Howard Ferren

Jun 27, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Casey R. Schulke Interviews Howard Ferren, Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center

CRS: I’ve heard two of your passions are conservation and marine debris. You’re currently using both to communicate environmental issues.  What first inspired you to do this?

HF: More appropriately, not what…but who.  My wife, Dyan.

But let me tell you the full story.  For 25 years, Dyan and I (me more the object sherpa than the collector) have collected “found objects” in various areas we have lived including Alaska, Oregon and South Carolina, and where ever we travel.  The “found objects” took on a marine focus perhaps 20 years ago. Since we lived on the coast and the marine environment tends to accumulate objects to be found (better known as marine debris), it provided a wear and patina factor to objects telling a tale of their journey in the marine environment, and objects of various geographic origins offers a visual and interpretive narrative about our global cultures and waste.  Dyan is an artist and found objectives offer important compositional elements and material for interpretive design and messages.  My background happens to be oceanography and having spent a lifetime involved in various conservation efforts I find myself at this point in life directing a conservation program in an institution offering outreach and education. The Alaska SeaLife Center’s mission is to “generate scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.”

Well, marine debris of local and global origins has direct impact on our marine ecosystems from mammal, fish and bird entanglement, to plastic ingestion and subsequent injury or death, to accumulation of debris on our “pristine” beaches degrading the habitat and imposing unsightly wastes on our natural landscapes.

I have found as a scientist, translating science to broader public audiences rather than another group of scientists can be quite difficult.  But, art is a universal language and offers a medium for communicating messages to wide audiences.  I think it was about 5 years ago we began discussing hosting a marine expedition with a team of artists to explore and interpret the problem of marine debris.

CRS: Tell me more about your marine debris project.

HF: The project we are developing includes a June 2012 expedition with a team of notable artists and scientists.  The expedition will be aboard the vessel Norseman and journey from Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Island chain eastward along the Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park and terminate in Resurrection Bay where the Alaska SeaLife Center is located in the community of Seward.

Aboard the expedition will be a team of 6 artists including Pam Longobardi, Mark Dion, Alexis Rockman, Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Andy Hughes.  Our 6th artist seat remains open and we are evaluating the selection of this artist from among 30 we have identified globally whose history and works fit the project mission.  To provide the scientific and conservation content, we have invited Dr. Carl Safina who offers also his literary art.

We are also collaborating with the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center in Anchorage, Alaska and curator Dr. Julie Decker.  Julie will also accompany the expedition.

Julie is also charged with curating the marine debris art exhibition (GYREx) scheduled to debut in January 2014.  Various works of our team artists are pictured below.

After a 12 week exhibition in Anchorage the exhibition will travel throughout the United States and possibly globally.  We have been consulting with the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES) about this possibility and continue to have dialogue with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) staff about global exhibition prospects.   In addition, we are working with a film team lead by JJ Kelly and photographer Kip Evans as we hope to produce a film about the expedition and global problem of marine debris, and publish a book about the expedition, artists and marine debris.  The focus of our work is to inform new audiences about the problem of marine debris using art and visual mediums for communicating the problem.  We intend through this to influence personal awareness and behaviors about waste and enhance marine debris policy discussions so we see greater global traction on reducing marine debris and mitigating the current problems.

CRS: How does the Alaska SeaLife Center fit into this mission.

HF: I am happy to have the second opportunity to emphasize what I previous said.  The Alaska SeaLife Center’s mission is to “generate scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.”  Well, marine debris of local and global origins has direct impact on our marine ecosystems from mammal, fish and bird entanglement, to plastic ingestion and subsequent injury or death, to accumulation of debris on our “pristine” beaches degrading the habitat and imposing unsightly wastes on our natural landscapes.  The problem has a direct link to our mission and our mission enables us to take on this global problem.  Our oceans are connected and Alaska’s marine ecosystems are subject to waste from globally distributed sources.

CRS: What do you hope this project offers to Seward?  Beyond Seward?

HF: Many people in the community of Seward as across coastal Alaska have a great awareness of marine debris and its impacts.  We have local marine debris cleanup activities annually along the coast of Resurrection Bay and along nearby shores of the Gulf of Alaska.  These activities are a continuum of other cleanup activities by concerned residents of other Alaska coastal communities.  In fact, the Ocean Conservancy sponsors the annual global marine debris beach cleanup action.

What we hope to do with the project is not only help express the problem to Alaska audiences within and beyond coastal communities, but use the GYREx exhibition, film and book to provide a compelling narrative to audiences that may have no connection with coasts and marine debris except as they may be associated with watersheds and waste streams that eventuate in our seas.  Marine debris is an ugly and impacting factor that needs greater awareness and attention.  Also, most marine debris can be defined largely as “PLASTIC”.  And, plastics are relatively recent inventions of man that have the unfortunate characteristics of being among disposable items, they are durable in the environment, they are light weight and float.  Adding up the characteristics of plastic, it becomes the basis for so many manufactured products that end up in the marine environment.  If you want some graphic evidence of this, just view some of Chris Jordan’s photographs of albatross and without my offering any further description, you will be significantly influenced in your thinking about marine debris and plastic wastes entering the marine environment.

CRS: What sort of response have you gotten so far?

HF: Important, widespread and motivating.  Our art and scientific team is excited to be able to see first-hand debris accumulations and help address the problem with their art and global reputations.  The Anchorage Museum staff and curator Dr. Julie Decker are enthusiastic about the opportunity and see the importance of the topic and relevancy to their mission.  We are currently sponsored by the North America Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA) and have interest from among foundations to support the project.  We introduced the project at the 5th Internal Marine Debris Conference (5imdc) and more recently at the Georgia State University CENCIA Symposium focused on “The Nature of Waste”.  We are pressing forward on numerous tasks lining out the project that will carry forward through 2017.

CRS: What’s next?

The action list is long!  Among the challenges, raising money to meet all project costs.  And on this topic, I welcome suggestions……..and contributions!

CRS: Well, thank you so much for spending a few moments with me Howard.  This is truly an inspiring project.

HF: The pleasure is all mine.


Howard was named Director of Conservation after six years serving ASLC as Assistant Director for Research Operations.  In his current role Howard is responsible for establishing the Conservation mission within the Center including funding sources, staffing and program development.

Howard has served for-profit and non-profit businesses in executive and operational capacities.  He has contributed to natural resource planning and regional development, and companies specializing in energy efficient building design and innovative fuel combustion technologies to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.

Howard holds a Master of Science degree in biological oceanography from the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Science where he studied diving physiology in marine mammals.

Estival 2011, Hinterland

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.
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