Sea With New Eyes

Eric Wade | Fisheries Science | Belize | PhD Candidate | SYLFF Fellow

Bringing it Home

Originally from Belize, on the Caribbean coast of Central America, I hail from a very small hunting and fishing village of about 1500 people located in the northern part of the country. The running joke in the village is that we are all family and that is probably because everyone knows each other. I originally left Belize in 2011 to get my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. After receiving that degree, I moved back home in 2013 where I took up a position within our Government’s Department of Fisheries as a Project Officer. And about four years ago I moved to Oregon to pursue my Master’s Degree in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife under Dr. Kelly Biedenweg. Specifically, I work in human dimensions research of fisheries management. This broadly involves gaining an understanding of how resource users and policymakers interact with natural resources and how their interactions shape their perceptions of the resource to inform management decisions. My master’s research looked at shared perceptions of a new fisheries policy introduced by the government of Belize. Building off my master's work, I transitioned to a PhD in 2018.

Fishing for Change

While my program is in Fisheries Science, I work on the social dimension side of fisheries science. Instead of looking at fish species, I work with the people who catch the fish, manage the fish, and eat the fish. My doctoral research seeks to explore from a behavioral economics and social psychological lens how fishers make decisions around their fishing strategies. Specifically, I explore these decision-making strategies with small-scale fishers in Jamaica. Small-scale fisheries contribute significantly to global fish production, therefore trying to gain a deeper understanding of the people that contribute to this production is a growing interest. Similarly, the rising uncertainties around global environmental change, loss of fishing privileges, institutional change, and uncertainties in the export market, creates a case for the understanding of how fishers are navigating these uncertainties to maintain their livelihoods. Indeed, in some communities around the world, seafood not only represents their only source of protein but also contributes greatly to the livelihoods of many coastal communities. My work seeks to expand more from economic theory on decision-making and the rationality of man. Indeed, I seek to provide some clarity around how fishers make tradeoffs when making fishing strategy decisions.

One of the main contributions that I anticipate from this study is that it will extend our thinking not only on small-scale fishers and how they are navigating these uncertainties in their social and natural environments, but that it will also contribute to the decision sciences on decision-making strategies at the individual and group level.

Tales from the Sea

My research largely occurs internationally (in the Caribbean) and so during these times, I have had some great experiences, interacting with fishers and meeting people with many great stories and experiences. Getting to work with communities and fishers is one of the highlights of my research experience because it means that I get to hear their stories and learn from them. In my recent research trip to Jamaica, I was talking with fishers on the beach to learn about their interactions and dependence on fishing to support their livelihoods. These conversations with fishers are both emotional and inspiring. Fishers are risking their lives daily to provide for their families and despite this risk, they still express their passion for the profession. Indeed, fishers are often seen as a forgotten profession in some places, but their contribution to our nutrition is underappreciated and undervalued. Working with these men and women have given me new insights into what it means to truly love your job.

Depth and Breadth

Five years seems like a very long time from now but also a very short time. By that point, I hope to have finished my PhD (fingers crossed) and be gainfully employed. Specifically, I would love to continue my research looking at how resource users interact with natural resources. At this point, I remain very open on my trajectory. I can see myself as a professor mentoring and teaching students and doing society-relevant research, but I can also see myself working in a non-academic position as a research scientist. I think any path that I take will need to include some level of research. I enjoy the journey and creativity of developing a research question, study design, and interpreting the results.

The College of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife (herein “the department”) has been doing a great job at preparing me for whatever path I choose to take. Indeed, the department has been able to allow its students to design their doctoral curriculum to allow us to take on any challenge and direction we choose after graduation. There are also great opportunities provided by the department to support its students to be able to participate in national and international level professional development opportunities. This provides students with the chance to be expanding their networks, a crucial component of our transition into post-graduate careers.

Taking Up Space

This is a very loaded question for me because it combines quite a few challenges. As an international and black student, getting here has not been easy and required me to jump through many hoops. Getting a PhD is hard, surviving in academia is even harder, and systemic discrimination does not make this easier. Academia is a tough and brutal environment that has been widely documented. For example, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] scientists are widely discriminated against in academia through not being provided the same opportunities in terms of funding, tenure applications, and overt racism and microaggressions. These difficulties tend to drive away BIPOC scientists because there is often no support available for us. Because of these systemic discriminations, there are few BIPOC in academia and this makes it harder for upcoming students who do not feel like they belong or will be welcomed. At a recent event on campus for black graduate students and faculty, a faculty mentor urged black graduate students to "not only take up space in the academy but to own that space.” That has become my new motto, take up space and own it, because I deserve to be here as much as any other person.

Overcoming challenges brought on by systemic discrimination and the loneliness of academia meant that I had to develop relationships with mentors who have my best interest at heart. I have developed relationships with mentors whose work I have always admired and those persons have become a place where I can not only discuss research but also chat about how life is going. Maintaining these relationships is critical for surviving grad school.

Taking Care

Because of the premise of my research, which involves working with communities across the Caribbean, I have had many defining moments that continue to change how I view the world around me. During my conversations with fishers, I have learned the importance of relationships and the significance they hold in keeping you upright in times of pain and joy. Fishers are very social and maintaining trust is a big part of their daily activities. One fisher once told me that he wouldn’t invite anyone into his crew if he did not trust them with his life, because, at sea, it is sometimes life or death. To me, this demonstrated that I needed to have people around me that I could trust, not only professionally but personally as well. Many times, the academy forgets that its students, professors, and staff are humans first and workers second, and therefore tend to ignore the mental health of their workers. Fishers have constantly reminded me that I need to take care of myself, and the network that I have around me is one way of ensuring that I am doing that. This also helped me in how I approach my mentorship for trainees. While I am here to help them advance academically, I also need to ensure that they are taking care of themselves.

Making a Mentor

I think coming in to graduate school is an often daunting process and many students, especially first-generation students, are not knowledgeable of how the process works at this level. It is important to have a good idea of not only why you want to come to graduate school, but also an idea of what you would like to research. One of the first things that happens before applying to grad school is to reach out to potential advisors/supervisors to express your interest in working with them. This is an especially important process because you will not only spend three to seven years with this person, but they will play a very big part in your future beyond the degree program. Taking the time to find a mentor who believes in you and your work, and has your best interests foremost, is something that a potential student should always keep in mind. Don’t rush the process.

Eye on the Ball

An unusual talent I have--and I have been slacking on--is my juggling. During my primary school (i.e. elementary school) years in Belize, I participated in an after-school activity that “tried” to teach us juggling. I never picked it up, but I sometimes test my "skills" with a weekly purchase of oranges at the grocery store. Other than unusual talents, in my spare time (which is very limited in a PhD), I try to play volleyball as time allows. The summers in Oregon are the perfect opportunity to be outside with a volleyball.

Eric recently appeared in Nature speaking on the pervasive racism present in academia.