The Undersea World of Elliott Norse
Originally published in Eastsideweek, October 15, 1997
by Chris CarrelFew details escape Elliott Norse’s attention as we drive past Microsoft headquarters, negotiating the lunch-hour traffic in his scrappy 1985 Civic. “See this over here,” he says, gesturing toward the partially finished Microsoft buildings rising on the west side of the road. “That used to be a beautiful second-growth forest.”
We turn onto 31st Street and stop for a dump truck leaving the construction site. The morning rain has eased, but the moisture has just begun its long journey downhill. “Look at the runoff over there,” he urges me, pointing at the small latte-colored rivulet running from the construction site onto the road and downhill. “That silt will be carried into a once pristine salmon stream and eventually into the ocean.”
Elliott Norse’s keen eye and knack for drawing connections between seemingly disparate events have served him excellently in recent years. Once derided as a “narrow specialist” in graduate school for his study of an obscure crab species, the marine ecologist has now become an internationally respected authority in several areas who excels at describing the big picture. His unorthodox career has included writing the first definition of the biological diversity concept, and penning the definitive book on the ecology of the Pacific Northwest’s ancient forests.
But now he has turned his enormous energy to a new campaign. Microsoft’s runoff is only one tiny piece of a largely unnoted global crisis, he says, that is occurring in the world’s seas – where pollution, overfishing, the introduction of alien species, and atmospheric change are endangering the planet’s living ocean. Down the street from the software giant’s global headquarters, Norse and his organization, the , are promoting a new science to protect and restore marine biodiversity. By articulating the ocean’s plight, organizing scientists to examine marine problems in new ways, and stressing the importance of marine biodiversity, they hope to foment what they see as an urgently needed scientific revolution.
The West Coast center of their activities is in Redmond: a large den in the comfortable two-story home of Elliott and Irene Norse. It seems, at first, too modest a base from which to launch a scientific revolution. But evidence of MCBI’s activity hints otherwise: a table holding notices of the group’s recent international marine science symposium,; a waist-high stack of scientific papers and journals from which Norse proffers his most recently published articles; an NPR reporter who interrupts our interview, calling for Norse’s comments for a story on the global decline of fisheries.
Norse, a gregarious, youthful man of 50 with gray-flecked hair and beard, and a warm, engaging manner, seems more like a jovial college professor than a Who’s Who-listed scientist and recipient of a prestigious Pew Fellows Award in Conservation and the Environment. But Norse muddles your assumptions in many ways. Operating in the rarefied atmosphere of international marine science, he’s as comfortable speaking with a group of US senators as he is a class of sixth graders, though you suspect he’d prefer the sixth graders’ company. As he talks, his faded Brooklyn accent starts off soft-spoken, but rises in speed and intensity as he warms to his topic.
Troubled Sea World
Until recently, scientists by and large considered the world’s oceans too vast and too fecund to every seriously be threatened by humans. The oceans are mind-numbingly immense, composing 99 percent of the planet’s habitable space. “Remember the first words of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” Norse asks waggishly, “The universe is big. I mean really big. You can’t imagine how mind-bogglingly big it is.’ That’s the way it is with the ocean.” The Pacific Ocean alone, he notes, is large enough to hold all seven continents with room to spare for an extra Australia.
This vastness, though, has muted our appreciation of its vulnerability. While the public has become familiar with a litany of environmental problems, everything from shrinking tropical rain forests to ozone depletion, the seas have been overlooked. Fishers, scientists, and politicians alike have historically considered them something of a fluid cornucopia, offering up as much seafood as we could catch while swallowing all the wastes we could dump, without penalty. Individual species might be overfished, the theory went, but beleaguered populations would always be able to find refuge somewhere else, thus affording themselves the opportunity to recover.
The theory was wrong, as it turns out. Astonishingly so. A growing body of scientific evidence since the early 1990s has documented sharp declines in a number of marine species. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 1994 that more than two-thirds of the ocean’s fish stocks are in decline or fished to capacity and at risk of collapse. Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature added 118 marine species to its red list of threatened species.
“Any group of marine organisms I can think of that you can name has evidence that things are not going right,” says Norse, ticking off a list of threatened species and, like a true ecologist, adding each species’ scientific name after its common name.
California’s once abundant white abalone has nose-dived, falling 99.99 percent since commercial fishing began in 1965, ensuring extinction unless something drastic is done. Southern bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, populations of Pacific salmon, and many types of sharks are also in danger. The once abundant Georges Bank cod fishery in the Atlantic collapsed in the early 1990s, crippling New England’s fishing industry and foreshadowing a global trend. Productivity has fallen in 13 of the world’s 15 major fishing regions over the past decade. And just two weeks ago, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council recommended severe cutbacks in commercial fishing for snapper, black cod, lingcod, Dover sole, and other West Coast groundfish that are suspected of having been overexploited. Industry spokespeople believe the cuts in the groundfishing catch will dwarf the economic losses the commercial salmon fishing industry has sustained in recent years.
While some species are shrinking in numbers, others are just plain shrinking. Large fish like groupers, Atlantic swordfish, and Pacific halibut are becoming smaller as heavy fishing eliminates the largest and slower-growing members of the species. Groupers, for example, used to be as “big as turkeys,” Norse says, but the ones caught today are typically small enough to fit in a frying pan.
New technology is partially to blame. Using sophisticated sonar and satellite navigation systems, fishing ships can now unerringly track fish populations practically anywhere in the ocean. Longlines, essentially miles-long fishing lines studded with hooks, catch thousands of commercial species at a time, along with sea birds, sea turtles, and anything else attracted by the baited hooks. Huge, industrial trawlers drag immense weighted nets across the sea floor, catching up to 130 tons of fish at a time. Over the past three decades, annual global seafood catch has doubled, growing to 90 million metric tons, with bycatch, the sea creatures accidentally caught along with target species, adding another 30 million tons.
Norse’s Marine Conservation Biology Institute convened a scientific workshop in Maine last year on bottom trawling in which participants agreed that the practice is the “most important source of human-caused physical disturbance on the world’s continental shelves.” Norse, himself, likens it to forest clearcutting, except that a forest is clear-cut just once, while a single area of seabed can be trawled as much as 100 times in a single year.
Overfishing is the single greatest threat to marine ecology, but there are many other pressures, explains Norse. Coastal development and pollution are degrading productive estuaries and fisheries while wetlands destruction and dams harm salmon and trout stocks and alter nutrient inputs to the sea. Pollutants from sewage dumped into the ocean are fouling marine waters while the profusion of oceangoing vessels creates a cacophonous noise pollution that confuses marine creates and disrupts their communication and reproduction. Alien species are invading and upsetting indigenous marine ecosystems while stratospheric ozone depletion and global climate change are suspected of wreaking widespread changes across a broad section of the marine environment.
But what’s even worse – and where Norse’s particular crusade come in – is that the field of marine ecology as it stands today is incapable of telling us what the cumulative effects of these changes might be, let alone how to preserve marine species and ecosystems. Scientists are able to recognize a decline in some fish populations, yet often they can’t predict at what point decline becomes irreversible. Nor do they understand the extent to which different human-caused pressures affect sea creatures, or how one species’ extinction will ripple through a marine ecosystem. What we have are the jumbled pieces of the puzzle. Norse’s mission is to advance the state of the science to the point where it can put those pieces together.
Mitzvot for the EarthUnderstanding Norse requires knowing a different Elliott, his uncle, Elliott Albert. The two men never met, but his uncle guides his career and indeed, his life. Elliott Albert died during World War II, at the age of 18, when his army unit stormed the beaches of Salerno in 1944. Following Judaic tradition of honoring dead relatives by passing their names to newborn children, Elliott Albert Norse was born in 1947.
“He was a shining example of what a person should be,” Norse says of his uncle. The Albert family believed in the Jewish responsibility for mitzvoth, to do good deeds. His uncle, he says, embodied that, not just in paying the ultimate sacrifice in the war, but also as a defender of nature. He was an amateur ecologist and fascinated with plants and animals, and their welfare.
His uncle’s example infused Elliott with a tangible sense of purpose. “I never wondered who I am and whether I should just change and become like everybody else,” Norse says. “I have a job to do.”
On the wall of the MCBI office, perched above Dr. Norse’s computer hangs a faded portrait of the senior Elliott. Bearing a passing resemblance to his nephew, he is frozen forever in youth’s glory, dressed in a stiff army hat and dress jacket.
Initially, Norse opted for a purely academic career, thinking his contribution could be “telling other young people about things” so they could act. In retrospect, he realizes the folly of that argument. “If the only thing that ever happens is people talk…nothing gets done,” he says.
Fate, and choosy universities, saved him from the do-nothing track.
After completing graduate work in marine biology at the University of Southern California, and then his doctoral thesis on blue crabs in 1977 at the University of Iowa, he couldn’t find a teaching position. “I came in second at a lot of good schools,” he says wryly. When the Environmental Protection Agency called in 1978 to offer him a temporary job, a position he’d applied for on a lark, he readily accepted.
It was at the EPA that Norse began to defend nature, not just study it. Assigned to write criteria for oil and gas drilling in fragile coastal areas, he became an ardent advocate for keeping the oil rigs out altogether. When the 1979 energy crisis hit, Elliott’s activities grew increasingly unpopular within the agency, but he wouldn’t’ back down. “I figured that I worked for something called the Environmental Protection Agency. They hired me to help protect the environment and dammit,” he says, “that was what I was going to do.” Academic life had lost its allure.
The EPA tried to rein in its young firebrand scientist, so he jumped ship in 1979, applying for and getting a position as the staff ecologist for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Overnight, he was transformed from a pesky, lower-level EPA functionary to senior environmental adviser to President Carter. In the short time he was there (before incoming President Ronald Reagan fired him in 1981 – “a badge of honor” according to Norse), he persuaded President Carter to triple the size of American’s national marine sanctuary system, adding four new sanctuaries. He even had a hand in derailing the MX missile system. But most importantly, the bully pulpit of his White House position gave Norse the opportunity to define a keystone concept of modern ecology.
In the 1960s “conservation as about producing more things that you could shoot, hook, or saw,” Norse explains. The 1973 Endangered Species Act heralded a new conservation ethic, one that valued all species, but only demanded action when a species was in danger of extinction. Think of it as the intensive-care-unit conservation ethic.
While working as the CEQ’s staff ecologist in 1979, he developed, and was the first to define, the concept of biological diversity to describe the rapid global loss of species then occurring. Though biodiversity, as its popularly known, is often misunderstood to refer simply to an abundance of species, it actually entails three classes of diversity: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity. All three levels are essential to the maintenance of life on Earth.
“There was a need for a more comprehensive conservation ethic,” says Norse. “Biological diversity filled that need because [it] says that you maintain all the parts in their abundance, and you maintain the processes that connect living things.”
The Slade Gortons and Helen Chenoweths of the world would disagree, but science is clear that biodiversity underlies and endows human existence. Protecting it is a matter of self-interest. “we’re not eliminate life. We’re shifting life towards things that can withstand our assaults,” Norse says. “They tend to be opportunistic, they reach reproductive age early, and in many cases, we consider them pests.”
In other words, goodbye salmon, halibut, Western red cedars, and grizzly bears. Hello rats, dandelions, and cockroaches.
At about the same time Norse was defining biodiversity, and American ecologist named Michael Soulé founded the field of conservation biology, the science of conserving living things. Together, conservation biology and biodiversity fostered cross-pollination between disparate scientific disciplines and led to dramatic advancements in conservation and ecology over the next two decades.
But conservation biology has stayed on land, leaving marine ecology mired in a pre-1970s torpor. An example Norse cites is the case of the eelgrass limpet. A small snail once omnipresent in coastal waters off the eastern seaboard, the limpet disappeared in the 1930s when a disease wiped out most of the eelgrass it lived on. Its extinction occurred on a coast studded with the world’s largest collection of prestigious marine laboratories, yet it wasn’t until 1991 that a scientist noticed the limpet had vanished.
“If it takes a time lag of six decades between the disappearance of something and the time we notice it, then we are not in good shape for dealing with the kinds of changes we are inflicting upon the sea right now,” says Norse.
Some might quibble, arguing that a cause-weary public can’t possibly muster enough sympathy to handle another environmental poster child, but Norse counters that this is, after all, a planet of oceans, where the vast majority of Earth’s species reside and where life began. Globally, humans rely on the ocean for more animal protein than beef, pork, or chicken, an importance reflected in the central position sea creatures hold in many cultures, including that of the Northwest’s native peoples. Marine life created the modern Earth Atmosphere and regulates the planet’s climate. And because of its rich diversity of species, as a potential source of new medicines, it dwarfs tropical rain forests.
But we can’t conserve what we don’t understand.
Coining the Term “Ancient Forests”Biological diversity, the running theme of Norse’s professional career, led him to the Pacific Northwest. , for whom he’d previously written a book on conserving biological diversity in national forests, tapped him to write a book about the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Norse moved to Seattle for seven months in 1987 to do research, and he spent countless hours hiking and canoeing through the Northwest’s hardwood cathedrals. “They were practically paying me to get a second PhD,” he says with kid-in-the-candy-store enthusiasm.
The result of his work, Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest (Island Press, 1990), is considered by many ecologists and conservationists to be the definitive work on the subject. In typical Norse style, the book balances a scientist’s understanding of the complex ecosystem with a poet’s wonder at the symphony of life therein. It also represents an important semantic departure.
The timber industry has always talked of old-growth forests as cellulose cemeteries, a tragic waste of good timber. Norse searched for a new term to inspire the awe they deserve, finally settling on ancient forests, which quickly caught on with the public – although “to this day the timber industry refuses to call them ancient forests,” he says with a smile.
Out of the forests and back in Washington, DC, Norse returned his attention to the sea. Ecologist Carleton Ray, in his chapter in the 1988 E.O. Wilson book Biodiversity, had sounded the first alarm on diminishing marine biodiversity. The following year, the Center for Marine Conservation offered Norse a position as its chief scientist, with a mission to focus on developing the field of marine conservation biology.
In 1990, Norse convened a workshop at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, bringing together 11 eminent marine scientists, or what Norse refers to as “the all-star team” of marine ecology, to assess the state of the ocean. One ringing message came out of the workshop, according to Norse, “The sea is in trouble at all three levels of biodiversity.” This epiphany led Norse to being work on his 1993 book, Global Marine Biological Diversity (Island Press), and sealed his new commitment.
During this time, Norse persuaded CMC to return him to the “real Washington” – as he now called the Seattle area – opening a Friday Harbor office in 1990. Two years later, the operation shifted to the Eastside, when he married Irene, a Redmond resident. Although CMC, had initiated his work on marine conservation biology, the group’s support for a marine conservation biology symposium disappeared. The new science required a new organization, Norse felt, and in 1996 he left to found the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.
Its mission is, in part, to give science a push in the right direction by creating a new science – one that would enable us to see the ocean as interconnected ecosystems and to understand how human actions influence and can protect those systems. “It’s a holistic science, rather than a reductionistic science,” Norse says of marine conservation biology. A big part of MCBI’s mission, then, ahs been to open lines of communication between separate disciplines, getting the fisheries biologists to talk to the population biologists, and the geneticists, and so forth, to seed the insights such cross-fertilization fosters.
Its accomplishments have been impressive. In less than two years, MCBI has grown to include a half-million-dollar budget, a staff of five, and a Washington, DC office to complement Norse’s home office. This June, Norse and MCBI’s two other staff (it will add two more by the end of the year) convened the first Symposium on Marine Conservation Biology in Vancouver, British Columbia, the discipline’s coming-out party, if you will.
It drew more than 1,000 scientists from 30 countries and produced the Troubled Waters statement, the scientific community’s first collective warning to the world that the oceans are in peril. More than 750 scientists have signed their names to Troubled Waters so far, and it will soon be released to the media.
There have been a few naysayers. Fishing industry representatives bristle at the Troubled Waters’ emphasis on overfishing and “doom and gloom” about the health of the ocean. “it’s becoming frustrating that some people…are deciding that the ocean is the poster child for the year,” says Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association. Fisheries managers and the fishing industry, while concerned about the decline of commercially valuable species, still talk about conservation in terms of biomass produced, rather than indicator species or ecosystem health.
But the Marine Conservation Biology Institute is planning several upcoming conferences that will, perhaps, help the fishing industry and others to start thinking in terms of biodiversity. One in particular will have special importance to Puget Sound. MCBI and People for Puget Sound will hold a confe3rence in Seattle next year on managing the threats of alien species to marine environments.
The topic is timely, as the green crab, a European native that arrived in California in 1990, is expected to begin colonizing Puget Sound waters within the next two years. A voracious predator that thrives in Western coastal waters, green crabs could cause the elimination of a host of Sound invertebrates while gorging on native mussels, clams, oysters, and juvenile Dungeness crabs.
The conference will provide crucial insight into strategies to minimize the green crab’s impact on the Sound. “Having an institute here that’s focused on the entire marine environment is an incredible benefit to Puget sound,” says Kathy Fletcher, People for Puget Sound’s executive director. “MCBI is creating a nucleus of activity here.”
But creating a new science also requires steady funding and research institutions that can allow young scientists to invest in careers. While Norse is beginning work this year on the first university textbook for marine conservation biology, MCBI is promoting funding and institutional support for the discipline.
Staking one’s career on saving he living oceans would play havoc with the average scientist’s ego, but Norse is refreshingly unburdened by self-puffery. He recalls the excitement and self-importance he felt in Jamaica in the 1970s when he discovered that a certain species of blue crab spent nearly its entire life in the mangrove forests, an observation unreported in the scientific literature. Shortly after making the discovery he had the chance to strike up a conversation with a local who asked him what he did for a living. When he informed the unschooled Jamaican what he studied crabs, the man replied, “Oh, the ones that live in the mangroves.”
“That was a lesson to me,” Norse says, his voice rising to laughter.
And even more unusual for a scientist, especially in this age where information is king, Norse openly acknowledges the importance of ethics. While science lays bare the choices we need to make, it’s our ethical framework that ultimately determines whether we choose to conserve or destroy. Norse believes that the world’s religions can become a positive force for making the right decisions.
Though not a “ritually religious” person, Norse is an active member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish life, and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and regularly gives talks about the connections between religion and ecology. Last month, he traveled to Eastern Europe’s Black Sea along with US Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth, leaders of the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, the Vatican, and Jewish and Islamic scholars, to participate in an international conference exploring the nexus between science, religion, and the environment.
Though marine ecology is his chosen field, Norse’s commandment to do mitzvot has taken him far afield, from defining biodiversity to protecting ancient forests to exploring religion and the environment. In the same way that all rivers flow to the sea, these diverse experiences have brought him back to the ocean, shaping marine conservation biology from his base in landlocked Redmond.