CELS Alumnus Saving the Ocean, One Law at a Time
For Michael Conathan, University of Rhode Island was a factor in kick starting his career in marine politics. After many years working in journalism, publishing, and the entertainment industry, he decided to return to his passion: saving the ocean. In 2003, Conathan went back to school to get his masters in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island.
During his time at URI, Conathan helped found the URI Chapter of The Coastal Society, where he addressed emerging coastal issues. Conathan said his most memorable moments were developing relationships with fellow students and faculty.
“It was a relatively small department, 3-4 dozen folks working together,” Conathan added. “I still have great friendships from that group. That kind of camaraderie is something you don’t experience a whole lot in the outside world.”
With the help of Conathan’s major professor, Dr. Larry Juda, he was awarded a Knauss Sea Grant Sea Grant Fellowship through NOAA. The fellowship took him to Washington D.C. where he worked for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R, ME) the Chair of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. Knowledge gained from his URI classes, such as coastal zone management and international law, enabled Conathan to assist in the formation of many laws during his fellowship, including the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act; the main law governing fisheries management in the U.S.
After a year as a fellow, Conathan joined the Committee as a full time staff member and spent four years working on ocean and climate change legislation. Key accomplishments included passage of U.S. Coast Guard authorization bills, and also helping to strengthen shark fishing management requirements in the Shark-Conservation Act, which helped leverage international talks to prevent shark finning.
Today, Conathan is the director/founder of Ocean Policy for the Center for American Progress where he believes there is a connection between environmental sustainability and economic growth. He works with Congressional offices, the Obama administration, ocean industries, and environmental groups to promote sustainable, science-based ocean policies, including new efforts by the administration to combat illegal pirate fishing and last year established the largest network of marine monuments—the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument which now protects nearly half a million square miles of ocean space from industrialization in the remotest reaches of American territory in the region.
Most recently, Conathan surveyed ground fishermen (cod and flounder) and discovered that fishermen are now starting to fear climate change after seeing tangible evidence such as decreasing fish populations. He hopes the results of the project will lead to changes in fishery management and climate change policy to prevent future fishery losses before it is too late.
Conathan would like to see the oceans elevated in the nation’s political discourse, maybe even the presidential elections.
“I don’t think people understand how closely, directly, and constantly we are connected to the ocean,” he said. “We must figure out how to make people think about the ocean in ways they have not before. And understand that if we don’t clean up our act, our favorite vacation spots won’t be there anymore.”