Alli Candelmo: Steward of the Keys’ Marine Environment

Alli Candelmo, Ph.D., has remarkable experience in conservation outreach, from surveying reefs for marine parks in tiny Malaysian fishing villages to studying manta rays in Hawaii and netting lionfish in the Turks & Caicos islands.
With an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a minor in natural resource management from Rutgers University, Alli later obtained a doctorate in ecology and evolution.
Her academic research has examined a number of anthropogenic — or human-made — impacts on coastal ecosystems and early-life history of finfish, including toxicants, ocean acidification and increased temperatures.
“Keys Traveler” wanted to know more about this scientist who, now age 40, has forged a career that nearly took her to the world’s largest biotech company, Roche, as a pharmaceutical chemist, and today positively impacts the environment of the Florida Keys in big ways.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Keys and why?
Alli Candelmo: I wanted to build on my studies of lionfish, and relocated to the Keys in July 2018 when the Invasive Species Program Manager position with Reef Environmental Education Foundation became available.
I’d already had experience with population dynamics and management strategies of invasive lionfish in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos, where I was a research associate and lecturer, helping communities improve removal efforts and gain a better understanding of invasive lionfish.
And I was fortunate to have been a part of the Grouper Moon project in 2016 and 2017 (an annual scientific collaboration between REEF and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment scientists) on Little Cayman. We were studying fish eggs, how they are affected by temperature changes, their early life stages and the spawning aggregation of Nassau and tiger grouper.
KT: What aspects of the Keys’ environment or way of life matter most to you?
AC: I’m a marine ecologist and love to be surrounded and immersed in the marine environment from coral reefs to open ocean, mangroves, estuaries, bays and beaches. I am happiest when I’m near or in the water, surrounded by nature.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
AC: I have been passionate about protecting the natural world since I was a child. Marine ecosystems are where my heart is, and enjoying and protecting them is my primary personal and professional goal.
I spent a year in Borneo, Malaysia, working with a nonprofit and later with a scientist from Malaysia University. My work was immersive on a very remote island — population 20.
I learned how to conduct fish and coral surveys, studied the impacts of oil dispersants on coral reefs in the area and helped the local fishing community recognize the threats of, and alternatives to, dynamiting the reefs to harvest fish. It was there I learned to scuba dive. I’d only snorkeled once before. But I was hooked!
KT: How does that passion influence your profession?
AC: My work with REEF is directly related to the passion I have for conserving marine ecosystems. Since moving to the Keys, the people I have met through work and friends have been inspiring and have each shown me, in their own way, the beauty and excitement the Keys has to offer. 
KT: What are some ways, personally or through work, that you connect with or help to protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
AC: Through work I organize community outreach events including lionfish workshops and derbies to educate the public of the threat of the invasive species, encourage regular removal of lionfish from the reefs to reduce impact on the native species and encourage consumption of lionfish as an alternative to those threatened native species.
I regularly volunteer for local community programs such as beach cleanup and marine debris removal events to reduce plastic impacts on our ecosystems. My boundary between “personal” and “work” is a fine line. As a scientist and “a local,” it makes it a lot more enjoyable.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged or focused on your path?
AC: I think my experience developing hands-on science activities makes me a strong advocate for conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems.
Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to be a part of more once-in-a-lifetime experiences than I could have ever dreamed — through travel, diving and research. These epic encounters with whales, sharks, manta rays, thousands of spawning grouper, coral blanketed seamounts, volcanoes, breathtaking views from the tops of mountains and turquoise seas keep me energized and focused.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
AC: I hope to educate and impact enough people each year that they make a choice that will lead to a positive impact on the environment and our work can lead to exponential changes. Through research, I hope to improve management and conservation strategies of local and international stakeholders. 
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
AC: I hope my actions communicate that conservation and outreach efforts can be enjoyable and lead to amazing opportunities, and encourage more people to become actively involved. There are so many engaged divers and citizens in the Keys. They are so responsive to volunteering.
Being ecologically minded makes your activities more enjoyable. My philosophy has been to “say yes to everything,” which I believe evolves into new opportunities — and you get invited to do the really cool stuff.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
AC: Breathing underwater is my favorite natural activity. I love scuba diving with a purpose, internationally and in the Keys. And if we’re spearing a few lionfish for dinner, it’s even better.