The oceans ‘secret’ grasped Leah Biery’s attention at a young age
Leah Biery fell in love with the ocean when she was a young girl traveling from Charlotte, North Carolina to Sanibel for yearly family summer vacations.
Some of her fondest memories as a child were experiencing some of the “awesome creatures” her dad found while exploring the outdoors. She fell in love with the ocean because of the pure excitement of discovering another world that’s almost “like a secret.”
“If you don’t dive in and you don’t explore it you are missing out on so much,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without experiencing all that is under the water. Once you realize that there is even more under water than above water it becomes kind of additive and you want to just keep going back. Everywhere I have ever jumped into the ocean I have seen life.”
Some of her dives have included spotting schools of mahi mahi, giant triple tail and whale sharks unexpectedly in the Gulf of Mexico.
Those many beautiful experiences led Biery back to Sanibel in hopes of finding an internship once she began attending North Carolina State University where she studied zoology and nonprofit management.
“I wanted to do an internship in something related to marine biology and because I had spent so much time on Sanibel I was specifically trying to figure out what was available here. The Sea School had just opened weeks ago at the time I was looking for an internship,” she said of the events that took place nine years ago. “They were starting up a summer camp program, so I came down and interviewed to be a counselor and got the job and have kind of been here off and on since.”
That summer, Biery, along with Sanibel Sea School Executive Director Bruce Neill and two other college interns conducted the first summer camp. She described that first year as a “gorilla summer camp” because they were working with very few resources in a tiny building.
“We would have to drive around the island after work and steal cardboard from the Dumpsters for art projects and go to Bailey’s and beg them to give us milk crates,” she said laughing. “Everything we needed we had to improvise and some way get it for free.”
In addition to her internship, Biery also traveled to Tanzani to study human-baboon interaction as an undergrad. For a semester she followed baboons, which she found mainly gravitated towards trash bins. While conducting her field work, Biery lived in a tent outside of Lake Manyara National Park for four months in a fenced in area to keep out lions and cheetahs. Because of the wildlife, if she had to go to the bathroom at night she was escorted by guards.
While there, she worked with the Tanzani Wildlife Research Institute to develop a plan that included lodges for tourists, as well as improving their waste management to keep baboons out. The plan also shared some alternative methods for farmers to deal with wildlife instead of shooting it.
The experience made her realize that she wanted to be a marine scientist instead of working with terrestrial animals because of the hot and buggy environment the baboons gravitated towards.
“After I finished my field work there, I went to Zanzibar to go scuba diving,” Biery said, which was about a 15-minute flight from where she was. “The ocean is amazing. It was so nice to be in the water. I said, ‘I think I need to change gears.'”
Experiencing the Indian Ocean sealed the deal for Biery – she wanted to study marine science.
“The reefs were really healthy and we saw tons of sharks and rays, parrot fish, reef fish. It was just the most pristine beautiful under water eco system I had ever seen. I kind of realized compared to some of the other places I had been diving before what reef systems could be and how much we have to lose if we don’t find ways to step up and protect them before they are gone,” Biery said. “It was really eye opening in terms of how healthy reefs are in parts of the world where less tourists have visited and less fishermen have exploited. They are just untouched.”
She returned to the Sanibel Sea School as a counselor for one more summer before graduating from college and deciding to go into the Peace Corps. She traveled to Vanuatu to start a program to help women have more interaction with the ocean and figure out ways to start community projects where women harvested sea vegetables to sell at the market.
“I was only there for about three months and I got really sick. I got a parasite, so they sent me home on medical leave,” Biery said.
Unfortunately she was not able to return to the Peace Corps until another group traveled back to Vanuata nine months later. She called Neill and asked what she was going to do in the meantime, which led to a project at the Sanibel Sea School. The project included working with START, Solutions to Avoid Ride Tide.
“I fell in love with the whole sustainable seafood project and became really passionate about sustainable seafood, over fishing and the impacts it is having on the ecosystem balance and the ocean,” she said, which resulted in wanting to go to grad school instead of going back to the Peace Corps.
While working on the project, the documentary “End of the Line” was screened and featured “the most amazing fishery scientist in the whole world” Daniel Pauly. Biery said she fell in love with the documentary and Pauly’s message, which resulted in Neill contacting Pauly about Biery working with him as a grad student.
“Bruce emailed him and a day later he called me back and said ‘Do you want to study shark fisheries at UBC,” she said smiling. “I did a masters degree in fisheries management at the University of British Columbia. Through that I went to Belize and worked for the marine conservation organization Oceana and I studied gill net fisheries and juvenile fish catches.”
The people of Belize, Biery said like to eat really small fish because they fit on their plates, which is an issue because the fish are still babies and have not had a chance to reproduce. While in Belize she interviewed fishermen on how they use nets, what they catch with the nets and what size fish they are catching. The interviews led Biery to making a recommendation to the Belize government to adopt new fishery regulation to regulate those issues more effectively.
Once her six month contract was up, she was offered the position, director of operations at the Sanibel Sea School.
Over the years Biery has become very passionate about educating the public on the harms disposable single use plastic bags have on animals and humans. She said the bags break down into tiny particles that resemble plankton almost perfectly with the naked eye. Unfortunately, small fish and birds consume the plastic because of that resemblance, which climbs up the food chain.
“We are finding traces of plastic in tuna, in shark, dolphins and in humans,” Biery said.
Although challenges have surfaced, she said her dream is for Sanibel to ban disposable plastic bags.
“I think Sanibel is such an eco-friendly community and we advertise ourselves and represent ourselves to the world as this wildlife refuge and safe place for animals and somewhere people come to and enjoy nature,” she said. “I think that if people came to the store and they told them they didn’t have any plastic bags because they are bad for the environment and animals that live here, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.