If you’ve been following the news lately about Alaska’s poor salmon returns, you may have heard of a phenomenon with an unassuming moniker but potentially devastating consequences: The Blob. A mass of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska that biologists are linking to this summer’s weak salmon runs. But we are still only learning the long-term effects of warming oceans that could be our new normal.
Jessica Shepherd is a naturalist, writer, and marine educator in Homer, Alaska. She is the Education Coordinator at the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, with the University of Alaska Anchorage, and she is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing, non-fiction at UAA. She wrote a piece earlier this year for Active Voice: Writers Respond, and she recently shared another essay with me that she’s written about the impacts of the blob on Alaska’s salmon and birds, recounting scenes she’s witnessed like the emaciated bodies of tens of thousands of common murre washing ashore—starved to death because they couldn’t find enough fish to eat. She also recounts the impacts of the blob on the lifecycle of chum salmon. As she says in the closing of her piece, while a number of factors led to the latest warming of the Gulf of Alaska, “the events unleashed by the blob may well be a harbinger of things to come.” Keep an eye out for her essay when it is published!
I had a chance to catch up with Jessica this month while she was in Anchorage for the UAA creative writing summer residency, and ask her some questions about why she writes about science, and how she views her role as a writer today. Her responses are below.
–Active Voice Editor, Charles Boyle
Boyle: I’ve read a few news stories about “The Blob.” It has a funny name, but its consequences are dire for Alaska. How did you decide what tone you wanted to strike in your piece?
Shepherd: Most Alaskans move here from somewhere else, and we all have our coming-into-the-country stories. By writing in the second person, I hoped to pull them in the article by prompting them to recall their own experiences. To that end, the tone, or voice of the piece is intended to be informal and approachable.
Boyle: The anecdote in this piece that stuck with me the most was the image of thousands of common murre washed up on the beach. As writers, we often write in our heads as an event is unfolding. Did you know when you saw those dead birds that you would write this essay?
Shepherd: This essay had its origins in journal notes I wrote after seeing hundreds of dead and dying murres in Homer and Seward. When area spruce began to lose their needles to invasive spruce aphids, and I witnessed sea otters dying daily on the beach below my office, I felt compelled to let people know about these abrupt and graphic signs of ecological change.
Boyle: Were there other examples of the impacts of The Blob that didn’t make it into this essay? What were they, and why did you decide to leave them out?
Shepherd: I came to see the story of The Blob as a cautionary tale. Given climate science predictions, the anomalous warm water we saw in 2015 and 2016 is a harbinger for what we can expect to see regularly by 2050, give or take a decade. I alluded to this in the final sentence, but didn’t elaborate further, because the focus of this piece is on the impacts of this particular event. I’ll need to research further if I’m going to write about Alaska’s future as climate change fundamentally changes our landscape.
Boyle: Ocean science is complicated. But the consequences of warming oceans could not be higher. As a scientist, and educator, and a writer, how do you view your role in writing about these issues?
Shepherd: The right words, handed down from writers, scientists, or educators, can evoke informed concern and a willingness to act, but we have to sing outside the choir. To that end, I try to reach a broad audience, and make my delivery inviting enough to encourage dialogue.
Boyle: In our bifurcated social media news feed world, it can be hard to have your message reach someone who disagrees with you. Do you think about climate change skeptics when you write pieces like this?
Shepherd: Climate skeptics are my primarily audience as a researcher, teacher and writer. Science is all about testing and refining ideas, while education thrives on dialogue. Writing is a way to refine and share what we’ve learned as a way to expand that dialogue.
Boyle: The imagery in this piece is vivid, especially when you describe chum salmon—an underappreciated species of salmon compared to their more famous relatives, the silver and king salmon. What is your process for developing these images? Personally, I feel like those scenes were the ones that might influence a reader who wasn’t already moved by the facts or the science in this piece.
Shepherd: Salmon is arguably the most iconic species in Alaska, and we’re only just beginning to see if, or how, The Blob impacted their numbers, so it was imperative to write about them. As for the imagery of salmon in their watery world, it was a matter of in-the-field observation informing my imagination.
Boyle: You’ve responded to this a bit in your previous Active Voice piece, but let me ask you anyway: do you feel your role as a writer has changed in the last couple of years, especially with climate and science policy shifting at the federal level? Do you feel more of a sense of urgency to write?
Shepherd: I hate to admit that I’m a fatalist, but I am on this topic. My real goal in writing or teaching is to nudge people awake and point out what’s happening all around us so that we can be better prepared for the decades ahead. That, and to document and savor to what remains of wild places and the delicate cornucopia of life they support.
Boyle: Thanks for answering my questions! Anything else you want to add?
Shepherd: Thanks to Heather Renner, with the United States Maritime National Wildlife Refuge for data on the common murre die-off. And to the GulfWatch Program. You can access their searchable database at https://www.gulfwatchalaska.org/.
Tell us what you think in the comments section! Do you have a story to tell about how current events have shaped your outlook as a writer? Submit a piece today by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.