By Rachel Hopkins
Tropical tuna species—skipjack, bigeye and yellowfin tunas—are important economic assets for coastal communities across the globe, and even far from the ocean they are a favorite on supermarket shelves and in sushi bars. These three species—together worth close to $40 billion annually at the final point of sale—prompted eight Pacific island countries to launch World Tuna Day on May 2, 2011. In 2016, the UN officially adopted the date to highlight the importance of sustainable tuna management.
Despite that designation, however, concern for the future of these fish continues. Through the increased use of fish aggregating devices (FADs)—man-made floating rafts that attract fish in the open ocean—over the past three decades, purse seine fleets have seen dramatic increases in skipjack catch. But this has come at a cost to bigeye and yellowfin populations. Because FADs attract juvenile bigeye and yellowfin in addition to skipjack, increased skipjack fishing on FADs has resulted in fewer bigeye and yellowfin surviving to adulthood, which means fewer of those species in the water for crews fishing with other gear, such as longlines and pole and line.
Further, the international bodies tasked with protecting bigeye and yellowfin fisheries also manage skipjack, and they have been reluctant to adopt measures to reduce the impact of FAD fishing on bigeye and yellowfin populations out of fear those measures would hurt the skipjack industry.
The result has essentially been a years-long stalemate, the consequences of which are being borne out around the globe, in part because managers are also debating how much to restrict fishing with purse seine nets and longlines. The population of bigeye in the Pacific, which also faces pressure from longliners catching adult fish, has been decreasing and scientists recommend against further increases in fishing mortality. Atlantic bigeye populations are already experiencing overfishing, and scientists consider both Atlantic bigeye and yellowfin to be overfished. Bigeye have just a 38 percent chance of recovery by 2028, according to an analysis based on 2016 catch levels. Yet, due to insufficient controls by international managers, catch of both Atlantic stocks exceeded the agreed quotas in 2016.
Materials that can make up FADs are piled on the deck of a purse seine vessel in Micronesia.The Pew Charitable Trusts
Urgent Changes Needed
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the body responsible for managing tropical tunas in the Atlantic Ocean, is on the hook to adopt a new tropical tuna measure, including a revised recovery plan for Atlantic bigeye, at its annual meeting in November. To be successful, ICCAT's new measure must:
- Set the Atlantic bigeye quota at a level that will give the stock at least a 70 percent chance of recovery by 2028 and ensure that the total catch, from both major and minor harvesters, does not exceed the overall quota.
- Take steps to reduce juvenile Atlantic bigeye and yellowfin catch via FAD management reform, including by reducing the number of FADs that may be deployed and the amount of purse seine fishing effort allowed on tuna schools associated with FADs.
- Ensure that ICCAT managers develop a more transparent and proactive approach to management—through a modernized approach known as a "management procedure," in which managers agree in advance on the goals for a fish stock and harvesting rules to ensure the goals are met—for tropical tunas, which will return the stocks to healthy levels or keep them there, over the long term. ICCAT needs to make sufficient progress this year to meet its agreed 2020 deadline to adopt management procedures for tropical tuna stocks.
In the western and central Pacific Ocean, tropical tunas are managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). The bigeye population there is doing better than in the Atlantic but has declined, and FADs are still proliferating at an alarming rate. WCPFC has catch limits for bigeye for the fleets of major longline harvesting nations and prohibits purse seiners from fishing on FADs for a period every year. Despite that, the purse seine fleets fishing on FADs may be catching as much as four times the number of bigeye as the longline fleets, and data suggest that a more effective way of managing the purse seine impact on bigeye would be to agree on a science-based limit on the number of times vessels can fish on FADs.
To better understand and thus regulate the level of FAD use, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement—eight countries that are members of the WCPFC and in whose waters more than 90 percent of FAD fishing in the commission's purview occurs—are using satellite technology to better track the devices. But to ensure sustainability of the bigeye/tropical tuna fisheries across the western and central Pacific, the WCPFC must:
- Take steps to ensure that the longline and purse seine catch of bigeye is within the limits advised by scientists and, in the purse seine fishery, replace the FAD closure with science-based limits on the number of times vessels can fish on the devices.
- Make progress on developing a harvest strategy for western and central Pacific bigeye in order to adopt a full strategy by 2021, with the goal of keeping the population at a sustainable level over the long term, with little risk of the stock falling into the danger zone.
This World Tuna Day, managers in the Pacific and Atlantic must take immediate action to help ensure the long-term sustainability of tropical tuna fisheries or continue to let shortsighted economic and political pressures determine their actions. Doing the right thing now would benefit the fish, and all who rely on them, far into the future.
Rachel Hopkins is acting director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' global tuna conservation campaign.
By Sandra Eskin
Three days before 2018 arrived, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they were investigating a foodborne E. coli outbreak that ultimately resulted in one death and sickened at least 25 people in 15 states. "Leafy greens" were identified as the likely source, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to work with state and local partners to determine the specific products that made people ill and where they were grown, distributed and sold, all with the goal of finding points where the E. coli contamination might have occurred.
This outbreak highlights the importance of the ongoing implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Food safety—overseen by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—should remain a priority for federal policymakers this year. We already saw a major step forward in produce safety in January as FDA's first enforceable food safety standards for fresh fruits and vegetables took effect on large farms.
Here are four other food safety policy developments expected in 2018:
1. Enhancements to FDA Recalls
The same week that the CDC announced its E. coli investigation, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, of which FDA is a part, released a report that concluded the agency "did not always have an efficient and effective food-recall process." These faults at times translated into delays in the removal of unsafe products from the marketplace. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb responded, in part, with a pledge that the agency would act in 2018 to speed up recalls, including the release of new guidance on recall communications with consumers. One change under consideration is publicly disclosing information about the retail and food service locations that sold or served recalled products. Currently, the agency often considers these details exempt from disclosure. The Pew Charitable Trusts and other public health advocates have urged FDA to adopt a clear and consistent policy to provide such facts so Americans can more easily determine if they may have bought or eaten contaminated foods and can take steps to protect their families.
2. Hog Slaughter Modernization
On Jan. 19, USDA released a proposed rule that would shift how certain hog slaughterhouse duties are divided between employees of the department's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the companies that own the hogs. Similar to a 2014 USDA rule covering poultry plants, the proposal would allow FSIS inspectors in hog slaughter establishments that opt into the program to perform more duties away from the animal processing line, such as overseeing a facility's compliance with sanitation and prevention-based food safety regulations. The facility's employees would take on some of the duties previously handled by FSIS employees, such as carcass sorting and removal. Pork industry groups have expressed strong support for the USDA's intent to make these changes, although some members of Congress and consumer advocates have raised concerns that the proposal would jeopardize food safety, as well as the welfare of animals and slaughterhouse workers.
3. Food Safety Funding
In his fiscal year 2018 budget request, President Trump proposed a change in how meat and poultry inspections are funded from appropriated dollars to user fees collected from businesses overseen by FSIS. Congress rebuffed the idea in its fiscal 2018 spending bills, but the administration may again advance the proposition in the president's fiscal 2019 budget, scheduled for public release on Feb. 12. For many years, lawmakers, meat and poultry companies and consumer advocates have strongly objected to any shift in the funding mechanism from a taxpayer-supported, general good to a program funded directly by the regulated industry. Meanwhile, with bipartisan support in Congress, FDA's food safety program has received funding increases for six years running as it implements FSMA. However, this portion of the budget could be targeted for cuts in fiscal 2019.
4. Reauthorization of the Farm Bill
Congress typically takes up a broad package of farm legislation that includes everything from crop insurance to nutrition assistance and conservation programs about every five years. The current law—the Agricultural Act of 2014—expires Sept. 30. In limited instances, a farm bill has included policies related to meat and poultry safety. That last happened in 2008, when the law created a program that allows facilities inspected by state authorities (rather than by FSIS) to ship products across state lines. At this time, it is unclear whether the next iteration of the federal law will contain meat and poultry safety-related provisions.
Sandra Eskin directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' work on food safety.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Andrew Clayton
On Dec. 11 and 12, the 28 ministers of the European Union's Agriculture and Fisheries Council meet in Brussels to decide on 2018 fishing quotas for stocks in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.
Under the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, the council is legally bound to end overfishing "by 2015 where possible" and "at the latest by 2020." Still, ministers set 55 percent of 2017 fishing limits higher than the scientific advice.
This month they have the power and responsibility to turn the tide—by setting 2018 quotas that end overfishing—so everyone can reap the benefits of sustainable fisheries.
The 10 reasons detailed here underscore why it's so important that fisheries ministers lead on ending overfishing:
1. Fish stocks would be allowed to recover.
Too many assessed stocks in EU waters remain outside safe biological limits. Ending overfishing would finally allow these stocks to rebuild and thrive.
2. Fishermen would benefit.
Ending overfishing in the Northeast Atlantic alone could potentially create additional annual revenue of €4.6 billion for the EU fishing fleet and support more jobs in the sector. Healthy fish stocks contribute to a more stable business environment and require less time and fuel for fishing. More profitable fisheries in turn reduce the need for taxpayers to support the industry through subsidies.
3. Doing so would help restore the health of our marine environment.
Fishing activities can take a toll on the marine environment beyond the removal of fish. Among the common negative impacts are damage to the sea-floor and corals, unintended catch of animals such as sea-birds and turtles, and pollution. Healthy fish stocks require less intensive fishing activity, limiting harm.
4. Europeans could eat more locally caught and sustainable fish.
Europe currently depends heavily on seafood imports from non-EU countries; almost half of fish consumed in the EU comes from external waters. This also has repercussions for developing countries where fish is a key source of animal protein for large parts of the population.
5. The ocean would be more resilient.
The ocean is under a variety of stresses, ranging from changing water temperatures to pollution and acidification. Healthy fish stocks play a key role in keeping marine ecosystems healthy and represent an investment in the future because they can help the ocean resist these kinds of stresses.
6. Fisheries management would be easier.
Managing fisheries with a high likelihood of collapse is complicated, risky, and demanding. It requires detailed and timely information. Healthy fisheries, on the other hand, are less sensitive to changes, uncertainties or mistakes in data, making management easier.
7. It's the law.
In 2013, EU decision makers agreed on a reformed Common Fisheries Policy that requires an end to overfishing by 2015 where possible, and by 2020 at the latest for all stocks. Failing to end overfishing in line with this legal requirement would undermine EU citizens' trust in European institutions.
8. It would bring greater transparency.
Setting fishing limits that do not exceed scientific advice would make EU fisheries management more rational and predictable. Discussions could centre on maximizing the socio-economic benefits of healthy fisheries.
9. Case studies around the world—and closer to home—show the benefits.
Other countries, such as the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, have already made major progress toward ending overfishing and are starting to reap the benefits. The EU has its own examples, such as hake in northern European waters, which prove that it is possible to end overfishing and illustrate the potential gains.
10. Decision makers have both the power and the responsibility to do so.
Many contemporary problems, such as climate change, are extremely challenging to address, but ending overfishing depends largely on better decisions by EU fisheries ministers. Political will is needed to implement the Common Fisheries Policy reforms and to set fishing limits that do not exceed scientific advice.
Too many assessed stocks in EU waters remain outside safe biological limits. Ending overfishing would finally allow these stocks to rebuild and thrive.
By Holly Binns
Some of the deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico started growing when Rome still ruled an empire and Native Americans were constructing civilizations in the vast forests that would—centuries later—become the U.S. Southeast.
For countless generations, these structure-forming animals have thrived in the cold, dark depths, serving as homes to starfish, squat lobsters, crabs, sharks and many species of fish, including grouper and snapper. But modern-day threats loom for these fragile and slow-growing jewels, which may take centuries to recover from damage, if they recover at all. Of primary concern is fishing gear, such as trawls, traps, longlines and anchors, which can break coral. Fortunately, fisheries managers can do something about this.
While energy development and changing ocean conditions also pose threats to corals, fisheries managers have jurisdiction over preventing damage from fishing gear. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policy in the Gulf's federal waters, prohibits anchoring or the use of certain types of deep-fishing gear near some coral communities. The council is considering extending similar protections to additional areas where scientists have identified dense communities of corals.
The council is taking public comment here and will host public hearings early next year. Protecting corals is an important part of conserving the Gulf's marine ecosystem.
You can see Gulf of Mexico deep-sea corals in the video below and learn more about them here.
By Jen Sawada
Sharks have been around for 400 million years, before the time of the dinosaurs, but there's much more to them than big teeth and summer blockbusters. Consider these facts, which will change what you think about sharks.
By Tony Long
Japan, one of the world's largest fish importers, has joined 47 other governments in ratifying the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA)—an international treaty designed to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009, the PSMA helps governments strengthen their port controls to better recognize suspicious catch and, when appropriate, reject or seize it. The pact also facilitates regional cooperation among parties to the treaty to help reduce the once-common practice of "port shopping" by illegal fishing operators.
Illegal and unreported fishing is estimated to account for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood each year—or as much as 1 in 5 wild-caught marine fish. Illegal fishing practices destroy marine ecosystems, deplete fish populations and threaten the livelihoods of those in coastal communities whose economies rely heavily on fishing.
While Japan maintains its long tradition of fishing, its fleets no longer catch enough to meet domestic demand. As a result, Japan has become the third-largest market for fish imports, after the European Union and the U.S.
As more governments join and implement the PSMA, illegal fishermen will have a harder time getting their ill-gotten catch into the global seafood market, which will greatly reduce the profit potential of fishing outside the law. The treaty calls for an information-sharing system that requires countries to notify nearby ports when a vessel may be seeking to land illicit catch. This reporting structure and information exchange aim to improve port-level data on fish landings and vessel activity.
Japan maintains significant influence on international fisheries issues and seafood markets: The country is, among other things, the world's top consumer and fishing nation of the bluefin tuna, a species that fishing has depleted by more than 97 percent. With such stature, Japan must engage with other governments to implement precautionary, science-based catch limits that support sustainable commercial fishing.
Still, the government's efforts to curb illegal fishing have been gaining momentum for several years. As a member of all regional fisheries management organizations, Japan has consistently supported the adoption of catch documentation schemes and other anti-IUU fishing measures.
After an EU-Japan statement in 2012 on fighting IUU fishing, Japan showed a real commitment to ratifying the PSMA. Now that it has done so, Japan is setting an example for other fishing nations in the region and the work must persist. With each ratification the treaty becomes more effective. The Pew Charitable Trusts applauds Japan's commitment to fighting IUU fishing and we are confident that more governments will sign on to the PSMA this year.
By Mike Matz
Eighty-one years ago, Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, proposed a vast, four million-acre national monument for southern Utah. Over the ensuing decades, pieces of Ickes' vision were realized in the establishment of Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Last year, another president and his interior secretary took a big step toward completing Ickes' dream. At the request of five Native American tribes living in the vicinity, and after nearly a weeklong tour by former Interior Sec. Sally Jewell of places proposed for protection, Barack Obama signed a proclamation under authority of the Antiquities Act to designate 1.3 million acres of land as the Bears Ears National Monument.
The move protected an area of sublime beauty and major cultural significance: Bears Ears includes more than 100,000 archeological sites.
"We worked very closely with our scientists, people on the ground, people in the communities that know these landscapes well, the tribes, particularly in [the] case of Bears Ears, that understood what's needed for hunting, gathering and traditional practices and sacred sites," Jewell recently told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Those shaped the boundaries of these monuments which were very carefully thought out."
On April 26, President Donald Trump took action that could begin to unravel the achievement of this decades-long vision. He signed an order directing Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments established in the past 21 years—upward of two dozen sites in states primarily across the West, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante—to assess whether the "reservation" of these public lands is "the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected" and whether the "designated lands" are really "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures."
Hikers approach a sandstone spire formation on the Owl Canyon trail in Bears Ears National Monument. Bob Lingner
In late March, I visited Bears Ears with friends. We camped at the head of Mule Canyon, spent time at a rim overlooking Arch Canyon, and hiked into Owl Canyon and up Indian Creek. Our conclusion: This is a spectacular place. Sec. Ickes in 1936 and the coalition of tribes last year were absolutely right in pushing for its protection, and all Americans are fortunate to have this natural heritage preserved for them and their children and grandchildren.
Throughout the monument, we saw prehistoric structures and historic landmarks, from the intricately built stone watchtowers that guarded a water spring at the head of the canyon to Newspaper Rock, a sandstone slab filled with centuries' worth of pictographs.
These 2,000-year-old petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock near Monticello, Utah, are within the Bears Ears National Monument boundary. Bob Lingner
We heard coyotes yipping at dawn, just as the sky was beginning to light the red rock afire. High up a sandstone fin we spied ancient cliff dwellings carved into the nearly vertical rock face. In the deep blue of a cloudless day, an arch spanning two precipitous ridges cast a stripe of shade on the canyon bottom where we hiked. We saw elk traversing a mesa through sagebrush flats and deer browsing in juniper-pinyon forests.
Each of these moments is etched upon our memories, and we count ourselves lucky to have found Bears Ears as it has always been.
It is now up to all citizens to speak up for our national monuments. Submit your comment by May 26 to urge President Trump and Sec. Zinke to preserve Bears Ears as it was approved. My friends and I have. Having experienced this special place ourselves, we are now personally invested in its intact protection so that our children and grandchildren can explore and enjoy it as we have.
Nevills Arch in Owl Canyon off Cedar Mesa in the monument. Bob Lingner
Mike Matz directs The Pew Charitable Trust's U.S. public lands program, focusing on wilderness and national monument projects.
By Andrea Kavanagh
He is on a mission to generate global awareness of the changing environment and threats to wildlife in both the Arctic and Antarctic, a drive he attributes to growing up among the Inuit in Canada and his early career as a marine biologist.
"I want my photos to document some of the most remote and stunning ecosystems on Earth and to show what's at risk if we don't protect our environment," Nicklen said.
He posts images to the 3.2 million followers of his popular Instagram feed of the animals and people he encounters while traveling, and seizes every opportunity to explain the importance of conserving some of the last untouched ecosystems on the planet.
Nicklen said the key to successfully photographing animals in the wild is patience. "You can't disturb your subjects or expect a quick shot. But if you keep watching, the natural world reveals itself in all of its incredible beauty."
Nicklen knows from extensive firsthand experience what is at stake if conservation of the polar regions is delayed.
"If we lose the sea ice, we lose this ecosystem," he observed. "While photographing Antarctica over the past two decades, I've seen [the] changes." Nicklen added that the oceans can be very resilient if humans take action to protect them. The 2016 designation of the world's largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea was a good first step. Now, he said, "we must protect more of these Antarctic ecosystems."
A full network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean would not only preserve connectivity among the many unique ecosystems in the region but also allow marine life to migrate between protected areas for breeding and foraging. Other reasons for shielding these areas from unrestrained human activity include how the circumpolar currents help sustain life well outside the region and Antarctica's role as a relatively pristine "living laboratory" for scientists studying climate change.
This October, two proposals for Southern Ocean marine protected areas are up for consideration during the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the management body established to protect the Southern Ocean's biodiversity. One area would protect the Weddell Sea and the other would safeguard the waters off East Antarctica. If both are designated, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources's 25 member governments would move closer to fulfilling the commitment they made in 2002 to establish a network of marine protected areas and preserve the intact and biodiverse Antarctic ecosystems for future generations.
Andrea Kavanagh directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' global penguin conservation program.
Following a four-month battle for his life, Chris Linaman committed to sharing his story to help raise awareness about the growing threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As executive chef at a large medical center, he is also driving change at an institutional level, harnessing his purchasing power to support the responsible use of antibiotics in food animals.
Linaman is the recipient of the "Sustainable Food Procurement Award" by Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition committed to environmentally responsible health care. As part of Pew's Supermoms Against Superbugs initiative, Linaman recently met with policymakers in Washington, urging them to maintain sufficient funding for efforts that are critical to combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which has become a public health crisis. He spoke with Pew about his illness and his advocacy.
Chris Linaman. © The Pew Charitable Trusts
Q: Can you tell us about your MRSA infection and how it affected you and your family?
A: My nightmare started as a basketball injury. I'd had a successful ACL surgery and several weeks into my recovery was doing great and thought my incision was fully healed. But that all changed very quickly. After a weekend trip to visit friends, I went to sleep on a Sunday night feeling fine and woke up Monday morning to find my knee had swollen to the size of a melon. It was bright red and hot to the touch. Within hours, my MRSA infection had been diagnosed and I was in emergency surgery—the first of several surgeries I would need over the course of four days.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of my struggle to survive MRSA.
Just a few days after being sent home from the hospital, my wife found me nearly unconscious, with a swollen face and a temperature of 105 degrees. She rushed me back to the hospital and the doctors told her to begin making plans because they didn't expect me to make it. Luckily, the spinal tap showed the infection had not yet gotten to my brain. But I needed to have even more surgeries to get rid of it and I also lost my epidermis—the outer layer of my skin—over my entire body, due to an allergic reaction to the antibiotic they were using to treat me.
Ultimately, the doctors were able to get the infection under control within a few weeks, but the road to recovery was long and painful. Even after my infection was cleared and I was out of the hospital, my body was still reeling from all it had been through. My leg muscles were wrecked from all of the surgeries and it took extensive physical therapy to get me back to anything resembling normal. To help put it in perspective, my original ACL surgery had been in early May and it wasn't until mid-July that I was even able to walk around the block in my neighborhood, a feat that took more than an hour.
Beyond the physical trauma, the whole ordeal also nearly ruined our family financially and it was emotionally devastating as well. At the time, our two kids were just 2 and 4 years old and they didn't understand what was going on. It still breaks my heart to think about it. Those were the darkest days of my life and, honestly, it's hard to believe that I'm still here.
Q: Why do you think it's so important for superbug survivors to share their stories?
A: I don't think enough people realize the extent of what's at stake. People have maybe heard the term "post-antibiotic" era but don't really understand what that could mean to them and their families. While it's still very difficult for me to talk about—even today, more than 10 years later—sharing my experience can help show what that future could look like if we don't keep up the fight and do what we can today. As horrible as my MRSA infection was, I'm the "good" outcome—I survived. Way too many others have not.
Q: Why do you advocate for the responsible use of antibiotics in food animals and how have you brought that advocacy to life in your work?
A: It's absolutely essential that we have effective antibiotics available when people need them. I know this firsthand and I want to make sure that my kids never live in a world where there are no antibiotics to help them. So we need to do anything and everything we can to conserve these lifesaving drugs so that they work when they're needed—that includes making sure antibiotics are used appropriately and only when necessary—both in people and in animals.
Shortly after I recovered from my MRSA infection, I began working as the executive chef at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington and in that role I created a procurement policy for the center that prioritizes bringing healthy food to our community and gives preference to food producers who are working to reduce antibiotic use. That policy has really been the foundation for driving significant increases in the proportion of responsibly raised food we're able to source. We've gone from approximately 19 percent of our proteins being classified as "reduced antibiotic use" in 2012, up to 80 percent in 2016. And during this same time, I've seen the market for responsibly raised meats evolve as well. It's been increasingly easier and less expensive to find these types of proteins and that's part of what's made our dramatic shift at Overlake possible. It's not just small and local famers offering these types of products anymore, it's also producers on a larger scale and that's encouraging.
Q: What can individuals do to support the responsible use of antibiotics in animal agriculture?
A: Everyone can do something. As patients, we can talk to our doctors about whether an antibiotic is necessary. When it comes to reducing antibiotic use in food animals, we can all commit to doing our research and being mindful shoppers who choose to purchase products from farmers and companies that are committed to minimizing antibiotic use. Consumer demand for responsibly raised food has been a powerful force for change in recent years and together we can make sure that demand continues to grow and make a real difference.