For this issue’s staff spotlight, we had the chance to chat with Zach Koehn, an Early Career Fellow at COS and a member of the Oceans & Food key initiative research team, where he works on the Blue Food Assessment.
You majored in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Stanford as an undergraduate. Can you tell us about how your undergraduate education influenced your current career path?
I grew up loving science but I didn’t have that many amazing experiences in school with science. I’d always been curious about psychology, which pushed me towards theoretical studies at Stanford. I took courses on logic,Eastern Philosophy, and complexity theory. During my senior year, I took a class on existentialism like any good senior. That course introduced me to the idea of authenticity, essentially, leading a life that radiates from your passions outwards. I had moved to California as a pretty high-level swimmer, so was looking for something to do in the water. I picked up surfing and I was going to the ocean all the time, to surf or not to surf, because it's dynamic. It’s fascinating.
As a senior, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next, but this newfound interest in surfing led me to think about ocean issues, so I volunteered for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. I took the train up after class every day of spring quarter and assisted with policy briefs related to shark fin bans in California. I had a lot of fun doing that work. That was my first step towards a career in oceans.
A cornerstone of Philosophy is thinking about systems as a whole. It made sense to approach these issues from an interdisciplinary perspective. The transition to quantitative science was actually pretty easy, because logic is basically the underpinning for any kind of math you’re going to do. That was an interesting connection that I wasn’t expecting, but one that allowed me to start programming and understanding code quickly.
This isn’t your first time working at COS, correct?
Right. The policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council knew Meg Caldwell, the former executive director of COS, and recommended I meet with her. Meg hired me for a summer internship working on ocean policy issues. By that time, I had started taking courses in marine biology and took a few courses at the law school as well. After I graduated, I stayed on at COS as a research assistant to work on projects about the human dimensions of fisheries and ocean and marine spatial planning. Over time, I focused more on fisheries and related social-ecological systems.
I wasn’t specifically interested in seafood when I started with COS, but as I dove into fisheries work, I began to see that seafood is this really fascinating unit of evaluation, if you are thinking about value from the ocean. It’s economic; it’s a form of nutrition; it's a cultural locus. For a lot of communities, it’s how people come together. Seafood has a long cultural heritage in many places. If you’re interested in thinking about systems as a whole—and I still had that interest as a philosophy student—then seafood is a great focal point for research.
What was your experience like working with Real Good Fish before starting your PhD program?
I wasn’t quite ready to leave California and this awesome spot in the redwoods of just north of Big Sur where I was living at the time. I knew I wanted to work on fisheries and was considering a PhD program, but wanted to get some hands-on experience with what was actually happening on the ground in California fisheries. I started working with a company based in Monterey called Local Catch—currently known as Real Good Fish. They help connect seafood consumers with a community of fishermen focused on sustainable and diverse fisheries.
In the beginning, I helped fillet the fish that came into the office really early, package it, market it, and sell it. When the business expanded, we hired a local fisherman and chef from Santa Cruz to take over much of the filleting and preparation, and I began to help the CEO, Alan Lovewell, with the administrative aspects of the business. For me, it was a way to learn a lot more about the entire process, from fish as part of the ecosystem all the way to fish on people’s plates. I learned about how the market works and what consumers are looking for. It was a hands-on reminder that the fishery is not just the harvesting , but really an entire system.
Real Good Fish ended up being the connection that led to my PhD program. We supplied Stanford with a bunch of rockfish for a group of small-scale fisheries experts who were in town, and I stuck around to talk with some of the researchers. They were really fascinated by this fishmonger who walked in, dropped off some coolers, and started talking science with them. Eddie Allison, one of the researchers and a wonderful mentor, helped me find my next job up in Seattle with NOAA and then supported me as I started my PhD at the University of Washington.
Can you give us a summary of your PhD research?
My PhD attempted to combine fisheries management and sustainable fisheries practices with an improved connection to the food system via nutrition, taking both a global and local perspective.
For the global approach, I conducted a policy review of fisheries and health policies to see how well they overlapped. For the local approach, I focused in on North American West Coast fisheries. Many of these fisheries have been rebuilt after a period of overexploitation, but today the stocks are healthy enough that the total allowable catch limit—essentially how many fish can be caught while still ensuring the sustainability of the stock—is much higher than the level at which these species are currently being caught. Basically, there’s slack. My research looked at what we could do with that slack, that forgone catch that would still allow for sustainable growth but wasn’t being caught because there wasn’t a market for it. How can we get that catch to low income consumers? To schools, and hospitals, and potentially jails? How can we get that really healthy fish protein to the people that need it most?
How does your current work at COS on the Blue Food Assessment connect to your graduate research about sustainably harvested seafood?
I felt very much in my comfort zone when I looked into the fellowship position for the Blue Food Assessment role at COS, because it really did feel like an extension of some of my graduate work. My PhD research and my work at Real Good Fish make for a nice combination of background experiences when it comes to the BFA, where we need to be thinking at global scales but also have to understand what’s going on on the ground. We need to be able to take into account the nuance and the complexity and the diversity of blue foods.
The two BFA papers that I was most associated with were focused on the future contributions of blue foods to global nutrition and the justice dimensions of the aquatic food supply chain. I collaborated with a pretty incredible group of scientists who have experience working on high-level papers that also end up having massive policy impacts. It was really amazing to watch how they work and to watch how they lead. They helped me think about how you elevate the quality and the voice of your work for a major publication, and for the United Nations Food Systems Summit this year.
What motivates you to work on ocean issues? Is there an ocean issue you’re particularly passionate about?
The thing that keeps me motivated is that I’m constantly learning more about the different stories and the different narrative threads that run through this aquatic food unit. In some cases, given specific products and cultural heritage, communities have learned how to use 99% of an individual fish; they do an incredible job of fully utilizing this resource, from food to leather to clothing. And in other communities, people have taken full nutritional advantage of the metric tons of tiny dried fish they have access to. And those are two totally different narratives arcs of fish through the socio-ecological system. Then you weave in the tradeoffs between the environment and nutrition, between economic revenue and providing labor, and it just becomes this really interesting space to work in.
Thinking about fish—as a unit—as much more than something that is just extracted, I think that’s a passion that fishermen share; it’s one that processors can be proud of; it’s one that customers at the fish counter can get behind. That story is just so important.
What are some of your favorite hobbies?
I try and live a life such that, at some point during the day, I’m always on the water or can see the water. I’m grounded by that briny, saltwater smell. Even in Wisconsin, where I’m from, you have the Great Lakes which are actually colossal inland seas. A lot of the same dynamics hold true; you can smell inland “sea” air. And that is definitely a part of my internal compass.
So whether that’s paddleboarding, body surfing, or—if I’m in clear water—free diving, I love doing anything that enables me to be in big water. I think it’s really important to reconnect and reignite the reference point for why I’m doing this work.
Do you have a favorite ocean-related experience?
When I first worked at COS as a Research Assistant I lived in the back of my landlord’s garage in Carmel Highlands and would drive past Monastery Beach in Monterey on my way to and from work. I always had my surfboard and body surfing fins in the car and got into a habit of pulling over at the beach and free dive. I would try to be safe by staying close to SCUBA divers and I wouldn’t stay down long, but I’d find a thick piece of kelp, grab on, and just float. It was always such a beautiful way to reconnect with the ocean.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young person interested in ocean work, what would it be?
Follow your passions. If you’re really interested in oceans then find a way to get involved. It won’t always work out, but there’s a good chance that if you’re willing and friendly, networks will open up and you’ll be able to find your way into doing some really cool work. It’s really important to listen to what makes you happy, because you’ll ultimately have a much happier life in the future if you do so. And take risks!
Can you introduce us to the newest member of your family?
This is Oly! Dogs provide this really awesome thing where they force you to get outside, many times a day. And especially when you’re working at home, it’s really nice to have that. We run him all the time, and he’s getting pretty good at fetch for being six months old.