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  Madi at the NOAA Headquarters office in Silver Spring, MD.

Fish Out of Water

18 August, 2017

Guest blogger: Madi Harris (MESM 2018)


“The subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard will now come to order,” the majority chairman declared as he slammed his gavel, compelling a silence in the room.

It was hard to imagine finding myself here, only a week into my summer internship with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, hurriedly scribbling notes in the back of a U.S. Senate chamber room. My past experience in federal politics (read: binge-watching several seasons of The West Wing last summer) had hardly prepared me for the formality and weight of sitting in the same room with our nation’s lawmakers. And that weight was especially tangible because today, they happened to be debating the merits of the very system of national protected areas that my host office oversees.

Working in the Washington D.C. area has left me feeling out of my comfort zone. As a Southern California native, my marine conservation experience had previously been limited to working at, near, or ideally in the ocean. So trying my hand in federal policy at an executive agency promised to provide a particularly striking contrast.

Though I spent most of my days at NOAA’s Headquarters in the DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, surprises like the senate hearing on Capitol Hill have become the new normal for the Sanctuaries Office this summer. With the recent change in administration, this small NOAA program was entering the spotlight, as new executive orders as well as Senate and House hearings aimed to precisely dissect and review the program. With this heightened attention, came a new, extra workload for NOAA staff. Thus, upon arriving, I wasted no time jumping into strategy meetings with the policy and planning team, reviewing huge environmental compliance documents, and gathering information to support two new sanctuary site designations.

  Madi attending a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the national marine sanctuaries program on Capitol Hill.

I was impressed by how much work the office managed. On top of keeping up with the changes of the new administration, the office also has to fulfill its mandate of managing the system’s thirteen sanctuaries and one marine monument across the country. In any given project, from national permit guidance to management plan review, I found myself focusing on understanding a particular site, like Monterey Bay or the Florida Keys, down to the individual species level. But then a meeting with the NOAA General Counsel would remind me to take a step back and remember to consider Executive Order 13766 (…or was it 13795? …92?) in my analysis.

This contrast between local protections and federal level jurisdiction exemplifies the different pressures and interests the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries responds to every day. From the West Coast to the Great Lakes and through executive orders and boxes and boxes of public comments arriving in the mail, the program’s scientists, policymakers, and educators provide consistency in achieving the mission of the National Marine Sanctuary System.

So here I am, far away from being in the ocean itself, but still swimming in policy documents and legal opinions. After working alongside Sanctuary staff through these challenges, it’s safe to say I have a new appreciation for all that their job entails. Despite unanticipated directives, changes in funding, and other challenges that come with federal level jurisdiction, staff at headquarters and at sanctuary sites continue to be dedicated to the program’s mandate. They collaborate to provide ecosystem-level management that is science-based, supportive of local economies, and focused on public education and ocean literacy. And it is that hard work that ensures the continued protection of our ocean’s special places – across the country and across presidential administrations, as well.

Madi Harris is a 2018 MESM student specializing in Coastal and Marine Resource Management with a focus in Strategic Environmental Communication and Media. This summer she is interning with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and enjoying the East Coast summer thunderstorms in Silver Spring, Maryland.