Women Working For Our Planet: Meet Erin Ashe, Scientist, Co-Founder & Executive Director Of Ocean's Initiative

Erin Ashe believes in bold action and courageous conservationism, and she is doing both in her work as co-founder of Ocean's Initiative. In collaboration with Boxed Water Is Better®, we chatted with her about the state of our seas and what we can do to make a difference.
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Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Thank you to Boxed Water for supporting this feature. 

When Boxed Water, the sustainable alternative to plastic bottles, approached us about a collaboration in celebration of the upcoming World Oceans Day on Saturday, June 8, we spent time thinking about the best way to approach our partnership. After considering all the unfortunate and dystopian news of late about the state of our environment, we realized there was a space needing to be filled with positive stories about those working to protect our oceans and our planet. We thought it would be poignant to hear from women who have dedicated their professional and personal lives to educating, conserving and, yes, enjoying our most precious resource. Luckily, Boxed Water was in agreement. They wanted to empower readers (like you) to take action and join them in taking the No-Plastic Pledge to give up plastic bottles for at least 30 days.

Today we introduce you to Erin Ashe. She is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Ocean's Initiative, an organization that is comprised of "a team of scientists on a mission to protect marine life, including whales, dolphins, sharks, salmon and seabirds, in the Pacific Northwest and beyond." 

Erin is brilliant and passionate — just the person you want leading the OI mission. Her work with dolphins and whales has been recognized across the globe, yet she still understands the need for practical tips and relatable suggestions for how we can all make better environmental decisions as consumers. 

Erin chatted with our own Co-Founder and Executive Editor, Amanda Carter Gomes, about her commitment to save our seas. It's inspiring to say the least, so read on to hear about the remarkable work being done by Erin and her team, the whale experience at age 4 that may have cemented her professional trajectory, how she is supporting women in science, and why she thinks the ocean plastics issue is something that is "relatively easy to solve." 

Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Will you please tell us about the mission of Oceans Initiative and how the organization started?

Oceans Initiative is a team of scientists on a mission to protect marine life, including whales, dolphins, sharks, salmon and seabirds, in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Like the whales we study, we are highly migratory. We divide our time between getting our feet wet in the field, wherever our work is needed, and using our science to inform smart decisions to conserve wildlife.

My husband and co-founder, Rob Williams, and I started the organization. We are both west coasters, but did our PhDs at University of St Andrews. There weren’t many jobs in marine mammal conservation, but we loved the balance between fieldwork and practical applications of our research. As we began building research projects that grew into programs, we knew we needed a formal home for the work. Because our dream jobs didn’t exist, we created them. We got our start in Canada living in a tiny cabin Rob built on a tiny island off the grid, only accessible by boat. It grew from there. We now have a bigger team, a bigger boat, and a bigger (international) impact.

What is the focus of your daily work? And what does a typical day in the field look like for you?

Each day, we ask how our science can best protect the species we know are endangered, and help us identify other species that may be falling through the cracks. This hinges on smart, strategic partnerships. To achieve these aims, we work with colleagues in academia, the non-profit and private sectors, and government. Often this starts by looking at a problem and assessing whether our team can help. If not, we often try to bring others together and catalyze connections. 

Sometimes agencies or people approach us to ask whether we can offer advice or conduct a study to address a particular issue. When we are not in the field, we are doing the science, raising funds to support the work, connecting with decision-makers, and sharing the results of our projects with wider audiences. In the past few years, we have been building our team with early-career scientists which has meant playing a training and mentorship role and are now aiming to bring in a few more mid-career and senior scientists. We’re keen to work with more nonprofit professionals, project managers, and story-tellers.

My typical day in the field has shifted over the years. Years ago, before we had our daughter, we would wake up in our field cabin on a tiny island, grab a thermos of coffee and camera and take out our small boat with our dog. At that time, I was collecting data for my PhD, so we would search for Pacific white-sided dolphins in beautiful clear blue fjords of the Broughton Archipelago. It was usually just the two of us. The boat didn’t have a roof, so we would freeze! But it was worth it. We’d encounter dolphins, killer whales, humpback whales. Up there, we’d take our boat to the post office, the grocery store, and to visit friends. Everyone commutes by boat, and living and working was more of a continuum than a juggle.

These days our fieldwork is a bit more varied. After we had our daughter, Clara, we decided it was finally time for Oceans Initiative to have a proper research boat. Our community of supporters rose to the occasion, and we now have a bigger, safer boat that allows us to take on challenges and travel farther afield. With our new boat, we could have a team come with us. We sail it up to British Columbia each summer and continue the dolphin study. The Pacific white-sided dolphin study primarily focuses on photo-identification, or photographing naturally marked (nicks, scratches, pigmentation patterns), individually recognizable dolphins through time to learn more about their population — how many dolphins are there, is the population doing well, how many calves are they having? We record dolphin vocalizations on hydrophones (underwater microphones) and collect their exhaled breath on petri dishes to test for pathogens. It’s sort of like taking a throat swab when you go to the doctor’s office. 

Our Pacific white-sided dolphin program is a fantastic project because in many ways, each day is a new discovery. This species has been so neglected in science that in a recent paper with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute, we showed that we’ve been calling the species by the wrong scientific name for 150 years. We know so little about Pacific white-sided dolphins that every day of exploration offers potential for new discoveries. In that way, it’s also a great project for early career researchers to get involved and take on a project. The flip side of exploring new territory is that it can be a challenge to persuade people that the work is important enough to support. 

We’re also picking up the land-based studies we did on killer whales decades ago. Last year, as people watched J35 (Tahlequah) push her dead calf through the Salish Sea for 17 days, it brought attention to this issue, at a time when attention is in short supply, and people couldn’t look away. It was a wake-up call for many that our southern resident killer whales really could go extinct in our lifetimes. I think this event, along with the decline of the southern resident killer whales, encouraged agencies on both sides of the border to implement bold conservation actions. We will be in the field this summer, measuring the whales’ behavior from land, to measure whether the new mitigation measures are working for the whales, and whether the actions we’re taking are enough to promote survival and recovery of the whales. As much as we love our boat and use it to study other whales and dolphins, for this project, it’s important to do this research from land, so we’re not adding to the noise impacts on the whales we’re trying to protect.

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You have been working, researching, and getting an education in "science for the sea" for as long as I've known you. Can you talk about some of the changes you have seen in both the ocean waters and ocean life since you started in this field?

I’ll never forget my first encounter with orcas on San Juan Island when I was about four years old. I actually heard them breathing through the fog before I saw them. It’s the first encounter with wildlife that I remember. It was powerful and I believe not only cultivated a love of the natural world, but inspired me to become a conservation biologist. When the orcas declined in the late 1990s, it was a wakeup call for many. I could not imagine a world without them. I couldn’t imagine future generations not being able to see or know about these whales. In 2017, during one of our studies, the SRKWs were all but absent from the Salish Sea. No one had seen them anywhere, and we didn’t know who would be alive or dead when the pods finally returned to the Salish Sea. Standing on the west side of San Juan Island with my daughter, then 3 years old, when the whales hadn’t been seen in weeks, gave me a glimpse into what extinction could look like. In that moment, I felt a deeply personal responsibility to my daughter to ensure that those whales were still around when she was an adult. I knew I couldn’t guarantee that, but I needed to be able to tell her that I tried.

And we know that bold conservation actions can work. Humpback whales are making a comeback. We just had to stop whaling and provide a healthy habitat. In many ways, school children were the driver behind the push toward dolphin-friendlier tuna fishing practices.

Boxed Water is a paper-based alternative to single-use plastic bottles

Boxed Water is a paper-based alternative to single-use plastic bottles

What has the most concerning about the evolution of ocean and its sea life that you have witnessed?

As a scientist, our primary tool is investigation and research to answer specific questions. And, to some extent, there will always be further questions. But in cases like southern resident killer whales, they are on one hand one of the most endangered marine mammal populations in the US and at the same time one of the best studied. We have more than enough information to know we have to act, but there are legitimate discussions to be had about how best to act on the information we have. 

Some people dwell on doubt. Some people forge ahead with a false sense of security. It’s hard to strike the right balance between the need to improve our understanding and the need to act now. The most difficult part of our orca work is seeing how much of the information we needed to act was available a decade ago, when we had 86 whales instead of 76 whales. Delayed action is now making recovery harder. In my view, we should be adopting an adaptive management approach where pragmatic steps are taken to protect the whales now, in parallel with targeted research to measure effectiveness of the management. That approach either tells people that their sacrifices are working to help the whales, or gives us the humility to recognize we need to change our plans.

How have plastics impacted our ocean waters and the creatures that inhabit them?

Ocean plastic is a highly visible issue and one that is relatively easy to solve relative to overfishing, climate change, or ocean noise. [I think about Justin Hofman’s iconic photo of a sea horse with it’s tail wrapped around a plastic q-tip]. In many ways this embodies our current relationship with the ocean. Plastic entangles and chokes marine wildlife, but solutions and alternatives are easy to find. Yes, we need to consume less plastic and decrease our dependence on it and we are on a path toward this, I believe. Many initiatives around the world are happening to eliminate straws, and people in their homes are eliminating single use plastics by using shampoo bars. I see discussions of ocean plastics as a natural entry point into broader discussions about how we it is easy to overlook the impact our behavior has on the ocean, and how we buy things we don’t need. Beach clean-ups are a powerful way to bring communities together and raise awareness of the issue, but preventing plastic entering the ocean ecosystem in the first place is key.

What do you wish more people knew about the current state of our ocean waters?

People have tremendous power to effect change and make significant gains in marine conservation to help protect whales, dolphins and other ocean life. They vote every time they buy something. In the 1980s, kids refused to eat tuna sandwiches, because back then, most tuna fisheries were intentionally setting nets on schools of dolphins and they were killing hundreds of thousands of dolphins each year. When kids refused to eat tuna, parents stopped buying it, until the fishing industry found a dolphin-safe(r) way to catch tuna. Now the dolphin-safe tuna label is the norm in US markets. 

But we also have a voice when we elect politicians who reflect our values. In addition to making wise, individual consumer choices, we really need to focus on effecting broad, systemic changes to the way we relate to the ocean and asking our elected officials, societal and corporate leaders to help effect action. That’s where we can see a sea change.

Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

How are companies like Boxed Water making a positive impact on the ecosystem?

Committing to reduce single-use plastic is a significant act. Again, preventing plastic from entering the ocean ecosystem in the first place is vital. When I think of the times I do not have my water bottle with me and I need to buy water, it is often in places where recycling is not available. In the long term, consuming less, reusing, and repurposing is the way forward and non-plastic alternatives play a key role.

What was the impetus for the Women in Marine Mammal Science program? How does it support women who are working in the STEM fields? Why was it important to you to create this initiative?

Early on in my PhD, I connected with a career coach. I recognized some of the inner barriers I faced (perfectionism, listing to my inner critic too much, playing small) and also was keenly aware that I was entering a fiercely competitive field where many external barriers for women still exist. I didn’t want those barriers to stand in the way of successfully navigating the already challenging landscape of graduate school. At the time, Tara Mohr was just starting her Playing Big program. Through this program and by virtue of the incredible cohort of students and professors at the University of St Andrews, I learned to address many of these challenges. I then had to defend my PhD. I  was 8 months pregnant, and was told that motherhood was the end of my field career. I felt that with my newly minted doctorate, my career was just starting. So I decided to point my colleagues to the role models who inspired me through my early profession. 

The barriers that women face in marine science careers start long before motherhood, and they also apply to women with and without children. The combination of having the tools from the leadership program I was privileged to have been a part of and the strong role models and leaders I had in my life, encouraged me to share these experiences. I knew I wasn’t alone. I could see my female colleagues playing small, not publishing, not going after grants, not putting their names forward to sit on panels, even though they were doing ground-breaking research. So, I decided to reach out to women I knew were beginning to see the same patterns and see what we could do to break down these barriers. Two years ago we held a workshop, gathered a stellar group of women in marine mammal science to gather and present, and we are still going strong today building our community. We need women’s voices in conservation and we’re creating a space to amplify those voices.

Erin's daughter, Clara. Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Erin's daughter, Clara. Image credit: Jenny Jimenez 

Finally, what are a few things we can all do to protect and have a positive impact on our oceans, not just today, but every day?

Here are a few ideas, but I’d love to hear what your readers come up with:

1. Go outside and enjoy the ocean! If you don’t live near the ocean, enjoy the natural spaces in your neighborhood and cultivate that connection.

2. Be mindful about what you buy, how much you consume, where products come from and where it will end up when you’re finished with them.

3. Find organizations whose work you love, and support them with whatever means you have at your disposal — time, social media amplification, moral support, or financial support.

4. Vote for people who reflect your values and hold them accountable.

5. Cultivate hope. We need it. Success stories sustain us in a time when it’s easy to give up. 

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Take the 30 Days No Plastic Pledge to join the movement against plastic bottle consumption and doing your part for a #BetterPlanet.You can sign up for a free kit to receive a pledge badge, fact sheet, and Boxed Water coupon! 

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