Meet the team: Q&A with Diego Undurraga

Head-and-shoulders photograph of Diego Undurraga

Diego earned his Master's degree in Environmental Science and Management from the Bren School at the University of California in Santa Barbara with a specialization in Coastal Marine Resources. He has worked as a researcher on projects ranging from human rights abuses on fisheries on a global scale, to the social-ecological adaptive capacity to climate change for small scale fishing communities in Chile and Mexico. We asked Diego a few questions about his background, and what he’s looking forward to this year with Future of Fish:

Q: How did you find your way into marine issues?

I come from a country that is all geography: a dynamic ground colored by weather and woven by landscapes which flourish and fade between impassive mountains, deserts and ice. And bathing of crystal its extensive western flank: the Pacific Ocean. Gently but tirelessly nibbling its coast, shaping its shores. Such is Chile. A country that stubbornly rises between storm surges, earthquakes, and landslides.

However, since the foundation of post-Columbian modern cities, the country has turned most of its attention, activities, and culture, towards multiple narrow and scattered central valleys and basins, losing the deep and natural connection that many of our ancestors and cultures — especially in the southern Patagonia — held with the ocean. I believe Chile has a vocation for the sea, but we have neglected it for centuries.

My deep admiration for the natural world grew unleashed in such a natural context, but together with it, the awareness of the impacts we are increasingly causing as a species. The complexities and environmental threats regarding our oceans and its resources, the recognition of its relevance, and a desire to honor, emphasize, and communicate its importance to our culture and our future, led me to orientate my efforts towards its sustainable management. I didn't grow up by the sea, but it's persistent murmur has been part of my family's collective memory forever.

Q: Interest in seafood sustainability and traceability has grown in recent years. Why do you think that is?

I think there has been a steadily growing concern -for a while now- about the impacts our species is generating on the planet. We have experienced unprecedented population growth in the last two centuries, with also increasing rates of per capita resource consumption. The impacts have been hard to ignore, and the advancement of robust science, collaboration, and communication has — at the same time — increased in thrilling ways.

I think the interest in sustainability in the seafood sector is not too different to other growing concerns of social and ecological sustainability globally, and I am confident that this will only continue to expand in the coming years. We are already suffering the effects of overexploitation of resources, biodiversity loss, pollution, and -our most urgent threat- climate change. And the effects and consequences seem to be gaining momentum in an unrelenting manner. There are important international efforts in place, and inspiring local initiatives that educate the population and point us in the right direction. We must keep in mind -however- that global and stringent collective and regulatory action are fundamental in order to face these challenges proportionally.

Q: Where do you hope global fish production will be in 5 years? 10 years?

There is high potential of recovery for the health of marine ecosystems and their respective environmental services with the recovery of fish stocks. And even further, there is large economic potential for vulnerable communities that directly depend on its resources. Basically, we could be fishing more, feeding more people, and have healthier marine ecosystems. 
 
In addition to the potential from the recovery of wild fisheries, I think there is a strong case to support the growth of responsible aquaculture. When we consider estimates of population growth and its associated increase in protein demand, plus the relative general impacts of land animal protein compared to seafood animal protein (carbon emissions, fresh water use, land use change, environmentally harmful synthetic chemical compounds, nutrition), there is robust science that shows the comparative benefits of turning our attention towards the oceans when thinking about feeding a growing population. As with any complex and vulnerable ecosystem, things need to be done mindfully, democratically, and with adequate considerations at hand: high quality unbiased independent science, and responsible democratic policy. (In Chile we have been learning the hard way the impacts of misguided aquaculture practices). Or, you know, we can also go vegetarian. 

Q: What were you doing before you joined Future of Fish?

I won't go too far back, but the three years before joining Future of Fish I was back in school, studying and collaborating as a researcher at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, at UCSB in Santa Barbara, California. I am a proud member of the Latin American Fisheries Fellowship Network, scattered throughout the world (although mostly in Latin America), all of whom work on similar issues with different organizations. There is a good variety of approaches to ocean and social issues.
   
My thesis was related to artisanal fishing in Chile, and exploring blended finance opportunities to fund the recovery of fish stocks through the development of incentives to improve the supply chains. This is actually how I first met some of my colleagues in Future of Fish. 

Q: What most attracted you to working with Future of Fish?

As a general approach from the organization, I highly value the "systems" focus that Future of Fish has. I have a background in Systems and Industrial Engineering, so this approach not only resonates with the way I was trained, but also the way I believe to be the most appropriate to understand complex, multidimensional problems. Being able to identify high leverage opportunities throughout supply chains while having the flexibility to influence multiple levels of a system, I believe is the right way to do it. As a key part of this approach, collaborating and designing directly with — and from — the fishing communities we work with is of utmost significance on both a professional and personal level.
 
Additionally, the interdisciplinary approach that the group has -and the variety of backgrounds and experiences- are not only helpful, but challenging and entertaining. The size of the organization, the professional profiles of the members, and the types of dynamics that you get from all of this makes it an exceptional place to both collaborate with the communities and stakeholders we work with, but also to grow.

Q: What are you most looking forward to doing in the next year?

Continue the good work! Hopefully be able to advance significantly towards the creation of long term, scalable, self sustained solutions that improve fishers livelihoods (socially, culturally, economically), transparency, governance, and  —last but not least — support the recovery of our oceans. Let the good times roll!


Published May 5, 2020