The Big 3-0

On Thursday I turned 30. Even though I’ve passed this major divide, I am extremely excited for what the future has to hold. For the first time in my life, my passion connects with what I am doing on a day-to-day basis. Who could have thought that attending a lecture celebrating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration would lead to the inspiration for an entrepreneurial idea, which got funded by the Alex C. Walker Foundation, being invited to the Property & Environment Research Center’s (PERC) Enviropreneur Institute, getting hired by Georgia Aquarium as the Walker Conservation Fellow, and moving to Atlanta, all in 9 months? I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time and can’t wait for what the next 30 years have to hold.

While I had originally planned on going out of the country for my birthday, I instead chose to embrace my 30th year by getting to know my new home, Atlanta, a little better. Georgia Aquarium’s Diving Control Board gave me the best “gift” ever by granting me scientific diving status under their program. I then proceeded immediately to SCUBA diving in Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit, with four whale sharks! Some of my best friends from my MBA program at the University of Colorado at Boulder came to town and we competed in the First Annual Atlanta Mattress 500, gaining press coverage in the Access Atlanta ( – photos 7 & 10), and helping to support families moving out of homeless shelters. We enjoyed birthday cake from Highland Bakery (thanks, Mom!) and had a fun evening checking out bars in Virginia Highlands.

I’m off to Florida in the morning to meet with stakeholders about the potential market-based solutions to coral restoration. Here are several quotes that I’ve found particularly inspirational for my current activities.
• “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
• “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
• “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” –Unknown

Never forget to live each and every day to its fullest!

Diving at Georgia Aquarium

Profile for birthday scuba dive

Highland Bakery cake

Atlanta Mattress 500

Informed Creativity

As our world becomes more connected and interdependent, the demands on global resources (not the least of which is time) incur greater opportunity costs. Throughout history, societies have reached the tipping point between abundant survival and abject subsistence. It seems, at least to me, that we are facing another such tipping point. We can choose to approach our next steps in careless ways, destroying the precious resources that remain, or we can choose to employ greater amounts of creativity to liberate greater value from those resources.

History demonstrates that human creativity has repeatedly been the saving grace from collapse. As such, if we are serious about an increasing and sustainable standard of living, then informed creativity on a massive, distributed, and real-time scale is required. Everything from waste processing, energy production, and materials management to population issues, social interaction, and sustainable growth requires increasingly informed creativity and decision-making in order to create solutions. We live in a time where vast swaths of the population can readily access abundant amounts of accurate information. With a world full of people and machines for processing, it is an insult that we are still grappling with environmental degradation, mismanagement, and social woes. Such, however, is the nature of a work in progress. We all have the good fortune of being able to help shape the journey. Here are some links to help get the creative juices flowing. Enjoy:

Perspectives from the 2nd Annual Reef Resilience Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

I have just returned from an intense two-day conference about coral resilience that brought together a diverse set of scientists, students, reef users, NGO representatives, private businesses, and socioeconomic experts from around the world. The meeting was a follow-up to the first Reef Resilience Conference held in 2008. Being relatively new to the world of coral conservation and restoration, I found the conference extremely educational, an ideal opportunity to learn the most up-to-date scientific thinking about coral health and network and have in-depth conversations with key people who will be involved with my project over the next two years. As I have shared in past blogs, my project is exploring ways to create sustainable, long-term financing for coral reef conservation working with the Alex C. Walker Foundation, Georgia Aquarium, Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) and the Property & Environment Research Center.

“Resilience” describes coral colonies or populations that withstand disturbance without undergoing significant mortality and/or that recover quickly from a disturbance. In recent years, the idea has been advanced by scientists and NGOs. Globally, corals are in decline, but especially so in the Caribbean region where some species (e.g. elkhorn and staghorn) have declined by 80-90% since the 1980s. Unfortunately, based on empirical evidence shared by conference attendees, coral cover in the Caribbean region now only ranges from 5-20% (depending on the area). The massive decline is in response to anthropogenic and environmental disturbances. Some cities/counties in Florida still discharge sewage effluent out to sea, up to 300 million gallons/day. White pox disease, which affects elkhorn corals, has been proven to be a direct result of human sewage, but the pathogens that cause it can be mitigated through advanced wastewater treatment (e.g. tertiary level) before release (

Despite some scary projections shared at the conference (e.g. that ocean acidification could eventually cause coral reefs to dissolve if global CO2 levels are not reduced and local stressors are not decreased), I am incredibly energized to go out and do everything I can to save coral reefs. Every individual I spoke with and who presented has this incredible feeling of hope, even those who dove the Florida Keys and other areas before massive global coral die off. One comment from Billy Causey, the Southeast Regional Director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), really struck home for me. When asked about the changes to corals in the Florida Keys, Billy shared, “It breaks my heart when I dive on Looe Key; it affects me. Each dive I look for something that gives me hope for the future.” Billy’s uplifting statements really helped to shape the tone of the conference.

Several presenters shared some websites for further information. They are: (details about Florida’s Reef Resilience Program) (climate adaption knowledge exchange) (The Nature Conservancy’s Reef Resilience Program) and (CRF’s Coral Restoration and Adoptions Program)

Everyone I spoke with at the conference was incredibly enthusiastic about my idea of bringing non-traditional financing concepts to the marine environment and wished me the best of luck in the endeavor. Special thanks to the following people for taking time to talk with me about coral resilience and market-based potential solutions: Billy Causey (NOAA), Ken Nedimyer and Kevin Gaines (CRF), Kent Edwards (Florida Department of Environmental Protection), Chris Bergh, James Byrne, Meaghan Johnson (The Nature Conservancy), Dr. Peter Mumby (University of Queensland), Grace Johns (Hazen and Sawyer), Dr. David Wachenfeld (Great Barrier Marine Park Authority), Tom Twyford (West Palm Beach Fishing Club), Mike Beach (Captain R.J. Diving Ventures, Inc.), Ramon de Leon (Bonaire National Marine Park), Maria Estevanez, Andrew Baker, Flavia Tonioli and Tara Dolan (University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science – RSMAS), Rick MacPherson (Coral Reef Alliance), Nelso Sanchez (Unlimited Divers), Aric Bickel (I.M. Systems Group, Inc.), Nikole Ordway (Force-E), David Vaughn (Mote Marine Laboratory), Diana Aranda (National Park Service), Wendy Wood-Derrer and Amanda Costaregni (NOVA Southeastern University).

For more perspectives and quotes from the conference, checkout my Twitter feed @BrettWHowell and that of Rick MacPherson, Program Director for Coral Reef Alliance (@rmacpherson). We both did a lot of live tweeting that helps to capture the flow and discussion of the conference.

A journal of my first two weeks at Georgia Aquarium


Thanks to all of our followers who continue to read our Gaia Endeavors posts! Co-founders Arya Mazdyasni and I are working on a more consistent posting schedule now that I’m living my dream job and able to concentrate on writing at reasonable hours of the day. I have tried to sit down several times over the past two weeks to document my early experiences at Georgia Aquarium, but there are so many amazing opportunities on a daily basis that it has taken me until now to finally provide an update. Here are some of the highlights of my first two weeks as the Walker Conservation Fellow at Georgia Aquarium:

Day 1 & 2

o Orientation, behind-the-scenes tour, viewing of Deepo’s Undersea 3D Wondershow
(which has a great message about avoiding pollution of the marine environment) and
taking in the fact that I am mere steps from the world’s single largest exhibit, Ocean
Voyager, with four whale sharks and 6.3 million gallons of water!

Day 3

o Meeting with Public Relations and Social Media to discuss coordinating efforts to
communicate information about coral conservation efforts. Great conversation with
Georgia Aquarium’s Dive Safety Officer about the necessary steps to be able to SCUBA
dive for my project.

Day 4

o I started my morning watching a preview of Ocean Mysteries: “Reef Madness” about
Coral Restoration Foundation’s (CRF) work to preserve coral reefs in the Upper Florida
Keys! Had a great “getting to know you” session with Senior Scientist Dr. Al Dove.

Day 5

o I caught up on three months of articles shared with me by fellow Property & Environment Research Center (PERC) Enviropreneur Fellows and began helping PERC plan a reef restoration workshop to take place with key stakeholders in the Florida Keys in 2012.

Day 6

o I learned all about the Aquarium’s history and gained additional knowledge about behind-the-scenes aspects through additional orientation. Planned critical meetings for the rest of the week.

Day 7

o My first day of really diving into the project! I started the morning meeting with Dr. Dove, held a kick-off conference call between Georgia Aquarium and CRF, had an hour long conversation with PERC about conference planning, and enjoyed a two plus hour long dinner with the Alex C. Walker Foundation.

Day 8

o I spent the day meeting with Kurt Schnier of Georgia State University and PERC to
discuss approaches to economic modeling for my project. I learned a lot about the
operations of the Aquarium’s main coral exhibit in Tropical Diver thanks to Kimberly Hall, Associate Curator Fish & Inverts, who helped develop it, literally from the ground up. Setup a busy schedule to get authorized to SCUBA dive with the Aquarium! I met Jeff
Corwin, host of Ocean Mysteries, and talked briefly about coral conservation!

Day 9

o A great day of catching up on critical to do items – worked on the project budget,
planned attendance for the 2nd Reef Resilience Conference taking place in Fort
Lauderdale October 18-19, wrote a draft article about the project goals and attended the
Aquarium’s “Aqua Vino” fundraiser event! It was a fun evening of great food/drinks and

Day 10

o The end of an amazing first two weeks at the Aquarium! Getting everything set for
a busy next week. I’m traveling to Fort Lauderdale for three days and then in scuba
training for the rest of the week!

I’m planning to do some live tweeting from Fort Lauderdale while attending the 2nd Reef Resilience Conference. Check it out on Twitter @BrettWHowell and join Gaia Endeavor’s mailing list by clicking on the navigation bar above!

Dream “living”

Today I started as the Walker Conservation Fellow with Georgia Aquarium. As Bobby McCormick of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) said to me recently, it isn’t a job if you love what you do, that’s living. So I guess today I finished my last “job,” and I started “living.”

Growing up in coastal San Diego, I have been fascinated with the marine environment since my earliest days. While I have pursued that passion through education and SCUBA diving, it took until today before I connected my passion with my work. With financial support from the Alex C. Walker Foundation and Georgia Aquarium and concept development and training assistance from PERC, I am going to apply Ecological Economics and Marine Payments for Ecosystem Services (MPES) concepts to reef restoration efforts in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with the goal of creating a network of actively managed restored reefs whose operations are financially self-sustaining. I will explore feasibility, demonstrate proof of concept to stakeholders, and begin the process of implementing an MPES scheme at a model reef in Florida. My goal is to create a replicable model that, after successful implementation at the initial MPES site, could be used to implement MPES schemes worldwide, restoring reefs to their former conditions and maintaining them as havens of biodiversity.

I’ll be sharing my adventures, trials, and tribulations through this blog, via Twitter @BrettWHowell and LinkedIn (Brett Howell) and Facebook (Brett Howell). If you would like to share the adventure with me, look me up on one of the social media platforms or sign up for new blog posting notifications using the “Join the Mailing List” tab on

Perspectives on lionfish and marine parks from my SCUBA trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

I have just returned from a 10 day trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico where I visited Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun. When I planned the SCUBA trip, I expected it be a relaxing vacation. However, ever since starting to work on market-based solutions to invasive lionfish, I just could not help, but turn a “vacation” into a hands-on research project.

Unfortunately, invasive lionfish have become a prevalent species in Cozumel (please see for details about lionfish). According to my divemaster, who works for the company Dive Paradise (, local dive operators have bonded together informally to begin addressing the lionfish invasion. Divemasters carry simple spear systems with them on each dive. When a lionfish is spotted, it is killed. Of the 25-30 dives I completed, lionfish were seen on about 10 of the dives, only in the shallower reef areas (45-60 feet). After it is speared, a lionfish’s spines are cut off and the fish is fed to eels or other fish. “Tourists” are not supposed to shoot the lionfish, for fear of someone being stung in the process, but our divemaster let one of the people on our boat, Eric, try his hand at the lionfish management process. According to Eric, the success of a shot really relies on the equipment being used. One spear he tried had a guidance mechanism to shoot the spear straight, whereas the other did not. Of the lionfish Eric went after, he successfully killed about half of them.

One afternoon our divemaster wanted the lionfish for dinner, so he kept approximately five of them for later feasting. While I was impressed with his interest in eating the fish, despite potential ciguatera concerns (a foodborne illness from eating certain reef fishes), I was very disappointed when he would not kill a lionfish that I found. His response was that he knew that the lionfish would be there the next time he went to the dive site, and he wanted the fish to get a little bigger so there was more meat for him to eat. This is part of the challenge with trying to get people to target lionfish; we do not want people to wait to harvest invasive lionfish in the hope that they will get bigger. The process of a lionfish growing means that it has eaten more of the critical reef species that we are trying to protect.

By far the most creative capture of a lionfish was a young lionfish that I found while on a night dive. Divemasters do not usually carry spears at night, so we ended up collecting the fish using one glove, a dive knife, and a plastic bag. The divemaster did the collecting. After killing the lionfish, he attempted to find an eel to feed it to, something he was unsuccessful in doing before we had to surface due to low air.

Mexico is a funny place. Some species are protected, more from local agreement than law, based on my observations, while others are hunted (whether or not they should be). For example, while the local divemasters have started capturing/killing the lionfish, I saw no evidence yet that other locals had taken up the cause. One morning we visited the “mercado” (market in Spanish), and I was sadly disappointed to see plenty of other reef fish awaiting sale, but no lionfish. However, it seems to be the rule that sea turtles and whale sharks are protected. I saw multiple sites where sea turtle nests were marked with stakes so that people would avoid walking over them. In Cancun (across from Cozumel by ferry), hotel chains such as the Westin have formal protection schemes in place where eggs are collected, marked with the date of laying, and put into a roped off area for protection before hatching (see photo). Nonetheless, I saw or heard of divemasters being what I would consider too “hands on” with sea turtles, trying to physically prevent their movement by blocking where the turtles were trying to swim. Whale shark tours cost about $200 US a day, and locals are highly protective of them, probably for economic reasons. According to one local, sometime last year a fisherman killed about nine whale sharks. The incident resulted in an uproar and more action to formally protect whale sharks.

According to, “most diving sites in Cozumel are located within the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park (Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel), a protected underwater environment covering 29,000+ acres. A voluntary $2.00 US donation/fee from divers was implemented to fund the conservation program. The Mexican government declared a National Marine park on July 19, 1996…the environmental, natural resource and fishing Secretariat SEMARNAP, administers the park.”

After talking with locals, I find myself questioning the effectiveness of reef protection schemes in Mexico. As a SCUBA diver, I paid the $2US/day for “access rights” to the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park. I was given a wristband each day to indicate my status as a paid diver (see photo). What is particularly interesting is that Dive Paradise did not present the $2US/day fee as “voluntary” and instead mandated that the fee be paid to get on the boat. Additionally, divemasters from Dive Paradise shared that they saw the program as having limited effectiveness because they had no rights to enforce any rules. The only “enforcement” was through peer-to-peer mechanisms. The people from Dive Paradise that I spoke with felt that the funds were being used to line people’s pockets and not to protect the park. Money went to the federal government and was not retained by local government in Cozumel. During my dives, I observed no enforcement activities, either to ensure that divers followed park rules (e.g. buoyancy control) or to try to restore park areas through garbage/fishing line removal, or actions to try to restore degraded coral areas.

I spoke with several local shopkeepers, all of whom tried to sell me gifts that definitely came out of marine reserve areas, including shark jaws, and necklaces with either carved pieces of black coral or shark teeth that were collected by killing sharks. When I asked where the coral and shark teeth came from, the locals were not shy about saying that they simply fished the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park areas, usually at night to avoid detection. They also thought that the fee structure was a complete joke. One shop owner in Cozumel reported that only one gentleman had the exclusive right to collect as much black coral as he wanted, others were prevented from doing so. Needless to say, the gifts I brought home from the trip were limited to photos and t-shirts.

To me, Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park is, unfortunately, an example of an attempted property rights scheme gone badly. Rather than using the funds collected to address marine environmental problems, it seemed that nothing was being done to protect the reef and that it was simply a “paper park” (legally protected, but no enforcement). This was in sharp contrast to four dives I did in the Playa del Carmen area in underwater cavern/cave systems known as “a cenote.” While some of the cenotes are on public lands, many are on privately owned lots. According to our divemaster from Dive Shop Mexico (, some cenotes properties are communally owned by up to 180 families, and any property with a cenote on it sells for about 10 times more as one that does not. The private cenote I visited had a clear set of rules that were enforced, and no garbage was visible on the dives.

Overall, my trip to Mexico was very enlightening. It presented some hands-on experience with capturing lionfish, showed me the challenges associated with marine parks, and gave me some great ideas for how education and more formalized property rights schemes could incentivize locals to save, rather than destroy, their reefs.


Photo courtesy of Steve Murvine

My "Access Rights" Wristband

Photo courtesy of Jim Rosenberg

A Turtle Farm in Cancun

An Opinion on Sustainable Markets

It has been apparent for far too long that the condition of the environment has been rapidly deteriorating. Often, an impossibly difficult decision between environmental conservation and human growth has been presented as the only way forward. The creation of sustainably constructed markets fueled by robust, real-time communication and accurate data can help ease that formerly impossibly difficult decision.

A way that we can achieve this aim is by targeting the nearly inevitable problem of deadweight loss (DWL) that often results from deciding between environmental conservation and human growth. DWL is a term used to describe the negative effects from market inefficiency. DWL does no one any favors, and essentially acts as a drag on value, innovation and sustainable growth. There are innumerable ways to target DWL. For example, in energy markets, efficiency gains through the implementation of new technologies can become self-sustaining. In resource markets, waste can become a resource-base achieved through trash mining and recycling. In invasive species markets, the targeted invasive species can be harvested as an input to create value-added finished goods.

The globe is full of opportunities for the creation of immense real value. In many instances, the implementation of markets whose most likely equilibria (econ-speak: markets can have more than one point of equilibrium) result in win-win scenarios (econ-speak: nonzero positive sums) allow for increases in real value by eliminating wasteful DWL while adding more opportunities (econ-speak: potential possibilities) to the economy. The reduction of DWL, coupled with the creation of an expanded set of possibilities, can create massive positive feedback systems that optimize real value functions. These systems are far from perfect as of now; at least beginning wider-spread implementation can provide reasonable ways forward while helping to transform the economy into a sustainable, more humane, and more valuable one. Gaia Endeavors strives to provide environmentally-focused entrepreneurs ideas, a forum for discussion, and links. As such, please help by adding to the conversation and visit/add to the links below.,1518,767178,00.html

Montana State-of-Mind

I am just back from an incredible 2+ weeks in beautiful Bozeman, Montana, at the Property & Environment Research Center’s Enviropreneur Institute (PEI). The experience was life- changing for me. Through the program I greatly advanced an idea I have been developing around self-financing marine conservation using markets, I was both physically refreshed and emotionally restored, and I made a lasting group of friends with both my peers and mentors at the program. Highlights for me included late-night conversations around the campfire, bocci ball and lectures at Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch, epic barbeques, floating down the river, living in the Montana State University dorms, an impromptu graduation dinner in the wine cellar at Plonk in downtown Bozeman, bonding with my peers, and intense brainstorming sessions with mentors.

PEI 2011 culminated on Friday, July 8th, with “I have a dream” presentations during which each “enviropreneur” had seven minutes to describe his or her dream for the future of the project that had been developing during the program. These ideas ranged from applying property rights to coral reefs, to turning trees into pens to drive forest conservation (, to nutrient trading schemes, among others. Each of these presentations dealt with a Free Market Environmentalism (FME)-based concept. PERC’s version of FME is “dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets,” focusing on the creation of property rights to make markets work so that entrepreneurs can step in to solve environmental challenges.” FME is an idea that excites some people while raising red flags for others (e.g. can and should nature be turned into a market?).

While there are multiple perspectives on FME, PERC is not the only way to get involved in the discussion. All that is required is a group of people, either physically connected or tied through social media, willing to debate the pros and cons of various issues. For example, while the PEI 2011 Fellows are once again spread throughout the world, we will continue to have phone calls to discuss and advance our projects.

Even though PEI is now over and each of us is dealing with the first “reentry” week differently, I find myself in an exuberant mood despite the challenges. I look forward to seeing what impact the “FME” approach will have on my career and the places it will take me. With some strong perseverance and a bit of luck, I believe that all of the PEI 2011 Fellows will succeed at our endeavors. In honor of the” idea seeds” that PEI 2011 started, the class made a donation to the Coral Restoration Foundation so that a coral named “PEI 2011” could be placed into a nursery in the Florida Keys and eventually planted out on the reef to help seed other corals in Florida.

While some of the relationships and memories will inevitably fade as the weeks, months and years go by, the Montana state-of-mind that PERC helped create never will, at least for me.

Checkout the PEI program at

and/or make a donation to help restore Florida’s reefs at


What does it mean to be an environmentalist?

Environmentalism is commonly thought of as a social movement. Social movements consist of a group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain goals. Broadly speaking, environmentalists try to promote conservation and protection of the environment. I’ve identified myself with this movement since I was about fourteen years old. At some point I began to ask, “How can I best help protect the environment?” If I could wave a wand and get everyone to be an environmentalist, the problem would be a lot closer to being solved. Unfortunately, I have not found that wand yet.

When I was approached with an opportunity to work at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I quickly realized that the organization’s emphasis on creating win-win solutions and avoiding confrontation was what had helped it become the largest and one of the most effective environmental organizations in the world. A hallmark of the organization has been using market transactions to create tangible results. For example, TNC has purchased conservation easements from ranchers permanently protecting important habitat from development and other threats. Ranchers often use that money to acquire more land allowing the next generation to stay on the ranch which helps agricultural communities remain viable while creating an incentive to protect the land. TNC is now pursuing similar win-win solutions such as coordinating payments from water users to protect important watersheds that are critical to providing clean drinking water.

TNC’s approach is alive and well at the Property and Environment Research Center’s Enviropreneur Institute this summer which I have been fortunate enough to attend. The participants are bright, ambitious “enviropreneurs” who are trying to create win-win solutions that will benefit the environment. There are some pretty innovative ideas like selling pens created from trees cut to enhance forest health and restoring coral reefs by tapping into the economic interests of people who make a living off of the marine environment. Some will succeed, many will fail, but more importantly a market promoting environmental protection is being developed. By appealing to peoples’ interests and letting them act on these incentives, I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time that we will be able to succeed in protecting and restoring the environment.

Mike Higuera is a guest contributor to Gaia Endeavors, a 2011 PEI Fellow, and a conservationist at The Nature Conservancy.