plastics, cigarettes & cyanide


Marine social ecologist SHannon switzer-swanson on working with locals to find solutions


Shannon Switzer Swanson is a US waterwoman, photojournalist and marine social ecologist, whose work to date has focused on community-based management of marine resources in Southeast Asia (SEA) and Oceania, primarily in the Philippines and Indonesia.

She warns that the waters in the region face three main threats: high pollution with plastics, with cigarettes and destructive fishing practices.

plastics, cigarettes and cyanide

“It’s really heartbreaking. Plastic is an integral part of the ocean environment. It is everywhere,” said Shannon. In her view, the problem is in large part due to the West’s culture of convenience infiltrating the rest of the world, which has introduced one-use plastics, but waste management systems to process those plastics lag far behind.

The key would be to stop the entire process at the source. That is, to hold large companies accountable for the plastic waste they are producing and selling, and to develop new materials that are more symbiotic with nature.

“To me, the next biggest problem is both a public health and environmental issue: smoking. Most people don’t know, but cigarettes are actually the number one polluter of oceans,” said Shannon. She explained that 99% of men at her research field site are chain smokers and all their ash and butts go straight into the ocean.

Shannon’s current work focuses on exploring why fishermen continue to use destructive fishing practices, like dynamite and cyanide, threatening many of the reefs in the South-East Asian region and, in turn, threatening their own livelihoods.

“I think it’s a really important part of our daily life to be connected to the supply chains of where our food, clothes or our aquarium fish come from and to make sure these supply chains are developed in a sustainable way.”

she said.

the global marine aquarium fish trade

In 2015, she was awarded one of National Geographic’s inaugural Collaborative Grants for a team-project documenting the global saltwater aquarium fish trade. This $15 billion industry per year involves over 42 countries and several million ornamental fish collectors who harvest 18-30 million fishes from coral reefs each year.

However, almost 90% of the aquarium fish come from Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia, as in many countries involved in the marine aquarium trade, harvesters are scattered all over the country, with little regulation guiding how to harvest and handle fish.

‘Finding Dory’ in real life

Inspired by the “Finding Dory” movie, she and her colleagues tried to understand where the real Nemo and Dory come from and go to, from the reefs of Indonesia and Philippines to someone’s home in the US.

“Because the biggest export hub for the aquarium fish trade in Indonesia is Bali, we thought it would be pretty easy to find Dory around Bali,” said Shannon. But she and her team quickly realized that the blue tang species was quite depleted around Bali and they had to go much further afield, to Central Sulawesi, an island province of Indonesia that resembles a scorpion with its stinger poised to strike.

There, they met with a local middle man who sourced aquarium fish for many different fishermen around the region and went out on trips with him to meet fishermen that depend on the blue tang specifically for their livelihood.

A fisherman can catch fifty or more blue tangs in one harvesting trip and for these he will get 1-2 dollar per fish. Once in a retail store, the same blue tang can sell anywhere from 50 to 300 dollars, depending on the size and health of the individual.

One of the big concerns with the aquarium chain is that a lot of fishermen use cyanide, which is a deadly poison. How they use it: they take a concentrated tablet of cyanide, dilute it in a bottle and then squirt it into a part of the reef where they know that species generally lives. This affects all species of fish that live in the area, whether they are desired by the fishermen or not. It also impacts corals and can have human touch effects as well.

Middlemen, who live sandwiched between collectors and exporters, were the ones who initially introduced fishers to using cyanide. This chemical allowed fishermen to increase the volume of fish caught and the amount they could then sell up the supply chain.

shifting attitudes, changing behaviours

“It’s really important to know that the fish you want for your aquarium is caught in a sustainable way. It’s so easy to overlook it and get to your daily routine. I would encourage everyone to take some time and learn more about the products you use and engage with,” said Shannon.

Over the past decade, the fishing mentality has been shifting as governments, NGOs and, in some cases, conscientious exporters are training both fishers and middlemen in better harvesting and handling practices that improve survival rates. One of the methods is using small barrier nets instead of cyanide, with fewer effects on the reefs.

“Although there are only a few species that are bred in aquaculture, if you can source them from aquaculture, that’s even better,” advised Shannon.

illuminating aquarium fish import pathways

Together with her team, she developed an interactive, comprehensive website called, which takes you on the blue tang’s journey from the reefs in Indonesia to a home in Colorado.

On average, over 10 million individual fish from 2,250 different marine species are imported annually to the United States. The Philippines supply 56% of US imports and Indonesia 28%, with each nation exporting just under 50,000 Dory’s to the US each year.

Researchers from Roger Williams University and the New England Aquarium have helped illuminate aquarium fish imports to the U.S. by developing an online, interactive portal that quantifies the global shipping pathways of the marine aquarium trade (

Shannon has decided it was time to go back to school and dive in into human-nature connections more in depth. She is now a student at Stanford University, researching her PhD on community management of marine resources and fisheries.

“I’m now working in Indonesia, looking at subsistence fisheries and how they interact with international markets. And understanding how fishermen make decisions around their resources”.

says Shannon.