The Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation recently named Joshua Stewart, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego graduate student, as a 2015 Switzer Environmental Fellow. The Switzer Environmental Fellowship is a program that recognizes the achievements of environmental leaders who are pursuing graduate degrees and are dedicated to driving positive environmental change in their careers.
In December 2015, the Switzer Foundation named 22 talented recipients—including Stewart—with environmental fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year. Fellows receive leadership training and financial support so they can advance their skills and develop expertise to address critical environmental challenges.
“This year’s Switzer Fellows are innovators and are dedicated to bringing their research and academic scholarship to real world environmental issues,” said Lissa Widoff, Switzer Foundation executive director. “We are thrilled to see the range of schools and professional fields of study in this year’s cohort. We know they will benefit not only from our funding, but also from the leadership training and convenings we offer. This will position them for leadership in the nonprofit, government, business, and academic sectors in the near future.”
Candidates for the competitive, merit-based fellowships must be recognized for their leadership capacity by their academic institution or by environmental experts.
A fourth-year PhD student in the marine biology program at Scripps, Stewart has been making waves for his efforts to better understand and protect oceanic manta and mobula rays (collectively known as mobulids). He was inspired to learn more about these large, magnificent creatures after glimpsing a giant manta ray in the Dominican Republic during a diving expedition years ago.
Mobulids are being threatened globally by targeted fisheries, bycatch, and accidental entanglement in discarded fishing gear. Available data suggest that mobulid populations are declining, but scientists’ understanding of this group of species is surprisingly limited, with very few studies or published data available.
Stewart’s dissertation research on the spatial ecology and population connectivity of mobulids is helping to generate the information necessary to improve global management of these species. (Photo gallery here.)
The Switzer Environmental Fellowship is helping Stewart expand his skillset as an academic through training workshops on a diversity of topics ranging from how social justice impacts environmental protection, to communicating key environmental concepts to decision-makers.
“Throughout my career in marine biology—both as a student and working with non-profit organizations—one of my main objectives has been to help drive forward marine conservation using my academic background and experience in public outreach and education,” said Stewart. “The Switzer Environmental Fellowship was a natural next step to help me further develop these skills and put them to work in advancing marine conservation and environmental protection.”
In addition to his academic work, Stewart is a founding member and associate director of the Manta Trust, a non-profit organization that has improved the conservation status of manta and mobula rays around the globe by translating scientific research into direct management action on a local, national, and international level.
Recently, the Manta Trust teamed up with WildAid and Peruvian NGO Planeta Océano in efforts to safeguard the world’s largest known population of manta rays off the coast of Peru. This collaborative effort paid off on Jan 1., when Peru’s Ministry of Production announced full protection of its manta population.
Additionally, Stewart and the Manta Trust have been working with National Geographic’s Crittercam team to attach cameras on mantas to learn more about their underwater movements, diving behavior, and location—as well as what they’re doing at each location. Researchers hope this Crittercam footage will allow them to better predict when the mantas are most likely to be using specific habitats, and how they can use that information to reduce or mitigate bycatch. (View the manta Crittercam footage here.)
To learn more about the exciting research being conducted by the 2015 Switzer Fellows, please visit: http://www.switzernetwork.org/become-fellow/2015-switzer-fellows.
– Brittany Hook
Related Image Gallery: Joshua Stewart / Manta Research
Related Video: Watch: Camera Put on Giant Manta Ray for First Time Ever