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May 1, 2019

Joshua AbbottThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Joshua Abbott, associate professor in the  School of Sustainability.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: I would like to say that i was always interested in food, but it didn’t really start there. I grew up in East Texas in a rural area, so farms and ranches were familiar to me. I ended up going to the University of Washington to study economics and had a very compelling professor who was working on natural resources economics and fisheries and I was captivated by the idea of how economics and policy can influence the sustainable management of fisheries.

It’s the whole Tragedy of the Commons issue, and how to address that. The rest is history — I’m a landlocked kid from Texas and I got more involved in ocean and fisheries issues, so most of my food-related work is coming from the ocean perspective.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: Currently I’m working on research funded through NSF looking at the west coast fishery, effectively all the fisheries from San Francisco to the Canadian border. This research includes colleagues who are anthropologists, population biologists and ecologists, and what we’re trying to look at is how fishermen make decisions based on changing oceanographic conditions, and different regulatory frameworks.

For example, oceanographic variability like climate change or El Nino affects the abundance and location of fish. The regulatory system is working to manage these fisheries sustainability, but also encourages fishermen to make decisions about when and where to fish.

The fishermen themselves are trying to create a portfolio of options about when and where to fish that balances profits and financial risk. And then the fish themselves have population variability, for example salmon which have moved up and down the coast and been subject to climatic variability, or crabs which have been affected by algae blooms, so this is all incredibly complex to understand, but very important for sustainability.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: I am on the dissertation committee of a student working on aquaculture, and I’m very interested in this area. Like it or not, we need to grapple with what sustainable aquaculture looks like in ocean systems.

It’s clear when you look at the data about how much seafood protein can be sustainably harvested moving forward, there’s not a whole lot more yield available from the wild stocks. So the growth has to come from aquaculture — in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t overuse other ocean inputs, and that doesn’t fowl the water. There’s a tremendous amount of technical innovation that’s occurring in that space, which is really exciting.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: Something I’m always looking for is sablefish. It’s a little harder to find outside of the Pacific Northwest. I found some the other week, and it was really fresh and I cooked it with a miso marinade and some jasmine rice. That’s pretty high up for me in terms of favorite foods. It’s so delicious.