The Life Aquatic with Jay Odell

Interview by Daniel White

Jay Odell has studied coral reefs in Panama and managed fisheries in Washington’s Puget Sound. Since joining The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia staff in 2006, Odell has helped develop a conservation plan for the Mid-Atlantic Seascape and is now co-leading our coastal and marine spatial planning strategies for North America.

From the banks of the James River near his Richmond office, Jay spoke with nature.org about his passion for marine conservation.
"A whale crossing a busy shipping lane is akin to a squirrel trying to run across an interstate highway.... This is a solvable problem."

Jay Odell
Mid-Atlantic Marine Program Director


How did you first get interested in marine conservation?

Jay Odell:

My interest started when I was just a kid and my grandparents would take me fishing down in Florida. I’d spend days on the beach collecting shells and fossil shark’s teeth and just enjoying the ocean. And then it really crystallized during my college internship with the Smithsonian, when I started diving in the ocean to assist with coral reef research in Panama.


What are some of the special animals or places off our mid-Atlantic coast?

Jay Odell:

Captain Monty Hawkins of Ocean City, Maryland, has taken us out on his boat and used an underwater camera to show us that we actually have colorful coral reefs in the mid-Atlantic. Right off of our beaches, 10-12 miles offshore, these coldwater corals are mobbed with schools of black sea bass. These critical habitats are sensitive to disturbance, so we’re working with Monty to explore ways to save the coral, the fish and businesses like his that depend on a sustainable harvest of sea bass.

One of our most important and stunningly beautiful marine places is directly offshore of the Virginia Coast Reserve. Norfolk Canyon has ancient coldwater coral gardens that are very fragile and poorly studied, so there’s a lot of exciting research yet to be done to fully understand their ecology. The pharmaceutical industry is keenly interested because these corals contain rare compounds that have shown tremendous promise for curing all kinds of diseases.

Norfolk is one of many submarine canyons that provide a conduit between the deep ocean and the continental shelf. Masses of different ocean waters collide there and cause upwelling events that fuel tremendous productivity. Birds, whales, dolphins, tuna, marlin all congregate there for the same reasons — to eat and be eaten.


What’s your favorite seafood?

Jay Odell:

I have to go with the crustaceans. I spent many years working in Puget Sound, and I love Dungeness crab. I really love spring-run Chinook salmon stuffed with Dungeness crab. Here on the East Coast, it’s hard not to love striped bass stuffed with blue crab.


What are your main concerns about the ocean?

Jay Odell:

The ocean is an increasingly busy place for transportation, for sand mining to replenish eroded recreational beaches, for many different kinds of fishing, and now there is intense interest in offshore wind-energy development. Those things can be done in ecologically compatible ways, but without some serious attention to their cumulative impacts, we could end up with an ocean that no longer provides the goods and services that people want and need.


How can marine spatial planning (or MSP) help?

Jay Odell:

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been collecting a tremendous volume of data to show habitats, species and human activities on maps. When we put all the map layers together, we can see more clearly where the most important areas are and understand much better which human uses are compatible with those special places and which may require more attention.

So in a nutshell, coastal and marine spatial planning is a way to align our uses of the ocean with the places where those uses are most compatible. It also presents an opportunity to reduce conflicts between different human uses. For example, if you’re siting new wind-energy development in the oceans, you don’t do it in the middle of a shipping lane, and you may also want to avoid important fishing areas.


Speaking of fishing, could you address some of the recent misunderstandings about MSP?

Jay Odell:

Some folks have gotten the idea that MSP is going to lead to a bunch of recreational fishing closures, but in reality, MSP focuses on reducing damage to habitats that are sensitive to particular activities. It’s hard to even imagine a scenario where hook-and-line fishing is going to damage habitat.


How can MSP benefit the oceans and people?

Jay Odell:

Marine spatial planning offers opportunities to make relatively minor adjustments to achieve extraordinary conservation benefits. If we stop damaging important fish habitat, for instance, fisheries are going to become more productive.

Another example is that a whale crossing a busy shipping lane is akin to a squirrel trying to run across an interstate highway. Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain on the planet, and when we better understand and map the movements of right whales and ships, we can make small corrections to stop driving our ships into those whales. This is a solvable problem, and many more solvable problems will be revealed when marine resource managers and users work together toward a more conscious alignment of the ways we use the ocean.

Jay Odell has devoted more than 20 years to the study and conservation of marine diversity and ecological systems. Odell first came to the Conservancy in 2002 as a marine ecologist in New Hampshire, bringing 13 years of experience working for the Washington Department of Game and Fisheries. Raised in Maryland, he graduated from Evergreen State College, did post-graduate work at the University of Washington, and earned his master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation from the University of Massachusetts.


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