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From Cape Cod to Capitol Hill

To be fair, though, I’m not technically a marine biologist.  Marine biology is a huge field and includes people working on all kinds of critters in the marine environment – from tiny zooplankton to the big whales.  I’m a “marine mammal conservation biologist” – not quite as catchy, but a lot more specific.  I work with marine mammals, I study their biology, and I figure out how to turn that knowledge into conservation.

And sometimes, I get to go out on a boat.

Fieldwork is the cool, exciting, photogenic part of the work we do here at WDC, to make sure that we are developing conservation initiatives based on the best available science.  Being out on the water and collecting data about whales and dolphins is a vital part of our job – we’ve looked at scars on humpback whales to determine how often they’re being struck by vessels, followed the progression of a new type of feeding behavior, and are able to track individuals and populations over time.  Not only is fieldwork a lot of fun, it helps to collect important information on individual whales and the communities and habitats they live in.

But the flip side of that, the behind-the-scenes policy work, is decidedly less glamorous.  It involves taking all that fieldwork, collected by WDC and many, many others, and figuring out what it means for conservation and protection.  How do we make sure fewer are getting stuck by vessels or entangled?  How do we protect their foraging areas?  Their calving grounds?  How do we use what we’ve learned to make sure whales, dolphins, and all marine mammals are around for years to come, helping make our oceans and our planet healthier?

The 'whale pump'

It involves a lot of time behind computer screens, reading and writing petitions, letters, and expert comments to management agencies, creating campaigns and action opportunities to encourage public participation; a lot of time in conference calls and meetings with our partners; and a lot of time in classrooms and lecture halls talking to people about how cool whales are, why they need our help, and why they’re so important to our planet.  Sometimes it also calls for trips to Washington, D.C., to reach out directly to our legislators and ask them to step up for marine mammals.

Earlier this month, I experienced both sides of our work in a pretty short timespan – on a Sunday, I was out the Easterly in almost-freezing weather, collecting data on which humpback whales are lingering in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary this late into the season, and three days later, I was spending the day at our Nation’s Capitol lobbying to save the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) from serious attacks in Congress.  The MMPA is a landmark conservation law, providing vital protection to all marine mammals, and is the first piece of legislation to include the “precautionary principle” – meaning that in the face of uncertain impacts, we err on the side of caution.

It involves a lot of time behind computer screens, reading and writing petitions, letters, and expert comments to management agencies, creating campaigns and action opportunities to encourage public participation; a lot of time in conference calls and meetings with our partners; and a lot of time in classrooms and lecture halls talking to people about how cool whales are, why they need our help, and why they’re so important to our planet.  Sometimes it also calls for trips to Washington, D.C., to reach out directly to our legislators and ask them to step up for marine mammals.

Earlier this month, I experienced both sides of our work in a pretty short timespan – on a Sunday, I was out the Easterly in almost-freezing weather, collecting data on which humpback whales are lingering in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary this late into the season, and three days later, I was spending the day at our Nation’s Capitol lobbying to save the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) from serious attacks in Congress.  The MMPA is a landmark conservation law, providing vital protection to all marine mammals, and is the first piece of legislation to include the “precautionary principle” – meaning that in the face of uncertain impacts, we err on the side of caution.


Sadly, the MMPA, the Endangered Species Act, and many other regulations, agencies, and laws intended to keep our planet – the home we share with literally millions of other species – clean, healthy, and safe, are under serious attack.  The policy work that WDC does – the unexciting, complicated, thorny business of conservation – is crucial in the face of these attacks.  Things have gotten even more urgent in the past year, as we fight harder just to maintain the status quo.

The MMPA has undoubtedly helped marine mammals in U.S. waters.  Deaths from bycatch and entanglement have gone down for many species.  Seals, sea lions, and sea otters have rebounded off the west coast.  Gray whales recovered from near-extinction.  The MMPA is held up as a standard for ocean protection around the world.  Some marine mammal populations are still at risk, including North Atlantic right whales, Gulf of Maine humpback whales, and the Southern Resident orcas (all primary populations of focus for WDC), but their situation would be much worse without the protection of the MMPA.

Right now, the most serious threat comes from the oil and gas industry in H.R. 3133, which has been added to the anti-environmental juggernaut of H.R. 4239, the SECURE energy act.  This legislation would eviscerate core protections of the MMPA to make it easier for offshore drillers and seismic testers to harm marine mammals.  I worked hard with my colleagues on Capitol Hill to make sure our legislators understand just how bad this bill is for marine mammals and our oceans.

You can help us win this fight, without spending your day in front of the computer or risking frostbite and seasickness on a boat in winter weather!  Read more about H.R. 3133 and how it would harm marine mammals, and then help us take action (details on how to take action is on our H.R. 3133 info page).

  • Write to your legislators – signing a petition or sending an email might be easier, but handwritten letters have an even bigger impact because it shows just how much you care.
  • Send an email – the next best thing is a personalized email to your elected officials.
  • Call their office and tell them to defend the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Sign a petition.
  • Share with everyone you know and ask them to help you help marine mammals!
  • Support WDC’s work to create a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.