Q&A fisheries scientist Elle Wibisono

Q&A fisheries scientist Elle Wibisono

  • Fisheries scientist and artist Elle Wibisono recently published a children’s book, “A Snapper Tale,” that features red-colored snappers native to Indonesia’s waters.
  • Equipped with her extensive knowledge and experience in marine conservation and sustainable fisheries, Wibisono uses her book to highlight the importance of fish identification, a key component of sustainable fisheries.
  • Indonesia is home to one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems, with its fisheries sector supplying seafood demand from home and around the world.
  • Mongabay’s Basten Gokkon spoke with Elle Wibisono recently about her book and the highlighted fisheries issues, and her hopes for the impacts it will have on readers young and old and on Indonesia’s marine conservation policies.

JAKARTA — “It was heaven,” says Indonesian fisheries scientist Alyssa “Elle” Wibisono, describing her first ever scuba diving experience in the Komodo Islands when she was a high school student. The vibrant schools of fish were so new and amazing to her that the experience marked her starting point into the world of marine conservation.

“I didn’t know yet how it was going to look like, I mean I was still in high school, but I knew that I wanted to work in the field one way or another,” she tells Mongabay in a recent interview.

For a little over a decade, the fundamental pathway she chose to achieve her passionate goal of protecting Indonesia’s marine ecosystem was through academia. Wibisono started her undergraduate studies in 2009 with a focus on marine biology and conservation at Wellesley College in the U.S., before going on to get her Ph.D. in sustainable fisheries management in 2020 at the University of Rhode Island.

Elle Wibisono, center, interviewing traditional Indonesian fishers. Image courtesy of Elle Wibisono.

Wibisono currently works as a senior manager for marine protected area and fisheries at the Jakarta-based NGO Konservasi Indonesia. She also managed fisher projects in eastern parts of the country with another NGO, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Indonesia. In those years of diving deep into marine conservation in Indonesia, Wibisono took in as much nuance as possible about the convoluted issue in a way that she says has allowed her to be more empathetic about fishers and coastal communities.

“Indonesia is one of the most complex areas to try to manage the marine environment and sustainable fisheries,” she says. “Fisheries is about managing people, right? You cannot manage the fish. You can only manage the people.”

Now, in 2023, Wibisono has chosen another medium to promote marine conservation and sustainable fisheries in Indonesia: a children’s book called A Snapper Tale. She wrote it and drew the illustrations to tell the story of a red-colored snapper named Ellie who embarks on an adventure in search of her school of friends. In the tale, she traverses the deep, dark seamounts and braves the crowds of busy fish while learning about other species of snappers and their habitats along the way. Wibisono also makes online fish comics and marine conservation illustrations to explore the intersection of research and policy, and expand her interest in science communications.

“I like the idea of making a children’s book because I do think that early education is one of the best ways to impart this kind of knowledge. Start young!” she says. “And at the same time, typically children’s books are read to the children by the parents, and so you’re kind of getting two groups of audience at the same time: the children and their parents.”

Elle Wibisono is the author and illustrator of the children’s book A Snapper Tale. Image courtesy of Hanoto Wibisono and Binatang Press!

Mongabay’s Basten Gokkon spoke with Elle Wibisono recently to learn more about her book and the important issues it highlights, as well as her hopes for the impacts it will have on the readers and Indonesia’s marine conservation measures. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What’s the meaning behind the title A Snapper Tale?

Elle Wibisono: So, the literal meaning of the title is because the book is about the journey of a young red-colored snapper in finding her school. And the school here means her group of friends, not a school building. It follows her adventure, so it’s a tale of a snapper. But at the same time, it’s also a play on words where “tale” sounds like the word “tail,” for a fish’s tail. It’s one of the ways we can identify different species of red-colored snappers. Because the book is about differentiating between species of red snappers, I thought it was a fun way to make it a little more punny that way.

Mongabay: What was the inspiration for this story and this format? Why did you decide to feature red snappers?

Elle Wibisono: The reason why it’s snappers and why I made this book is because in 2014 I was working for The Nature Conservancy in Bali, and the project we were working on was about snappers and groupers in Indonesia. It was my first foray into the world of fishery science where we were trying to learn about the stock assessment of the snappers and groupers population.

And while we were learning about the fishery, we learned that there’s so many different kinds of red-colored snappers. And personally I had to learn how to identify all of the different red-colored snappers. We had an identification book and poster, and we all had to study it.

It was a fun process, but I also realized that all of my peers and family only know them as one big group which is just red snappers or kakap merah. Nobody really knew this diversity behind that big group.

So, the story itself came from my own experience of learning about the red-colored snappers and the importance of knowing the different species. Also, I try to interject more universal stories that drive the tale because it’s about adventure. As a kid, I loved to go on an adventure and wander around and explore, so hopefully it could be relatable to a lot of children. It’s also about finding yourself, your identity, where you belong, finding your group of friends, and also helping each other even though there are differences.

In the story, the main character’s name is Ellie — not related to Elle, there’s another story there — but Ellie is trying to find her school and along the way she finds other schools of different species. And all of these different species help her try to find her school. There’s definitely a lot of togetherness, friendship and helping each other, and also trying to teach children or the readers about the different roles that each of these schools of fish play in the ecosystem.

Mongabay: Can you tell us more about how you came up with the names for the characters?

Elle Wibisono: So, the names of Ellie’s friends are based on the Latin names. So, Molly is like [Lutjanus] malabricus [the Malabar blood snapper]. Erin is [L.] erythropterus [the crimson snapper]. I mean it’s only the same first letter, but it definitely came from the Latin names. Growing up, in elementary school, we had to memorize a lot of things. Everything from capital cities to Latin names, so I had to use tricks to memorize them, and sometimes it’s just associating them with other words. This is not really a tight association because the only overlap is just the first letter, but maybe it can also help people remember better what the species names are, or make them more memorable.

The children’s book A Snapper Tale features different species of Indonesia’s red-colored snappers. Image courtesy of Binatang Press!

Mongabay: The book really highlights fish identification. Why is this important, and why is this book a perfect platform to highlight it?

Elle Wibisono: Backtracking a little bit, I think fisheries is really important because I think most of our interaction with the ocean is through eating seafood. Only a subset of the population have access or the opportunity to go scuba diving or play by the beach. But most of our connection is through buying fish and eating fish or other types of seafood. The problem now is when we don’t know what species it is or it’s not marketed that way, it’s really hard to make good buying and eating choices. Because, for example, if we know that a certain type of red-colored snapper is overexploited and we want to make a conscious purchasing decision, but everything is just labeled red snapper, we can’t even make that good decision even if the intentions are there. So, I’m hoping that with this book, we’re starting to raise that issue and hopefully there will be consumer demands for better labeling and better transparency on what we’re buying and eating.

Mongabay: Why are the specific distinctions between one red-colored snapper and another so important?

Elle Wibisono: That’s because some of them grow really large while some don’t grow very big at all, and for the really large-growing snappers, the plate-sized ones that we catch are typically still babies. And we really don’t want to be catching the baby ones because they haven’t spawned yet. So, some of the population, depending on where they’re caught in Indonesia, are already fully exploited or close to overexploitation, whereas maybe there are other red snapper species that are still OK. So, all of it depends on the biology of each species.

Mongabay: From your process of making this book, what was the key to getting such an important, but also convoluted, message cross in a children’s book?

Elle Wibisono: I think that’s definitely the biggest challenge because I think as a scientist, you want to impart as much data and as much information into a lot of words as possible, but at the same time it would make a children’s book not readable. There were definitely a lot of revisions in the writing process and a lot of critiques. A lot of people had read the draft texts before I even started to make the illustrations to make sure that the message gets across, that it’s not too complicated. Children of friends also test-read it — I mean, they’re the main audience. So, it’s been through a lot of editorial process because, having been in this field for a while, sometimes you don’t know if something you’re sharing is new or not, or even if it’s complicated or not, because you’ve seen it so many times. So, having a fresh pair of eyes really helped. Personally, it was also a lesson in humility, that it’s OK to just impart a simple message. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. The message of this book is very simple: there are many species of red snapper. That’s literally the moral of the story from the scientific standpoint. And that’s OK to end there, we don’t need to have five bullet points coming out of the book. And at the same time, it challenges me to make, maybe, more books in the future that talk about different things and different topics. We don’t have to jam pack everything into one project.

The children’s book A Snapper Tale tells the story of a young red-colored snapper named Ellie in finding her school of friends. Image courtesy of Binatang Press!
The children’s book A Snapper Tale highlights the important fishery issue of specific identification as a key component of sustainable fisheries. Image courtesy of Binatang Press!

Mongabay: What are the takeaways that you hope the readers will put into action and carry forward in their daily lives?

Elle Wibisono: I think for the adult readers of this book, just keep making noise about the importance of traceability and knowing what you’re buying and eating. Because unless there’s a clear demand, I doubt that the industry is going to voluntarily reform itself or to make those efforts for better traceability and transparency.

For the children readers of this book, I hope that they’ll just keep on being interested in fish and knowing the different diversity of fish. Keep on learning about the ocean ecosystem. And stay curious.

Mongabay: Can you describe how those impacts could look like if extended into policy terms?

Elle Wibisono: Better data is always good because we can make better fisheries management decisions with better data. I think there are different ways to look at the extension. There are changes or reforms on the industry side where they make better purchasing and selling decisions. And also sharing better data to consumers, so people really know what they’re buying. I mean, right now there’s so much mislabeling going on. And then at the same time, consumers are also smarter because they know what they’re buying and eating, so the industry cannot cheat or lie because they’ll look at the product and say, “No, this is not what the label says it is.” And from the policy side, it could look like this through many different ways. There could be requirements for more details in what species are being sold. These big groups [like “red snapper”] don’t cut it anymore, for example. You need to be more prescriptive. I mean, internationally, sometimes there are demands for labels to be more accurate, like when exporting fish, for example. Maybe there will be more requirements like that in the future. Maybe better data collection, so that we know exactly how each of the fish species population is doing instead of this generalized picture of a group of species in the water. It could really take many different forms and pictures.

A Snapper Tale (2023) is written and illustrated by Elle Wibisono and published by Binatang Press! in Jakarta. It is available for purchase here.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

See related from this reporter:

Rule change sees foreign investors back in Indonesia’s fisheries scene

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