Verena is 34 years old and lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her fascination with marine life began when she was only a little girl.
“We can only care for something when we are aware of its importance.” As a little girl her fascination for the ocean began as she started snorkelling in the Mediterranean sea and chasing the waves. Nowadays Verena is a Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and strongly believes the important responsibility scientist have to communicate how climate and environmental change impacts the ocean and what we can do about it. Today she shares her story.
What is your earliest memory of the ocean?
We used to go on family vacations in Italy when I was a little girl. I would spend all day playing with my siblings, building sandcastles and chasing waves. My love for the ocean only grew stronger when I started to read books by the Austrian marine biologist and underwater pioneer Hans Hass. All the following vacations I’d be snorkelling in the ocean for hours and dreaming of pursuing a career in marine sciences.
And so here you are, with a career in marine sciences. What does the ocean mean to you today?
I indeed ended up pursuing a career in marine science and now I spend my days studying how coral reefs are affected by climate and environmental change. An important component of my work is to raise awareness for the many threats that coral reefs face today and how they are putting the future of these fascinating eco-systems at stake. But the ocean also plays a huge role in my personal life. I feel deeply connected to nature when I’m near the ocean so I’ve always dreamed of living close to the ocean. I finally managed to do so when I moved to Australia and I consider myself very lucky to be able to go the ocean whenever I want.
What changes have you witnessed in the ocean?
Over the course of my short lifetime, coral reefs have entered an unprecedented period of decline worldwide due to a number of natural and man-made stressors, such as overfishing, water pollution, climate change and ocean acidification. In the early 1990’s, when I went snorkelling for the first time in my life, not even coral reef scientists would have guessed that a global coral reef crisis was looming. Only three decades later, coral reefs have already been devastated by several global mass bleaching events caused by ocean warming and marine heatwaves.
From 2014 to 2016, the third global mass bleaching impacted coral reefs all around the world and this was actually the first time that I witnessed mass bleaching first hand. The first time was while visiting Hawaii and then on the coral reefs in Australia. I was actually studying naturally heat-resistant coral communities, but the heatwave was so intense that even these communities bleached severely. It was devastating to me to see how the healthy, colourful reefs turned ghostly white, died and became overgrown with algae.
“It was devastating to me to see how the healthy, colourful reefs turned ghostly white, died and became overgrown with algae.”
And how do these changes in the ocean affect you?
In contrast to many other Ocean Witnesses and the numerous communities that depend on the ocean for their livelihood, I am fortunate that these changes have no direct impact on my livelihood. But as my work continues to highlight the threat of climate change to coral reefs, and the ongoing decline of these ecosystems, I am deeply saddened and concerned about these changes and the future of coral reefs. And of course, coral reefs are by far not the only marine ecosystems that are threatened by ocean change…
And what do you do to ensure the future of the reefs?
I am passionate about raising awareness for the predicament coral reefs are in and communicating the findings from my research to the general public. We can only care for something when we are aware of its importance. So I believe that scientists today have an increasingly important responsibility to communicate how climate and environmental change impacts the ocean and what we can do about it. For example, I had the unique opportunity to serve as ship-based outreach officer during a Schmidt Ocean Institute research cruise which allowed me to write daily blog articles and social media updates and conduct online “live” tours to connect scientists and the general public so they can see science in action. And I also participated in the documentary series “Ocean Heroines” which highlighted the important work female marine scientists all around the world do. I also often write articles for science communication websites, have given numerous interviews to various media outlets about the impacts of climate change on coral reefs and I recently gave a TEDx talk about the future of coral reefs. Finally, I also believe that social media can play a huge role in raising awareness and therefore maintain an active Twitter account.
“We can only care for something when we are aware of its importance. So I believe that scientists today have an increasingly important responsibility to communicate how climate and environmental change impacts the ocean and what we can do about it.”
In 2030, what does the ocean look like according to you?
I have to admit that I am worried that the decline of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems will continue unabatedly over the next decades… but at the same time, I am also hopeful because more and more people are concerned about the state of our oceans and want to do something about it, all in their own capacity. From individuals organizing beach clean ups, to fishermen changing their practices to more sustainable oceans and to people advocating for better protection of ‘their’ ocean and governments effectively managing Marine Protected Areas. This is key because our actions over the next 10-20 years will be absolutely critical and determine the trajectories of marine ecosystems, whether their degradation will continue or whether we will be able to slow down their decline and start on the path of recovery towards a more sustainable future.
Thanks for sharing your story; you’re an Ocean Witness now! What do you want to say to other Ocean Witnesses?
We all need to work together to save the ocean and reverse the negative trends that we’re seeing everywhere. We need more ocean witnesses because it is through these personal stories that we can truly understand the impacts that ocean change has on communities and marine ecosystems. The combined impacts of many small actions cannot be underestimated – and we can all be ambassadors of change.
“It is through personal stories that we can truly understand the impact that ocean change has on communities and marine ecosystems.”
Verena Schoepf is 34 years old and lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her fascination with marine life began when she was only a little girl: snorkelling and chasing the waves of the Mediterranean Sea on family vacations. Today, she is a Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and Program Co-leader in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. She is a first hand witness to the decline of coral reefs. You can read more about her research and media publications on www.verenaschoepf.com.