Undergraduates Learn, Then Publish

fishing boat on the water with mountains in the background.

Modern commercial fishing inevitably produces bycatch – meaning the capture of marine animals beside the intended species of fish. For instance, a net trawling for cod could also haul up turtles, dolphins, sea birds, and other fish. Those animals will be discarded dead or dying. The bycatch can sometimes equal the size of the actual catch and is a global contributor to overfishing. Environmental regulators face two challenges in efforts to reduce bycatch – monitoring bycatch on individual boats and mitigating bycatch on a regional policy level.

A team of Pitt undergraduate researchers researched the challenges of bycatch in the GEO 1312 environmental law and policy course. They not only studied other people’s research in scientific journals – they researched, wrote, and submitted their own paper to a peer-reviewed policy journal. The team’s paper was recently published in the Journal of Science Policy & Governance,  proposing methods to improve the implementation of policies about overfishing in the Gulf of Alaska: Bycatch Mitigation Strategies in the Gulf of Alaska (sciencepolicyjournal.org).

Other teams of students in the course are writing and submitting papers on fracking policy, organic food labeling, urban agriculture policy, green building ordinances, and reef-safe sunscreen laws.

“It is not a traditional environmental law course,” explains Patrick Shirey, assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program within the Department of Geology and Environmental Science. “Before, the course had focused on training students to think like lawyers, memorize laws, and test on exams, like the courses I took in law school. That is helpful for training lawyers but not as helpful for students who want to work more on the policy side. Students don’t need to memorize laws –  most of the material about the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, or Clean Air Act is online. Though we cover those laws, students don't necessarily need to attend my course to learn the laws – instead, they get the training to write a coherent policy manuscript in addition to shorter individual writing assignments on different environmental laws.”

“The goal of the course is to become better writers and thinkers while learning environmental law and contributing to the group’s research,” says Shirey.

Shirey was inspired to redesign the course in 2022 after attending workshops for faculty in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences on writing and speaking in the disciplines, designed to help faculty improve written and oral communication assignments in their courses (the workshops were directed by Cory Holding, teaching professor in the Writing Institute, and Lynn Clarke, teaching professor in the Department of Communication).

Other teams of students in the course are also contributing manuscripts to the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Student teams working on fracking and reef-safe sunscreen continued their work in the summer and fall and submitted manuscripts for consideration in October and November. They received news from the journal in early January that their papers had been accepted for the next issue.

The lead authors on the bycatch paper were Pitt senior Julia Evers and recent graduate Zoe Spaide, both environmental studies majors. One significant aspect of the research aims to improve the monitoring of the bycatch on individual boats, now done by onboard human observers. The observers have been an issue for both regulators and the fishing companies, who are required to pay for the monitors. [Supreme Court news?]

“We looked partly at what other countries are doing and articles on new tech,” says Spaide. “Using video and AI onboard the ships to monitor the bycatch creates a neutral observer and removes bias and human error. And you can’t pay off the camera.” The other proposal in the paper looks at policies around ‘freezing the footprint’ of trawling – limiting the expansion of trawling beyond those areas that have already been fished.

“We need to combine the efforts,” says Spaide. “There is more than one solution.”

Their team of five students submitted the paper for peer review at the end of April 2023 and learned in July that it was accepted. Evers and Spaide were excited and surprised to receive the acceptance email. Initially they both thought it was a joke. “I thought there was no way that we would be accepted,” says Evers.

Evers and Spaide are both pursuing environmental careers in law and education. Being an author on a published policy research paper is a highlight in their resumes.

“Dr. Shirey made it possible for us to have a unique learning experience, a research course that directly contributes to our professional careers,” says Evers. “It would be great if that could inspire professors and students to create similar courses.”

— Brian Connelly