea.”
Q: Your work focuses on protecting large, iconic fish and turtles that are at risk of extinction, and yet you are a serious, competitive spearfisher. Explain.
A: In anthropology, they call it participant observation.
Q: Hmm. But does that “participation” seem at odds with conservation?
A: Only to Westerners. Spearfishing is selective, more so than most fishing. I like it because at the same time you’re fishing, you’re observing the whole marine environment. Some of the best natural historians I know are spearfishers.
Q: You started fishing in Papua New Guinea, where you grew up. What was the fishing like there?
A: In Melanesia, it’s all free diving—holding your breath and going under for as long as you can. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to run into.
Q: Which is a plus for you, right? One of your colleagues told me that what really energizes you is anything new and daring —even in your science work.
A: I like the kind of research we’re doing because I’ve got no idea what the results are going to be. I love crunching the numbers, and I really enjoy being in that part of the world.
Q: Lately you’ve been crunching numbers for bumphead parrotfish—the “elephants of the sea,” as you call them. What have you learned?
A: We knew the species was vulnerable to extinction. We thought the declines were solely due to overfishing. But our research showed there’s a really strong link between land-based practices and the impact on juveniles. That was a big surprise. This research showed that the excess sediment created by logging is quickly killing off the nursery habitat for juvenile fish in the lagoons and fringing coral reefs near shore.
Q: So what do you do with that information?
A: In the case of bumphead parrotfish, everyone points a finger at fishing, which does cause problems. But where we’re looking, the best management strategy you could have is to make sure the island is not logged.
Q: But how do you stop loggers from logging?
A: In this part of the world, people are more dependent on marine life than on logging. The loggers are brought in by community invitation. For everything in Melanesia you need community buy-in. We’re getting a lot of people advocating on behalf of our research.
Q: Since you’re a white guy from New Zealand, being fluent in two pidgin languages must help with that buy-in.
A: It’s huge. That breaks down a lot of barriers. Everyone chews betel nut and I chew betel nut. That breaks down barriers, too.
Q: I’m told that one of the reasons you are successful working in the Solomon Islands is that you know how to motivate people. How do you do it?
A: I start by addressing questions and issues that people care about. Ask people what’s important to protect, and cultural heritage sites come up every time. In Isabel Province in the Solomon Islands, we’re working with partners—from the national museum to the university to community chiefs—to come up with management plans that protect cultural sites, like shrines with skulls from headhunting days. Those sites are also leatherback turtle nesting spots.
Q: Your own cultural roots in the Pacific are interesting. You lived in Papua New Guinea till you were about 15 years old, while your parents worked with people who had leprosy, right?
A: My parents still do it; they just returned to New Zealand after seven weeks in East Timor. They’re in their 70s. My dad, a surgeon, does the tendon transplants, and my mom does the physiotherapy.
Q: I confess, much of what I know about leprosy is from old movies like Ben-Hur. Was that environment a little scary for you?
A: By the time I came on the scene, leprosy was largely under control, thanks to antibiotics. I don’t think I ever saw a case of leprosy as a kid. The only problem I had growing up with two medical professionals as parents was that we never had any Band-Aids in the house. There wasn’t a lot of gnashing of teeth about our minor injuries.
Q: The major injuries came later, right, after you and your twin brother got into kickboxing in college?
A: I broke my left tib and fib while I was getting my master’s degree.
Q: Have any of your kickboxing strategies helped in your current career?
A: No, I’ve learned how to talk and be diplomatic. When I was at university, I did security work. I’m not very big. You learn pretty quickly how to talk your way out of a situation.
Q: What were you talking about the time a guy in the Solomon Islands threatened to cut your head off with a machete?
A: That was just a misunderstanding. It worked out fine.
By Courtney Leatherman, as featured in the July/August 2014 issue of Nature Conservancy magazine.
Senior Marine Scientist, Melanesia
One of Rick’s areas of expertise is harnessing local knowledge and community participation in order to achieve good conservation outcomes. Rick and colleagues have used genetic fingerprinting methods to track the dispersal of larvae produced from iconic coral reef fishes such as the bumphead parrotfish and squaretail coral trout. These research programs are ambitious in scale, but made possible by involving multiple local stakeholders that actively partake and support the field research. A study on larvae dispersal of coral trout that Hamilton and colleges recently published in Current Biology demonstrates that larval dispersion is limited in distance, providing empirical support for the theory behind the establishment of marine protected areas.
Rick is also very interested in sea turtle conservation, and this year he and colleagues have been able to quantify the first known example of recovery for a western Pacific hawksbill rookery at the Arnavon Islands. The Arnavons is the largest rookery for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle in the South Pacific, and nest numbers and female survival rates have doubled since the Conservancy facilitated the establishment of a sanctuary here in 1995.
Rick serves on the Board of Directors for the Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Want to know more? Watch our slideshow with Rick, A Day in the Life of a Marine Scientist.