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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Heinz Awards Celebrate “Environmental Champions”

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Christian Zeigler, Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine)

This year’s Heinz Award honors ten environmental trailblazers, including marine biologist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with Nancy Knowlton about her research on oceanic biodiversity, coral reefs, and her campaign to bring ocean preservation success stories to the surface. (Photo: Christian Zeigler, Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine)


GELLERMAN: When I say Heinz, you say _______. Nope. I’m not talking ketchup, beans or 57 varieties, but the annual Heinz Awards that honor individuals working for inspirational solutions to environmental problems. Many of this year’s 10 winners have been featured on Living on Earth.

We recently spoke with biologist Sandra Steingraber about her latest book "Raising Elijah,” and back in 2006, we talked with Environmental Composer John Luther Adams.

ADAMS: Even though this is not a piece of music in the traditional sense with a beginning middle and end, it’s not written for human performers playing acoustical instruments, creating it still involved the process of, of imaging sounds.

GELLERMAN: Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis will share the 100 thousand dollar Heinz Award for their documentaries investigating food. We spoke with them about their movie "King Corn."

Heinz Award winners Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis (Photo: Heinz Awards)

CHENEY: We rented an acre. We didn’t even know how big an acre was. And we found a willing farmer in the town where my great-grandfather grew up and my friend Curt’s great-grandfather grew up. And I think he was amused that a couple of city kids were coming out to try and learn how to do agriculture.

GELLERMAN: Well, no one has to teach Nancy Knowlton anything about marine life and coral reefs - the Smithsonian Institution biologist also got a call from the Heinz Awards folk:

KNOWLTON: I have to say, like, you could have knocked me over with a feather. It was really a wonderful surprise.

GELLERMAN: Huh, you didn’t know you were nominated?

KNOWLTON: No. It’s a complete surprise until you get the phone call.

GELLERMAN: Among Nancy Knowlton’s many contributions to marine science is the project she calls “Beyond the Obituary.” We reached her in Panama City.

KNOWLTON: The thing is, my whole generation, we’ve specialized, literally, in writing obituaries of the various environments that we care about. But, beyond a certain point ... I mean, it’s good to alert people that there are problems, and so you have to say, "This is bad, and it’s actually really bad. It’s very, very, very serious what’s going on. But after awhile, you know, doom and gloom stops being an effective motivator for people, for, not only scientists, but the public at large.

They feel: "Oh, it’s just hopeless, so why should I do anything?" And I think that it’s really important to recognize that we do have success stories out there and they’re sort of inspirational in one sense, and then they’re also very educational - they tell us what actually works.

GELLERMAN: Well, give me a success story, please!

KNOWLTON: Well, I mean, one of the success stories has to do with the return of turtles in some of the turtle beaches where they have been protected. There are success stories in terms of bringing back oysters - even to the Chesapeake Bay, if you do it right. There are success stories associated with marine protected areas, actually worldwide.

Heinz Award winner and environmental composer John Luther Adams. (Heinz Awards)

And actually in some places, even the corals are coming back, which is very good news because they’re much slower - they’re more like trees - they grow slowly and they respond slowly, so it takes awhile for them to improve in response to the management.

GELLERMAN: You’re in Panama right now, right?

KNOWLTON: Yes, I’m in Panama. I’m here to study coral spawning, which I do every year. Corals have this crazy sex life where they reproduce essentially one or two days a year, and so I come down here every year to see how the population of corals that we’ve been studying for the last ten years here is reproducing.

GELLERMAN: Coral sex life, who knew?

KNOWLTON: (Laughs). Yeah, who knew! It all happens at night even! It all ... The corals that I work on, they reproduce - one species reproduces between 8:15 and 8:45 five to six days after the full moon, and the other two that I work on reproduce between 9:30 and 10, five to six days after the full moon in September. So it’s very, very precise. They don’t need calendars or stopwatches; they just do it on their own.

GELLERMAN: Are you at the place, where, many years ago, you were doing dives on coral reefs and Noriega was the President of Panama, and you and your four-year-old daughter were taken hostage?

KNOWLTON: Well, it was during the invasion. And I think Panamanian soldiers had standing orders to take hostage any Americans in the vicinity. And so, my daughter and I and my research assistants - one of whom is actually with me this year studying the coral reproduction that we’re here for - there were 11 of us in total, and we were taken hostage and walked up to the Continental Divide for about 24 hours, and then we were released. So it all ended up fine, and no one was hurt.

But it was not here in Bocas del Toro, which is near the Costa Rican border, it was in the San Blas Archipelago near Colombia.

GELLERMAN: You’re still diving coral reefs then?

KNOWLTON: I am still diving. One of the reasons I study coral reproduction once a year, is it keeps me…you know, you have to dive a certain amount in order to stay actively certified and in fit condition to dive, and so, yes, even at the age of 62, I am still diving and plan to continue to dive for awhile.

GELLERMAN: Well, Nancy Knowlton, congratulations again on the Heinz Award, and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

KNOWLTON: Thank you very much for having me.

GELLERMAN: Nancy Knowlton is a Marine Biologist at the Smithsonian Institution, and a winner of this year's Heinz Awards.



Heinz Award website

Nancy Knowlton’s bio at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History website


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