NOAA teams up with PNCA for an educational video about crucial nearshore habitat

Spring 2013

Young salmon like messy waterfronts. They want broken branches, bits of moss and plants, lots of bugs and detritus to eat. They thrive in rock-filled waters, but they need variety, from pebbles that collect soil to boulders that block the sun and create places to hide.

This is not the picture of a modern home or business waterfront on a river or in Puget Sound. Those places favor order and cleanliness: a nice lawn with a clearly defined border, perhaps a stout bulkhead or a slope of gravel to prevent erosion. The conflict is an old one: what we think we want as a property owner may make a lovely picture, but it’s exactly what young salmon don’t want, or need. 

For young salmon facing a formidable two or three years in the ocean, a vegetated, shallow water habitat with woody debris and rocks lets them stay cool, eat and grow, and escape predators as they transition to life in the ocean. NOAA’s challenge is finding a way to send this message to shoreline property owners without getting so technical that landowners simply ignore the message.

screenshotOn occasion there’s even the opportunity to break out of the bureaucracy and step into a world of innovation, imagination, and art. Such is clearly the case in an ongoing collaboration between the NOAA Fisheries Service Northwest Region and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, in Portland. The goal of the collaboration is to pique the interest and awareness of landowners whose property borders a river or stream so that they’ll consider making their waterfront property more salmon friendly. 

“Because NOAA is a science agency,” said Katherine Cheney, head of the agency’s regional communications team in Portland, “we tend to use technical language that may turn people off.  We need to communicate our science to a non-technical audience.”

And what better way to do this than through the medium of animation?  In late 2012, Cheney called Rose Bond – “out of the blue,” as Cheney later recalled -- head of the animation division at the nearby Pacific Northwest College of Art, and laid out a proposal: could your students produce a short animated film that illustrates the importance of shorelines, looking at traditional methods for protecting them so that they can be modified to support healthy salmon habitat?

“I thought it was a great idea, creative and bold.” said Bond.  “What better way for a couple of our students to apply their talents in a way that combines art, social issues, and a call to action?”

beryl and john workingAnd the students selected to produce the video were a perfect fit. Colorado native Beryl Alee wrote the story and created the illustrations. Beryl, 18, always wanted to be an artist and published her first work at the age of 11. The student behind the animation and sound design is John Summerson, who says his goal is to make sound be more than just narrative. “The really fun part is using the emotional part of sound in animation,” he insists.

The animation team will be awarded $1000 when the project is completed at the end of May. And they’ll both get to add a socially innovative art project to their portfolios.  NOAA will get a film made with passion and imagination that will deliver a message that it hopes will resonate with an important audience.

“The hardest part,” says Cheney, only partly tongue in cheek, “is going to be convincing our scientists here that a salmon can talk.”

Right: animation team: Beryl Allee, story and illustration, and John Summerson, animation and sound. Photo by Rose Bond. 

Illustrations: Home page; juvenile salmon exploring an altered landscape. This page; top: young salmon in natal environment. Center; bird's eye view of nearshore, shallow water habitat. All illustrations by Beryl Allee.