Staff Focus: Sustainability Director Making Waves with Whale Conservation Documentary

To say Jeff Mittelstadt isn't an "office guy" would be an understatement. Now working as Davidson's director of sustainability, over the last few years Mittelstadt '99 has shown up to work in various spaces from the wooded marshlands of Eastern North Carolina to a lobster fishing boat in Maine–in December, no less.

Why would anyone choose to spend time on a fishing boat in freezing weather? Well, there's a story there, and someone's got to tell it.

The founder of WildSides, a nonprofit that produces documentary films and educational media related to conservation efforts, Mittelstadt braved the freezing temperatures as part of a documentary film project about the North Atlantic right whale.

And the 15-hour days, frozen fingers and camera equipment casualties were worth it, as his 8-minute video, "Plight of the North Atlantic Right Whale," has earned international recognition. In 2013 it was awarded "Best Conservation Message" at the Beneath the Waves Film Festival in Savannah, Ga., and continues to be shown in different venues nationally and abroad.

All about perspective

"I think one of the most effective ways to communicate is visually," Mittelstadt said. "Viewers can better relate to and really feel people's perspectives."

Mittelstadt's focus on different individual perspectives is at the core of what he does. With every documentary, he talks to stakeholders on all sides of an issue, and in doing so, reveals often-unrealized similarities among groups as well as their more obvious differences.

For example, the biggest threats to the right whale's survival are vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. So for his right whale video, Mittelstadt spoke to a senior oceanic research specialist and a whale and dolphin conservation biologist, as well as a whale watching tour boat captain and a lobster fisherman. In hearing each person's perspective on the issue of whale conservation, viewers not only learned of the ways in which right whales are being injured and killed, but they also heard first-hand accounts of how restrictions on large vessel speed and equipment requirements for fishermen affect the livelihoods of the ship captains and fishermen.

Finding similarities, fostering understanding

"Until you see that there are similarities [among stakeholders], there is just going to be fighting," Mittelstadt said.

He remembers the "a-ha" moment when, during interviews for another documentary, a deer hunter learned that a red wolf biologist Mittelstadt interviewed also hunted deer. Red wolves kill deer, so a common assumption among hunters is that red wolf conservationists don't respect deer hunters/hunting. Often, deer hunters view conservationists' work as a threat to their livelihood, Mittelstadt explained.

"By hearing their points of view in their own words, and seeing footage of them at work or in the field, you see their emotion, or lack thereof; you hear their voices; you see them interact with others and hear them talk about others," Mittelstadt said, and the experience is enlightening.

The red wolf is the focus of a long-term project for Mittelstadt, and he is working on another video on the conflict between Florida panther conservationists and cattle ranchers.

A psychology major at Davidson, Mittelstadt has always been interested in behavior--human and animal (or human as animal, he says). At Davidson he focused specifically on visual cognition, and then worked at the University of South Florida researching visual cognition. There he also took classes in environmental science.

He went on to earn a master's degree in environmental management from Duke University, and later earned an MBA as well as a master's degree in journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Throughout his studies, he remained acutely aware of the fact that every issue has multiple sides, and every stakeholder has a story to tell.

Somewhat ironically, the first class he dropped in his journalism graduate program was documentary photojournalism. He dropped it because he needed more time than the assignments would allow to build relationships with people in order to convey their perspectives accurately, he said. Now, as a professional filmmaker, he allows himself the time he needs to do the job right. That includes building rapport and trust with the stakeholders so that the footage of them is honest and accurate.

In taking the time to really talk with people on both sides of the issue, Mittelstadt tells a more accurate, complete story and opens the door for mutual understanding.

"Stakeholder engagement and understanding is what leads to sustainability," he said, and requires a "whole-systems" approach to the issue.

"I tell people, you are not obligated to agree with other perspectives, but you are obligated to understand them."

Mittelstadt's "Plight of the North Atlantic Right Whale" will be shown Feb. 8 at the Sea Change Ocean Conservation Film Series hosted by Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and the Wellfleet Harbor Actor's Theatre on Cape Cod.