Faculty Feature: Dr. Tirrell

The professor’s research is focusing on fisheries management and climate change

by Kennedy Avery

Professors at the University of San Diego are more than just educators within the campus community; they are changemakers. With expertise on a whole host of subjects, professors at USD are adding to the dialogue on subjects stretching from the environment to politics.

In the case of Andrew Tirrell, Ph.D., of the Political Science Department, these two subjects overlap. Tirrell has a background in human rights law and international relations, and his research has focused on fisheries management in New England, Norway and New Zealand. By this measure, Tirrell has a special eye for climate change.

“I have been very concerned about climate change since the early 2000s, when the U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to limit climate change.” Tirrell said. “Additionally, with the results of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of 2009 in Copenhagen, I realized how difficult it would be for humanity to change course quickly enough to avoid climate-related tragedies of the type we have seen this year.”

His current research, in addition to his involvement in two off-campus separate task forces, contributes to the knowledge and understanding of how climate change is affecting coastal fisheries and how fishermen are responding to laws aimed to make their current practices more sustainable.

“To get everyone on board, you have to balance ecological, economic, and social interests, and you have to make all of those elements work in both the short term and the long term; that’s part of what makes fisheries management so tricky,” Tirrell said.

Tirrell completed his Ph.D. in International Relations by writing his dissertation on “The Role of Institutions in Fisheries Management.” With a degree in international law, Tirrell was curious as to why some laws succeed and others fail. Today, Tirrell is working on a book in which he challenges the idea that laws succeed or fail based on how they are written and implemented.

Questioning these assumptions, Tirrell hypothesized that trust in the government has an effect on whether a law is accepted or rejected by the people. In speaking with fishermen about their attitudes toward new laws regulating how many and what kinds of fish they are able to catch in an effort to improve sustainability, he found that trust in government did in fact play a factor.

Tirrell discovered that Norwegian fishermen were not necessarily ecstatic about the regulations, but they trusted there was good reasoning behind it. In the United States, on the other hand, New England fisherman were unhappy with the regulations and they distrusted that there was a greater good or that climate change was truly dangerous. With these concerns, New England fishermen protested the law.

There are even fisheries-management concerns not far from home, Tirrell explained. In the Gulf of California the existence of a rare porpoise, the vaquita, is endangered. The vaquita is captured in gillnets aiming to catch the totoaba fish, whose bladder is used for medicinal purposes in East Asian countries, and are illegally traded for up to  $10,000. Today, the vaquita’s numbers amount to only 30.

Tirrell is working through the Environmental Defense Fund on a Gulf of California Task Force to save the vaquita. This illegal trade is more complicated than a mere distrust of government’s objective. Its international nature requires the cooperation of the US, Mexico, and China.

Seeing that students cannot offer a hand informing policymaking or take actions to save the vaquita in quite the same way as Tirrell achieved, does not mean that students are sitting ducks. All students have the opportunity to be engaged citizens.

Tirrell is concerned about climate change, even though the current administration had refuted the idea that it exists. “Apart from teaching, scholarly writing, and working on task forces and other policy efforts, I’d say that my most important engagement is as a citizen,” Tirrell said.

College students can further develop an understanding of climate change and become versed in specific local issues by speaking with professors on campus, attending lectures, or even volunteering with the environmental voter project. They can be cognizant of their transportation and power usage. Most importantly, many students have the opportunity to vote.

“The number one most important thing any citizen can do in relation to climate change is to think about the environment and climate change when they vote,” Tirrell said. This is particularly sound advice for young adults who care about the environment, because as Tirrell points out, it is the youth population of today that will truly have to live with the issue of climate change.

“The mentality that we can’t do anything to change climate change is what keeps us in danger,” Tirrell says. Students’ youth, inexperience, and miniscule position in the larger whole does not hold them back from taking concrete actionable steps, small as they may be.