5 officials seen as key to bold oceans agenda

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

President Obama’s second term has been good to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The administration has made oceans a priority, putting NOAA in the midst of a governmentwide push to protect more marine area and expand climate change research. The agency’s weather satellites are more or less back on track, after years of delays and cost overruns. And Congress just unexpectedly funded a sorely needed ocean-survey vessel and backup polar-orbiting satellite.

Over the next year, NOAA officials will have to make good on a few promises — such as creating new marine sanctuaries — and put in place a road map to continue on the same path in the next administration.

Here are five officials who will help make it happen:

Richard Spinrad

NOAA’s portfolio is diverse — ranging from weather prediction to fisheries regulation to ocean research — and Spinrad is tasked with figuring out a way to prioritize it all.

As the agency’s chief scientist, he spends his time on strategy: What research should NOAA fund first? If its budget is cut, what is the first to go? How should the agency ensure cutting-edge research is actually applied in its operations?

Spinrad said he draws his ideas from a 30-year career that included stints in federal agencies, academia and the private sector.

“One advantage of having such a diverse background is I can pick some of best approaches and best practices I’ve seen,” he said.

Spinrad, 61, is a familiar face at NOAA. From 2005 to 2010, he was the agency’s assistant administrator for research, and before that, he led its oceans and coastal zone programs.

When Spinrad retired from the agency in 2010, he moved into academia, becoming the vice president for research at Oregon State University. But in 2014, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan persuaded him to return to the agency as its first chief scientist in a decade.

While he plays a big role behind the scenes, Spinrad is also the face of NOAA’s scientists — a role that has become more pronounced as House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) pressures the agency to hand over scientists’ emails on a landmark climate study. With the support of the scientific community, NOAA has refused to release them to Smith.

In an interview, Spinrad emphasized the caliber of NOAA’s scientific workforce, which includes more than 100 Nobel laureates. NOAA, he said, encourages scientists to serve in elected positions in scientific society and to give lectures on research.

Spinrad has been vocal about the need to federally fund research, penning a column in The Huffington Post with chief scientists from other agencies that emphasizes the role of basic research in American innovation.

“There’s an important need to strengthen public perspective on federal research,” he said in an interview. “Our nation having become the technological leader that it is is a result of the science that’s been done.”

John Armor

The Obama administration has made new marine sanctuaries part of its focus on ocean conservation, and Armor heads the NOAA office in charge of making that a reality.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages 13 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments. It’s poised to add two more sanctuaries to its network, after reopening the public nomination process last year. Obama announced the proposed sanctuaries in October.

This year “was just a huge year for this program,” said Armor, who is acting director of the office. In addition to the sanctuary proposals, NOAA doubled the size of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries off California’s coast. And last month, the United States and Cuba entered an agreement that set up sister sanctuaries between the two countries.

Armor, 40, has been involved in all of it, first joining the office in 2000. He got his start in Florida, overseeing permits for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He holds a bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of South Carolina and a master’s degree in environmental science from Johns Hopkins University.

In a normal year, his office oversees research, public awareness campaigns and resource management in all its sanctuaries.

The biggest challenge, Armor said, is “to be relevant to the communities we’re serving.”

“Managing these special areas effectively really does require community involvement, partnership and support, and that involvement really has to be from all corners of community,” Armor said, adding that every sanctuary and every community is different. “There’s really no formula at all.”

Next year comes with added responsibilities, jugging the usual tasks with orchestrating the public process for creating sanctuaries and developing a work plan for the agreement with Cuba.

“We’re going to be spending a lot of time making good on promises and building on the foundation we made in 2015,” Armor said.

Roger Griffis

Earlier this year, NOAA released its first-ever climate science strategy for fisheries, providing guidance on how to tackle fishery management as a warming and increasingly acidic ocean affects marine life.

The move made a statement — and angered a few Republicans, such as House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah. It also set an ambitious schedule that rests on the shoulders of Griffis, the climate change coordinator for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

Over the next year, Griffis will work with scientists and stakeholders in NMFS’s seven regions to create individual plans that lay out how each region will address the climate strategy’s objectives. Among the long-term goals: project future conditions and provide early warnings for changes.

“I’m very confident we can develop these plans,” Griffis said. “Not only with the teams developing them but also with the positive response and support we’ve gotten with the partners that we hope and need to be engaged.”

Griffis, 54, earned his bachelor’s in biology from Carleton College and his master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of California, Irvine. He got his start at NOAA through the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship, which places graduate students within federal agencies.

Griffis helped establish NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program in the wake of the first global coral bleaching event in 1998. As coordinator of the program, he worked with states, territories and eventually other countries to pinpoint the causes and consider the best way to manage them.

In some ways, that job was preparation for his current task. Scientists soon realized that climate change contributed to coral bleaching; now, they are discovering that a warming ocean is also leading to shifting fish stocks and changing ecosystems.

For those involved in the fishing industry, as well as resource managers, the new challenge is predicting the specifics.

“What everyone really wants to know is where are [the fish] going to be two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now?” Griffis said.

With his work focused on the national scale, Griffis said he uses some of his free time to tackle similar issues on the local scale. He works with a local land trust in West Virginia to conserve natural areas in the Cacapon and Lost River Valley.

It provides him with “on-the-ground conservation” he can see, he said, with the aim of protecting a network of areas where plants and animals can take refuge in a changing climate.

His other passion? Coaching his 11-year-old son’s soccer team.

Margaret Davidson

Davidson once swore she would never work for the federal government. Then, almost 20 years ago, NOAA successfully recruited her to head its Coastal Services Center.

Today she could be called the agency’s idea woman — or, in a title she admits is far too long, NOAA’s senior adviser for coastal inundation and resilience science and services.

“I’m not responsible for people or money,” she said in an interview. “I’m kind of like a Quaker. I sing for my supper.”

Davidson, 64, is no stranger to calling the shots: She has served as the agency’s acting assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service and as acting director of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

But in her current position, she can work across NOAA and even Commerce Department offices to advance science and services for coastal inundation, a big issue during a time of rising sea levels and more extreme weather.

Recently, for example, she helped develop a framework for how NOAA approaches coastal resiliency. A draft is expected out soon, and she hopes a final version will ensure the agency maintains its focus on the issue in the next administration.

“It can be a rocky deck for a few years at the end of an administration and the beginning of an administration,” Davidson said. “We all have a true north, and the trick is, during the midst of all that change and chaos, figuring out how you can work on that rocking boat.”

Davidson also pushed for Commerce to develop a leading economic indicator for the coast and ocean, just as it puts out such indictors for industries. Her tactic: talking about it at interagency and intra-agency meetings, funding a report on how much of the economy depends on the ocean, and even putting a staffer to work inside the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

She described her role as “kind of like Johnny Appleseed: Put the seeds out and then put some manure out and then find some people to be the agriculturalists.”

Commerce is now working on its first coast and ocean economic indicator, she said, calling it a “BFD,” or “big fucking deal.”

Though Davidson calls herself an “old fart,” she is still a BFD at NOAA.

Mary Erickson

As the West Coast faces the prospect of another harmful algal bloom this year, Erickson is working on improving the forecast and detection of such ecological events.

Erickson is director of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science within NOAA’s National Ocean Service. Coastal regions face mounting challenges — from increased flooding to algal blooms to bigger populations — and NCCOS provides the tools that can ease the way.

The West Coast’s algal bloom, for example, closed down a lucrative crab fishery and spread toxins throughout the marine ecosystem. It was the most toxic bloom ever recorded in the area, and it underlined the need for better ecological forecasts.

Erickson aims to do just that, armed with more than 20 years of experience within NOAA’s National Weather Service. The longtime NOAA employee moved to the National Ocean Service in 2005.

Within the next few years, Erickson hopes to release new “detection tools” that identify which blooms are harmful, where they are and where they’re headed.

Her office is also working to find better ways to protect shorelines and help communities handle increasing nuisance flooding.

In an email, she emphasized the “increasing pressures” facing coastal regions, including new industries, greater population density and shifts in weather patterns.

“We are working to predict the impacts of these shifts, and developing science-based solutions and tools to balance economic and ecosystem growth and sustainability,” Erickson said, with partners from local governments, academia, nonprofits and the private sector.

Even when not at work, Erickson seeks challenges. Asked for her hobbies, she listed “solving tough puzzles.”

CREDIT: EENews.net