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GES Alumni Profiles

UNM grad grapples with the complexities of the aquarium fish trade

As a graduate student at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, UNM alumni Bryce Risley spent seven weeks over winter break in Sri Lanka—not for vacation, but to embark on critical fieldwork for his research. Historically, Sri Lanka has been the third largest supplier of saltwater aquarium fish for the American market.

Risley earned his B.S. in Geography and Environmental Studies in 2014, and even though he focused on GIS, he says he was drawn more and more to human geography. Today, he’s working on a dual master’s degree in marine biology and marine policy to understand the trade in marine ornamental fish species. His interest in aquariums goes all the way back to his youth, and he jokes that his grandparents are responsible “for all this mess.” They were docents at the Albuquerque Zoo, helped raise money to build Albuquerque’s aquarium, and co-founded the Albuquerque Aquarium Association. As a child, he used to shadow them, learning the names of the fish, and later, he worked at the Albuquerque Biological Park.

But having achieved what he had considered his “dream job”—at Denver’s Downtown Aquarium—he got burned out, he says. “I wanted to be doing something more than tank-scrubbing and husbandry,” he says. He wanted to understand the aquarium fish trade beyond the walls of aquariums, which is the very end of the supply chain—where animals end up. “I wanted to understand the supply chain, in its totality, including the supplying countries and the communities that the trade depends on,” he says.

Fish are caught off the coast of places like Sri Lanka, where men work under oftentimes dangerous conditions, diving alone with old or partial scuba equipment. And while there are animal welfare issues all along the supply chain—including at the end of the chain, where Risley points out that the animals end up living in “glass boxes”—there are complex social, economic and environmental issues all along the way.

Many people understand that the world’s coral reefs are in danger, due to climate change and ocean acidification, as well as coastal development projects. But communities that rely upon fishing, and the fish trade, are also threatened. Risley worries, he says, about what happens to those communities in the future. And studying geography has helped him grapple with questions about how cultural and socio-economic factors influence the supply chain and the stakeholders. “There is so much complexity behind the relationships,” he says. “There’s also a history behind it.”

Like many other graduates from the Geography and Environmental Studies Department, Risley’s undergraduate education in Geography helped shape his understanding of the world, and guide the questions he asks within his research in marine biology and marine policy. And as a scientist, Risley doesn’t want to just gather and analyze data. He also wants to represent the voices of those who are a part of the supply chain. “There is a lack of representation,” he says. “And what’s important to me is telling a story about the actual people participating in the trade.”


Sylvan, ‘11 exemplifies GES Department’s varied strengths

With diverse and dynamic instructors and course offerings, the Geography and Environmental Studies Department has graduated students who are working as alums in varied fields around the country.

Chris Sylvan earned his B.S. from GES in 2011, and even though he sometimes thinks of his career as having followed a circuitous route, Sylvan reflects the department’s breadth and depth well. He began his academic career in GES focused on mapping and GIS, but became intrigued by issues related to food and natural resources, and then policy and politics.

As a student and following graduation, Sylvan worked on both the campaign and policy sides of politics. He served as an intern for then-Rep. Martin Heinrich, worked on the congressional campaign of Eric Griego, and hustled around southern New Mexico as a campaign coordinator for the Democratic Party. Until about a year ago, he worked as a policy analyst for Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson.

Today, Sylvan is the Community Policing Council manager for the City of Albuquerque. Each of the six Albuquerque Police area commands has a council, and even though they precede the U.S. Department of Justice’s mandate for the city to address APD’s use of force, the councils gained increased visibility after the implementation of the settlement between DOJ and APD. It’s Sylvan's job to manage the six councils—to ensure members have what they need to foster better policing and better community-police relationships.

“It’s a balancing act,” he says. “You have to balance the personalities of the six councils and all their members.” Sometimes that means navigating skirmishes, and it always means working collaboratively with community members, DOJ, and APD. “The dynamics are incredible,” he says. “And I love it. Every day is different.”

He likens his work as a policy analyst for one city councilor to being an undergraduate. “You have to know all these different things, and how to tie them together,” he says. Meanwhile, working for the Community Policing Council is like graduate school: “The work is intense, it’s huge, and it’s heavy.”

Sylvan hopes more young people start showing up at council meetings and becoming involved with the councils in their area. When it comes to improving policing and community relationships, he says that people want to see immediate, wholesale change. But that’s not possible, he says, when cultural and generational changes need to occur. Getting youth involved is an important step to making those long-term cultural and structural changes.

Sylvan is also a board member of the Rio Grande Community Farm. And he's Senior Olympian: he just officially qualified to compete next year in the 800- and 1,500- meter track events.

Having lived in Albuquerque since 1998, Sylvan still loves to explore New Mexico, and remembers fondly first arriving in the state. “I loved looking at the map and saying, ‘I’m going to go here: Elephant Butte, the Jemez, Roy, Kiowa National Grasslands,’” he says. “I explored the whole state.” And he laughs, he loved being a geography major.