Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: Tell us a little about yourself. Who is Shannon Cosentino-Roush?
Shannon: Let’s see. Staying true to my roots, no matter where I’m living, I always will see myself as a Bay Area, California girl. I’m very inquisitive and chatty. In fact, since I was a toddler, my nickname has been “Shanny Why-Why.” Yep, you can imagine, I was that kid…“but why, but why?” I’d like to say that’s changed, but still my curiosity gets the best of me.I try to be very open-minded and positive, always giving something new a chance and trying to make the best of things. Enjoying a good laugh, keeping my Peter Pan youthful spirit alive, I consider myself pretty goofy. I’m extremely driven and idealistic. Though I know it’s cliché, my goal always has been to “save the world”…ok, at least to make it a better place, largely in terms of protecting the natural environment and the societies that depend on it. When I say the environment, I mostly mean the ocean and fish. That is how I ended up where I am.
QFTD: For a while now, you've given tremendous effort trying to cease the practice of illegal fishing. Where does your drive come from?
Shannon: Some parents teach their kids about art and take them to museums. My dad taught me about tuna and took me to the aquarium. From then on, I said that when I grew up, I wanted to protect the oceans that I loved so much.
When I was in university, I was fascinated by the field of international environmental law and policy. I also spent part of summer learning about sea turtle conservation in a small fishing village in Mexico. After seeing how the laws and policies impacted the community, the fish, and the sea turtles, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my future career to combating the injustices that harmed the marine environment and the communities.
The more I delved into the field of international fisheries, the more I learned how illegal fishing was the epitome of injustice, collapsing fish stocks, destroying habitat, and leaving communities without livelihoods and food security, all so that a few could make a lot of money or eat more fish. From then on, I became driven to combat illegal fishing, particularly in developing countries where it’s happening the most and impacting people the worst.
QFTD: After graduating law school, you landed a fellowship in Washington D.C. working in an arena you’re very passionate about. What did you do there, and how did that fellowship prepare you for the next step of your career?
Shannon: When I was in law school, I learned of the Knauss/Sea Grant fellowship, which places recent higher education graduates within the U.S. government to work in ocean-related positions. With hard work and a bit of luck, I was offered the fellowship. In 2010, I moved to Washington D.C. to begin my post as the Network Coordinator of the International Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (IMCS) Network. Basically, my job was to help governments and organizations work together to stop illegal fishing. I know you’re probably thinking, That is so broad…so what did you actually DO?
To be honest, my job description was quite broad. I worked with my colleague to produce and distribute newsletters and informational materials, represented the Network at international meetings, worked with the membership and donor countries on funding strategies and strategic planning, and even organized a workshop for 200 fisheries practitioners in Maputo, Mozambique. This position not only prepared me for my next step, in reality, it defined my next step.
Through my work, I met many fisheries professionals from around the world, all passionate, driven, and engaged in interesting projects. Many of them shared great advice, and a select few became lasting mentors. Through three of these mentors, I was offered my current opportunity, here in Africa.
QFTD: You mentioned to me a few inspirational mentors, who help motivate you as this journey meanders you around the world. Tell us about them and why they’ve had such a significant impact on you.
Shannon: I am lucky enough to have had two mentors, recently bumped up to three, all of them based in Africa and working passionately to save fish.
The first has been Marcel Kroese, a South African who currently is based in Mauritius and is working throughout Eastern Africa to improve enforcement operations to combat illegal fishing. Anyone who knows Marcel appreciates him for his back-to-basics approach, can-do attitude, and overall jovial spirit.
The second has been Per Erik Bergh, a Norwegian who currently runs a successful and reputable consulting shop with his equally dynamic wife, Sandy, out of Botswana. He works throughout Southern Africa, again, in the mission to combat illegal fishing. Per Erik is extremely unique in his ability to balance diplomacy with a cut-to-the-chase attitude, garnering equal respect from political figures and grassroots advocates.
Both Marcel and Per Erik have guided and mentored me in so many ways. Neither of them ever will turn away one of my “Shanny Why-Why” questions or make me feel stupid for asking them. They both are fountains of knowledge, always sharing information and helping me become stronger. They advise me on my professional steps, even providing me opportunities, such as the one that currently brought me to Africa. Moreover, they have shown me how to stay true to my values, while still being able to make a difference.
I am even luckier to be able to add Sandy to the list! She equally is fabulous. First, she is a female mentor – enough said. Moreover, she is visionary, perceptive, and experienced at most things fisheries-related. Oh yeah, one more thing: she’s a blast!
Can I add one more thing about mentorship?
QFTD: Sure, go ahead!
Shannon: I am very passionate about the importance of mentorship. So, my advice to anyone reading this, regardless of life stage: decide where are trying to go, think about who best can help you get there, and don’t be intimidated or discouraged! It may take time to find that mentor, but the benefits are exponential and beyond worth it! Through mentorship, you never know what doors may open.
QFTD: I feel you on that one. Mentorship is vital to growth and direction. You just mentioned doors opening. Speaking of doors: because of your legal experience and passion for fisheries, you’ve blogged for National Geographic. How did you feel when you were given this opportunity, and how has this platform helped you share your passion?
Shannon: How did I feel? It was like someone gave me the opportunity to walk on the moon! Again, I know it sounds cliché, but to me the opportunity to write anything even affiliated with National Geographic felt that unlikely. I was excited about the blog in itself, but also because of even more doors that it could open. And it did! The blog triggered Per Erik to invite me to come and work with him and Sandy in Africa. Another long-time dream. And here I am today!
QFTD: That is awesome. I am happy for you.
Shannon: Thank you so much.
QFTD: Let’s talk impact. Who stands to lose the most from illegal fishing, and who profits the big dollars? What is your message to people on both sides of the issue?
Shannon: This is a complex question, especially because the definition of illegal fishing is so broad.
Generally, when people think of illegal fishing, they think of large industrial boats run by big business, ignoring the laws and taking whatever they want from the waters of developing countries. This model also is where the big money comes from, often going into the hands of the big businesses and the corrupt officials.
In this situation, there are a few obvious losers: the local communities that watch their fish stocks being ravaged, the national economy that never sees the profit of its rightful resources, and the marine ecosystem that is thrown off balance by the removal of key species. Yet, I’d argue that we all are the losers.
QFTD: That’s interesting. What do you mean?
Shannon: In an increasingly globalized world, it no longer is difficult to see how everything is inter-connected. What happens to people in Ghana affects people in France. What happens to the environment in Africa affects the environment in Asia. If we pillage the oceans in Africa, leaving its fisheries reeling, we all will feel it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in the near-enough future. We all rely on the world’s fish for food security and thus security in general.
If the global population cannot consume as much fish, it will need to consumer other things in order to fill the stomachs of hungry people, thereby placing pressure on other natural resources. If people cannot secure other natural resources, and thus face malnourishment and poverty, global security in general is at risk. This is not a theory; it is a reality. All we need to do is look at the example of Somalia where a struggling fishing industry transformed into piracy. Therefore, my message to people on “both sides” of this issue is that, really, there are not two sides of this issue.
Sustainably managed fisheries are crucial to the future survival and success of everyone, from fishermen, to local communities, to distant city centers.
QFTD: At times, I know you feel like you’re fighting an up-hill battle. When you go to bed at night, and frustration tries to rattle your conviction, what allows you to sleep well? Then, what gets you moving in the morning with the vigor needed to conquer the day?
Shannon: When we’re talking up-hill battle, are we talking rolling hill or rock climbing?
QFTD: Ha! Funny. I guess whichever isn’t so steep you can’t climb it?
Shannon: I’m just kidding. This is a really good question.
I am human like everyone else and get frustrated at times. There are days when I feel like I am fighting just to secure a job in which I will have the opportunity to try and make a difference. There are days when I question if the work I am doing even has an impact. What gets me through these days? First and foremost, it is my amazingly supportive network of family, friends, and mentors, reminding me of why I fight the good fight. Second, it is my own belief that if I quit, why shouldn’t others? And if we all quit, we are guaranteeing that nothing will change. In my mind, as long as we are working, as long as we are acting, then there is the possibility for…really, the inevitability of…change. I will take the possibility of change any day, over the guarantee of no change.
So, I go to sleep reminding myself that I’d rather be a fighter than a quitter…that in the morning, I will continue to put one foot in front of the other, moving forward, until change happens.
QFTD: Well said. I love your comment about the possibility of change. I think I will use it in the interview intro.
Shannon: Go right ahead.
QFTD: Final question coming up. Currently, you are in Africa – Botswana to be exact. What is your purpose there, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Shannon: I am here to work as a fisheries and legal consultant on a range of projects, from an upcoming workshop in Djibouti, to a project that extends over seven East African countries. In Djibouti, I will be working with another consultant to discuss the local problems of IUU fishing in the Horn of Africa and the potential steps that can be taken, particularly legal, to ameliorate the situation.
With the East Africa project, I will be working with another team of consultants to help establish a system of regional collaboration to better combat illegal fishing.
Over my time here, I look forward to working with many of the professionals I have long-admired, especially my mentors, to increase my own knowledge and become a better future advocate. I also hope to gain experience in new areas such as climate change, food security and livelihoods, and community-based fisheries management. And, of course, I can’t forget to say that I am super excited to see new parts of Africa! The land is beautiful, the culture is fascinating, and the people are warm and genuine.
Only time will tell where the next three months are going to take me…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s to an adventure!