A Scientist's Adventure on the Hill

Written by Phil Levin, Conservancy Lead Scientist

The gentle rocking of the train car subsides as it pulls into the station called “The Mall”.  My fellow passengers, dressed in the uniform of The City, and wearing important frowns, look up in synchrony from their phones.  We join the scurrying masses through subterranean tubes, eventually rising to the surface where we step on the stage of history.  Sandwiched between the U.S. Capital and Lincoln Memorial, I can only smile, as I make my way along the National Mall to the business entrance of the Capital. 

A very large man with a very large rifle greeted me and my colleagues as we made our way through security and into a conference room on the Senate side of the building.  I’ve given briefings on the Hill before, but this was my first time as a Nature Conservancy rather than government (NOAA) employee.  The reason for my smile is now clear to me—since I am no longer a representative of the executive branch, I am allowed to eat Congressional cookies!

The conference room was overflowing with 50 Senate and House staffers, all of whom focus on ocean issues.  We were there to roll-out a new report from the Lenfest Fishery Ecosystem Task Force.  The report, Building Effective Fishery Ecosystem Plans, provides guidance to fisheries managers on implementing ecosystem-based fisheries management—a holistic place-based approach that seeks to sustain fisheries by maintaining healthy, productive and resilient ecosystems.   The Task Force, convened with support from the Lenfest Ocean Program, consisted of 14 preeminent fisheries scientists from around the U.S. and world.   Timothy Essington, of the University of Washington and I led the task force.

Our report highlights that connections matter. Indeed, this is the unifying principle of ecosystem-based fisheries management. Ecological connections matter because fishing affects target species, predators, prey, competitors, bycatch species, and habitat. Economic connections matter because management affects fishermen, wholesalers, retailers, and recreational fishing guides. And social connections matter because fishing supports families, communities and cultures. 

While many have noted the importance of ecological, economic and social connections for oceans and people, fisheries managers have had a difficult time bringing this principle into practice.  We concluded that a structured process for establishing goals and translating them into action is critical for overcoming the barriers to including these important connections in fisheries management.  

As the briefing concluded, staffers immediately started asking questions.  They were nonpartisan.   They poked, dissected and deconstructed the information we provided them. They looked for connections between existing or planned legislation and executive orders.  They conjured their boss as they sought clarification. They were smart, engaged critical thinkers.  Looking out at them, it struck me that they seemed so young-mostly in their late 20s-30s. Realizing that these young staffers are the engine that make our government work, gave me great hope.

After additional briefings at the White House Council for Environmental Quality and the National Marine Fisheries Service, we were exhausted but further encouraged by those who work for our environment.   I walked across downtown DC as the indigo night sky warmed the edges of the austere city.  I joined the herds of suited laborers, ties loosened, and migrated home.  The work has just begun.