Environmental Science Professor Pursues Love of Ocean in His Work

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Being excited about going to work is a fantasy for many people. For Brian Tissot, associate professor and academic coordinator of science programs at Washington State University Vancouver, it is a reality. His career balances teaching people and performing research. Both are pursued with a passion.

On his Web site Tissot says, “At the age of 13, I started surfing. To this day, I have never been in a closer relationship with nature…Perhaps this is what propelled me into my career in marine biology, to recapture that feeling. But alas, it has never been the same; there is too much between us.”

Teaching marine biology to students, and the public, is only one endeavor. He challenges people to evaluate nature and their role in it. This interest is reflected in his research in Hawaii and off the Oregon Coast.

Tissot’s Hawaiian research project examines the impact of aquarium collectors on the reef fish population — an emotionally charged topic in Hawaii. The aquarium collection industry, which primarily targets about 10 species of fish for collection, is at odds with the tourist industry, which wants a large population of fish in waters visited by tourists. The perception is that aquarium collectors take too many fish. The Hawaiian Legislature has mandated a marine reserve network closing areas off the Kona Coast of the Big Island to collection. This work is a continuation of studies started when Tissot taught at the University of Hawaii at Hilo from 1992-98.

“Logically, the reserves serve as a buffer,” Tissot says. “Fish living in the reserve would spill over into neighboring areas.”

But, he questions, does that really happen? How much aquarium collection is sustainable? For a topic loaded with opinion but lacking data, Tissot focuses on collecting measurable data. The research monitors 23 sites before and after closure to aquarium collecting. The information should give insight into the coral reef’s response to protected status.

“It is important to remain objective in our research. Our work impacts entire industries,” says Tissot.

His other main research project, when completed, will stir national debate.

The West Coast states are poised to develop a marine reserve system. There is a general perception that managing fisheries has not worked, and fish populations are declining. A marine reserve system is somewhat like a park system for the marine environment. The new approach is to establish reserves where no fishing is allowed, the reserves would serve as a buffer, and fish from the reserves would spill over into areas that allow commercial fishing — concepts shared with Tissot’s Hawaiian research.

As a graduate student (1989-91), Tissot became involved in a study to document the fish and invertebrate habitat on the Heceta Bank, a major fishing ground about 35 miles off the Oregon Coast. In 1998, with the perceived decline in fishery stock, tremendous interest arose over the unique opportunity provided by the initial study, done before the decline.

If that study was repeated now, the pre-decline and post-decline data could be compared. Had fish populations really declined, or does it just seem that way? Has habitat changed? Tissot’s research team uses small submersibles to perform direct observation as well as large, remote cameras to collect and videotape the data. This will likely be a long-term project.

Tissot recently received a $755,000 grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service for a project titled “Ocean Exploration off the West Coast of the United States. A Voyage of Discovery to Unexplored Marine Habitats in the Northeast Pacific — Completing the Lewis and Clark Legacy.” As the project’s coprinciple investigator, Tissot with research assistant Noelani Puniwai will explore Astoria Canyon, a submarine canyon at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Tissot’s research interests blend well with his interest in human impact, and he enjoys discussing these interests with a wide range of people. Tissot has presented marine biology to kindergartners, as well as discussed marine biology careers with high school and college students.

For more information, visit Tissot’s Web site, www.oasis.vancouver.wsu.edu, which includes links to sites he recommends.