UCSB associate professor Shankar Aswani became the first anthropologist to win the world’s most prestigious award for marine conservation yesterday, as the Pew Fellows Program named him one of the five most innovative scholars in ocean science.
Aswani, 38, was the only American chosen for the renowned fellowship this year, which awarded him a $150,000 grant to support his environmentally and socially oriented work in the Pacific Islands. The fellowship program is administrated by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, which aims to support and sponsor scientific activity to protect the world’s oceans.
Aswani has spent 12 years, five of them while a professor at UCSB, working to isolate regions of ocean from human activity in the Solomon Islands and educate villagers about natural resource protection. The designated regions are called Marine Protection Areas (MPAs).
“The idea of the MPAs is to take an area of ocean and close it to human use, either temporarily or permanently,” Aswani said. “The MPAs hopefully will increase fishing yields eventually. The total benefit for the local community is there should be more fish and more responsibility in managing the coast.”
Aswani said he thinks Pew probably chose him for the award because of the 18 MPAs already put into place, though Aswani said he hopes to expand to 25 or 30 MPAs and consolidate the network in the near future.
“It’s an innovative way of maintaining the coastline,” Aswani said. “We integrate a lot of anthropological work and marine science and have a network of MPAs to show for it. We’re being — at least for now — successful. The integrated approach works.”
Aswani is part of both UCSB’s Anthropology Dept. and the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Marine Science, giving him a unique approach to marine conservation that uses both his specialties equally.
“The anthropology part is very important,” he said. “We’ve been studying the community for years. We take into consideration conflicts, territorial rights and historical issues, rather than just blindly going there.”
Aswani said he does more than study the Solomon Islands, he contributes to the community by teaching people how to deal with environmental and social issues.
“I’ve built a clinic, I’ve built two schools,” Aswani said. “I bring money from the U.S. and create development projects… The educational component is a field school that brings students from the Pacific Islands and the Solomons and they learn how to manage resources. Students from UCSB also come to the field school.”
Anthropology chair Michael Glassow said the award can only do good things for the Anthropology Dept.
“It’s always nice to have any of our faculty members receive prestigious awards like this one,” Glassow said. “It adds to the depth of the Anthropology Dept. and supports the students that are involved with Aswani… This is definitely a major asset to the department.”
Aswani said the grant from the Pew Fellows will go to expanding the network of MPAs and creating a protocol that will help other researchers learn how to use anthropological techniques in ocean conservation.
“We’re going to write a how-to book about how to use the indigenous economy and knowledge to establish Marine Protection Areas in an ecologically and culturally sensitive way,” he said. “[We want to] blend what local people say and do and to create a half-social, half-marine science project.”
Aswani said he was surprised he won the award so soon, but excited for the possibilities it opens for further study of the Solomon Islands.
“It’s an award I thought I would get when I was older, maybe in my 50s,” Aswani said. “This is meaningful for me because I’ve been working in marine conservation for 12 years … it really enriches the project. It helps it to access more grants and improve the Solomons. At the end of the day, it’s the local people who benefit. It opens a lot of doors for projects in the Solomons.”