By Karen K. Marvin
Larry B. Crowder joined the Center for Ocean Solutions in the newly created position of science director. Crowder is also a fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor of biology at Hopkins Marine Station, both part of Stanford University. Larry joins COS from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke University Marine Lab where his research focused on predation and food web interactions, population and food web modeling, and interdisciplinary approaches to marine conservation. He has been acting science director for several months and joined COS full time on June 1.
Larry believes in following an interdisciplinary approach to projects. While at Duke, he was Principal Investigator for the South Atlantic Bight Recruitment Experiment (SABRE), OBIS SEAMAP (Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Animal Populations) and Project GLOBAL (Global Bycatch Assessment of Long-Lived Species). He also directed and participated in a number of research, analysis and synthesis groups at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and for the National Research Council’s Ocean Studies Board. His recent research focused on marine conservation including bycatch, marine spatial planning (MSP), spatial ecological analysis, nutrients and low oxygen, sustainable seafood and ecosystem-based management.
“One of my earliest projects combining different specialties was in the 1980s,” Larry recalled recently. The Atlantic population of loggerhead sea turtles was plunging, and he wanted to know why. So he undertook a study combining mathematical modeling with long-term data on counts of nesting sea turtles to better understand their population dynamics. The population models that he developed of nesting loggerheads in the Southeast U.S revealed a high mortality rate among the juvenile sea turtle population, the size most likely to be tangled in shrimp fishing nets where they perished. Larry’s models of this bycatch problem was one of two papers used by the National Research Council to support requiring shrimp nets to have turtle excluders, devices that permit turtles to escape. Excluders are now used worldwide. “Science like this is worth doing in its own right, but being able to describe a problem in a way that also led to a good conservation impact--that’s like getting a double word score in Scrabble,” exclaimed Larry.
Beginning last year, Larry started fielding phone calls from friends on the West Coast who had seen a job description at Stanford University that seemed tailor-made for him. “Had he heard of the Center for Ocean Solutions?” they asked. Larry knew several people at Stanford including Meg Caldwell, COS executive director, Steve Palumbi, Barbara Block and Fiorenza Micheli, so he called Buzz Thompson, a member of COS’ management committee and head of the search committee. He soon found that COS’ mission to find solutions to challenges facing the ocean through nonpartisan, interdisciplinary work matched his own approach.
Larry sees some parallels between Duke and Stanford, but he’s quick to emphasize that COS has an opportunity to build an organization without peer that could be emulated by other institutions. The organization he envisions could lead to a revolutionary change in problem solving for the ocean. One of the primary challenges to fulfilling this vision is COS’ ability to engage top talent, who are inevitably very busy, in meaningful interdisciplinary work on ocean issues.
Larry’s immediate undertaking includes three working groups. The climate change and Pacific pelagic predators group has brought together behavioral ecologists, oceanographers, physiologists, and modelers to develop specific recommendations on how to protect large predator species in the central and eastern Pacific. The second group is looking at the numerous threats facing corals including rising ocean temperatures and acidification levels, pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing in order to define the current state of knowledge and to develop guidance for Pacific leaders on coral reef protection. The third working group is examining hypoxia in the inner shelf of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem (CCLME) and will incorporate this understanding in water management.
Larry also has a deep interest in marine spatial planning that dates to an important paper he published in 2006 that helped initiate the discussion between industry and science. Larry pointed out, “MSP is key to implementing comprehensive, ecosystem-based management of the ocean instead of the piecemeal way we have been doing it.” Protecting threatened marine ecosystems while responding to increased industrial needs such as aquaculture and offshore energy are adding urgency to implementing MSP. Larry’s sees COS operationalizing MSP, showing coastal managers how to put it into practice and developing a “toolkit” to assist in resolving conflicting uses of the ocean.
Larry’s interest in aquatic creatures began by exploring the irrigation canals near his childhood home in Fresno, Calif. Later he discovered rocky intertidal systems on California’s Central Coast where he turned into a self-described “nudibranch freak” bent on finding and photographing as many specimens as possible. “To me, it was much more exciting than stamp collecting,” he recalled.
Raised in the heyday of space exploration, Larry enrolled in an undergraduate engineering program, but during his second year he happened to take a biology course that inspired him to complete a double major in mathematics and biology. Upon graduating, he was asked to teach a graduate course on systems ecology, utilizing his unusual double major. Larry received his Ph.D. in freshwater ecology and food webs from Michigan State University in 1978. “I loved the rocky intertidal so much that I didn’t want it to become work--by studying this for my Ph.D.,” Larry remarked. “But I guess it was inevitable that I would get back to oceans since this is where my work now lies!”
Larry’s postdoctoral work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on the biological oceanography of Lake Michigan led to his first faculty job at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. There his research on aquatic ecology and modeling of estuaries including the early life history of fish drew him into oceanography, most notably his studies of fish larvae to try to explain the huge variation of fish populations from year to year.
Larry was a full professor at NC State when he received a call from Duke University. “What drew me to Duke was the broad interdisciplinary environment. At NC State, I was surrounded by biologists, but at Duke there were people working together from oceanography, economics, anthropology, biology, you name it!” Duke was one of the first schools in the country to take this approach. “It made sense to me in a world where it’s people whose behavior needs to be managed in fisheries for economic and ecological reasons,” he noted. Larry joined Duke University Marine Lab in 1995 as a professor of marine ecology, convinced that his scientific work could influence marine management. Now he brings his experience working in an interdisciplinary environment to COS.
“COS is a dream partnership: a top research university (Stanford), a top oceanography/ocean engineering organization (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) and a top marine education venue (Monterey Bay Aquarium), plus the Monterey Bay area and all its marine education resources,” Larry observed. “The West Coast is full of extraordinary talent and its progressive politics helps solve marine challenges. Moving across the country is daunting, but COS is such a great opportunity.”