Indianapolis Prize: Carl Safina

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - He grew up in one of the biggest cities in the world, but Carl Safina was not like most of the people in Brooklyn. His heart was always in even wilder places - where fish and other animals lived in a marine environment. He grew up fishing with his dad in the Atlantic Ocean and watching his father tend to the canaries he bred in their small apartment. Young Carl might not have known it then, but he knows now -- he was beginning his career in conservation.

"I didn't learn conservation in school", he says, "I learned about conservation by seeing nature get destroyed and it was very visceral and very personal." Nevertheless, he did study ecology at Rutgers in New Jersey, eventually earning a PHD and becoming one of the most recognized and respected ecologists in the world. At the same time, he learned to love the written word and how to bring the two together to be a powerful force in conservation.

Safina has written seven critically-acclaimed books on the threats facing the world's marine habitats -- books that are written in a way designed the make the reader care, rather than just learn about the problems. He tells his students "don't say everything you know, use everything you know to decide what to say. And tell the stories that represent the trends and the patterns. Don't just give a dump of information; that's for a textbook, but find the stories that represent the patterns and tell those. And what I try to do is I try to make sure that the reader is really right there with me and feeling it along with me."

His writing follows themes -- things like over-fishing, pollution, and climate change -- all things that are affecting to ocean environment and the animals that depend on it. In telling the stories, Safina uses animals as narrators to take us to places that most people can never go. Film maker David Conover has worked with Safina on several projects. He says, "He (Safina) has great command of the English language and a broad knowledge of literature -- so he can make connections between the humanities and the sciences that many of us are not capable of doing." Or, more simply, Carl uses fish and turtles can take us to the depths of the ocean and birds to get us everywhere else.

His fictional stories are deeply rooted in science, attracting attention from casual readers and scientists alike. Stony Brook University Journalism Professor Howie Schneider says: "He's a storyteller. You know, he's a scientist who tells stories and he connects people to the natural world through those personal stories, and I think he is such a fine writer." His unique way of communicating helped ban high-seas driftnets, changes to U.S laws regulating fisheries, and toward conservation efforts aimed at tunas, sharks, and other sea life. Along the way, he founded the Blue Ocean Institute (now known as the Safina Center) to create more awareness of the importance of conservation. And, recently, he extended his reach to dry land -- exploring the way animals like elephants and wolves think and feel. Stony Brook Ecology Professor Jeffrey Levington is not surprised: "He's a witness to many, many things but he brings that scientist point of view. He's a great writer and he's also a wonderfully engaging person. That combination is really hard to beat."

One of the most egregious examples of human interference with the environment came in 2010, when a failed oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico discharged over 200-million gallons of crude oil into the environment. It led to Safina's book: "A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout." It is a story of industry mismanagement and has already made progress in mobilizing environmentalists to press for more oversight of deepwater drilling operations and stricter regulatory guidelines. While the effects of the spill have been devastating to the Gulf, he believes the damage can still be mitigated. "I'm trying to give people hope", he says with characteristic optimism, "I'm trying to tell everybody how much is at stake, how much of the world is still alive and worth saving -- and how dangerous the trends are and how much we are poised to lose."

Carl Safina has won a number of awards for his work -- both in conservation and literature, but although he has been nominated three times before (2010, 2014, 2016), he has never been awarded the Indianapolis Prize. As a finalist for this year's award, he could win an unrestricted $250,000 award to help in the work of preserving his beloved oceans, as well as the prestige that comes with winning one of the most highly-visible awards for conservation in the world. The Indianapolis Zoo will award the prize this year on September 29th.

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