National Geographic Honors MEM Alum Shannon Switzer Swanson

Nicholas School Alum Shannon Switzer Swanson MEM’15 was picked by National Geographic as one of 10 Adventurers of the Year as part of a program launched 12 years ago by Nat Geo to recognize extraordinary achievement in exploration, adventure sports, conservation or humanitarianism.

Visitors to the website can read profiles of all 10 adventurers and see the winner of the People’s Choice Award, who was named in January.

Swanson, who received her MEM in Coastal Environmental Management, was chosen from hundreds of nominees worldwide in recognition of her work as an ocean advocate, specifically her investigation of the environmental and economic impacts of the global aquarium fish trade.

Her project was inspired by concern among conservationists that the 2016 animated film Finding Dory might send fans in a rush to pet stores to purchase blue tangs like the title fish character, Dory. (After Finding Dory’s parent movie, Finding Nemo—the story of a clownfish—debuted in 2003, many fans snapped up clownfish.)

Blue Tang

While clownfish can be raised in captivity, blue tangs are most often harvested from the wild. A surge in demand for them, conservationists fear, could deplete reefs over the years. Another concern is that some fishermen use cyanide to stun the fish, then scoop them up from the seafloor, a practice that can harm other species and compromise water quality.

Clown Fish

“I was fascinated by this idea that a Disney movie could spark an increase in interest in this little- known fish all the way across the world,” Swanson said in an interview posted on the Nat Geo website. With her research partners, she wanted to dig more deeply into the hidden impacts of such an interest—and explore the fish trade at large. “There are 1,700 species in the aquarium fish trade—how does that impact the wild population? And not only that, how is it influencing people who depend on this market for their livelihood?”

She and her research colleagues plan to release a film in 2017 that details their findings, as well as a website with an interactive map that tracks the global aquarium trade.

An award-winning conservation photojournalist, Swanson is now pursuing a PhD in marine conservation at Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.