When I was in high school, I worked at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago where I interacted with visitors and talked with them about the animals in the exhibits. One of the central components of my job was to be aware of my audience. My conversations differed between kids and adults, local boat owners and environmental advocates. In many ways, this was an exercise in empathy. I tried to see the world as visitors might, use vocabulary that carried our conversation rather than stifled it, recognize where I could share new information in ways relevant to their own lives. But this was also an exercise in self-awareness. I tried to recognize the limits of my own experiences, where my own biases came from, where I could learn from aquarium visitors. My job was less about reciting a fully formed speech from memory and more about opening a conversation with someone, opening an interaction where our perceptions could change through sharing different experiences.
Over the course of my Watson year, my role has been somewhat reversed from when I worked at the aquarium; I am now “the visitor” seeking out the perspectives of aquaculture experts from various areas of the industry. But I am still using the skills I learned at the aquarium to find common ground with the people I meet. I have spent a lot of this year discovering personal biases I wasn’t aware I had and remaining open to growth when I encounter new perspectives.
Before I started my year, I was accustomed to talking about aquaculture in semi-mythic terms. Naturally, “the blue revolution” was an exciting term for me that encompassed ideas of positive change and sustainable growth. I’d never seen a fish farm in person, but I’d spent significant time on the ocean and assumed that the vaguely spiritual connection I had with the water would also translate into the business of fish farming. But as far as vocabulary choices go, “blue revolution” is a bit heavy handed. It’s better suited for grandiose titles than for the day-to-day realities of aquaculture which can often feel a bit more mundane. Sometimes even “aquaculture”, the technical term for fish farming, feels a bit out of place. It is a relatively new word, a pseudo-portmanteau of aqua (latin for water) and agriculture, that didn’t really see much usage in English books before the 1960’s. The term’s modernity and technical implications lends itself to images to high-tech food production that might come out of a futuristic sci-fi movie. For me the most commonsense term, fish farming, seems the most attuned to the largely repetitive and sometimes mundane work of cultivating fish for consumption. I’ve found that these terms, while all accurate, carry different connotations that shape very different conversations. The interactions I am having this year are subtly informed by the vocabulary choices I and others make. The greatest thing about these terms is that they are not mutually exclusive. This year is, at various distinct and overlapping moments, a study of the revolutionary, the technical, and the commonsense.
Just over half-way through my year, I’ve realized how much more familiar and comfortable on fish farms than when I started. The novelty of experiencing aquaculture for the first time has gone and it’s now more commonplace in the landscape and my mind than I could have previously expected. Feeding fish is exciting the first few times you do it. It’s new and challenging, you want to make sure your feeding the fish properly and that you’re getting accustomed to the feed requirements. Eventually it becomes another task as part of your day. Same goes for seeing fish cages the first v.s. the hundredth time. When I visited Stewart Island, a few farmers talked about how grading fish felt like “watching paint dry”. Participating and observing in the repetition of fish farming has given me a new way to think more realistically my project and my year. However, repetition does not exclude revolution; it remains true that the technology for salmon aquaculture was virtually non-existent 50 years ago and that tilapia aquaculture can create complex social intra-farmer networks, enhanced by recent technological advances and governmental funding frameworks. Aquaculture, in its most “boring” moments, still feels deeply inspiring and filled with potential.
And beneath the day-to-day of fish farming lie powerful stories of care and attentiveness. While at Nam Sai Farm in Thailand, tilapia farmers all lived in the same housing complex and cooked dinner together every evening. They told me that they felt like a big family, and that living together was one of the best parts of their job. While on Stewart Island, the operations manager told me that the salmon farm was nothing without careful consideration for the surrounding marine environment. In Sukabumi, Indonesia local government officials talked about commitment to youth involvement in aquaculture as a way to promote sustainable rural livelihood. Like any industry, financial incentives play a role in peoples’ involvement. But it feels impossible to ignore peoples’ emotional investments in environment and community. For me, these investments are central to the creation of environmentally, socially, and economically just aquaculture systems.
So, in this year-long conversation with aquaculture and the people who do it, I find my perspectives gaining texture and depth. “The blue revolution” is still an exciting term, but it is nuanced in ways I couldn’t understand previously. The “quiet” moments of fish farming, when I notice myself or others feeling a bit bored, carry tremendous emotional power crucial to fueling aquaculture’s revolutionary potential.