Fishermen aren’t alone in their dedication to fish. This episode, I talk with Michele (Robinson) Conrad, a fishery manager from Washington State with years of experience under her belt working on marine fisheries and ecosystems. Michele shares with us about what it means, and the many partners it takes, to manage fish as a sustainable resource. We chat about how an interest in wildlife led Michele to fishery management, the foundational basics of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and what climate-ready fisheries look like.
Welcome to Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront. This is a podcast series of recorded interviews and stories about the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries, as told by the people who spend their days catching, managing and researching fish from the ocean. In today's episode, we talk to Michele Robinson, a fisheries manager from Olympia, Washington, and principal of OceanBeat Consulting. I'm Alliyah Lusuegro, and this is a production of Ocean Conservancy.
Hey, what's up y'all? I'm back. Let's reorient a bit. In our last two episodes, I had the honor of talking with recreational fishermen from the East Coast, and I learned a lot from them. I heard how they grew up learning to fish with their family, which species are moving in and out of their waters, and also what it will take to keep up the experiences that we cherish as we deal with changing waters and climate change.
But for this episode, I wanted to expand to other people who work with fish. So that's why I was pumped to talk to Michelle Robinson, a fisheries manager from the West Coast.
First things first. What is a fisheries manager and what exactly do they manage? Well, fisheries managers are planners and decision makers. They take care of what fish are to us, and that is a resource. And, you know, a resource could be used for many things by different groups. And so the job of a fisheries manager is to consider the needs, the tradeoffs, the objectives of the fishery. They also work with tons of people who have a stake like scientists and fishermen.
So because of her experience, Michele Robinson shared great background about how fisheries management works in the U.S., the focus of our episode. We’ve previously seen what fish means to people, but how do we take care of it? Cue my interview with Michele.
I'm Michele Robinson and I own my own business. It's called OceanBeat Consulting. And I spent the majority of my career working for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and working on ocean fisheries and ocean ecosystems, and left the department back in 2020 and formed my own consultancy.
I'm based in Olympia, Washington, which is about halfway between Seattle and Portland, Oregon, and it's about 60 miles inland from the Pacific Coast, from the beaches in Washington. There is waterfront down here. We're kind of at the southern end of Puget Sound which is a large estuary bay that is where Seattle and most of the major ports are.
Awesome. What is Olympia known for?
Yeah, Olympia is the state capital. And if there's a lot of local beer. Washington State is known for growing a lot of produce and making a lot of wine. And so Olympia has got like a local farmer's market. It's got just kind of a laidback atmosphere to it. And most of the people who work here do work in state government because it's the capital.
Oh, I did not know that. And also, you reminded me that it is the capital of Washington. So that is good to know for my next trivia night.
I want to rewind a bit and learn more about your background. I'm a huge believer that how and where we grew up can deeply shape our connection with the environment and our ocean. So where are you from and where is home for you?
Yeah, I'm originally from Hawaii, and my dad was in the Air Force, and so we moved around a lot. After Hawaii lived in actually Newfoundland. And then California. Italy. And then Illinois before coming out to Washington, which is where my dad was born and grew up. And so he retired from the military in Washington and we settled out here when I started high school, and I've been here ever since.
But I still feel like Hawaii is home. Being in Hawaii and having that connection to just being outdoors, to the ocean and the reliance on ocean resources, having access to locally caught seafood and fresh seafood, fresh produce. I really look forward to connecting back with Hawaii and my home.
Yeah, that's awesome, and something I really resonate with. I am used to moving around. I've done that since growing up in the Philippines and actually like living in California and having experience in the West Coast where a lot of my family is. Being more inland in Chicago. One of them for me was Hawaii, which is why I'm so excited to talk to you. I studied there during my undergrad in Oahu at University of Hawaii at Manoa.
I always enjoy going to Hawaii and taking a lot of nature hikes and seeing botanical gardens and just walking on the beaches.
My favorite spot is actually up in the northwestern tip of the island. It's called Kaena Point, and it's a section of where the road does not continue around the island. And so there's actually a bird refuge and a sanctuary that you can access through a walking trail on either end, and that's kind of my favorite place to get away and explore.
You studied at Evergreen State College which is in Olympia. Your focus started out in human biology and physiology. And then along the way, you made that switch to environmental science. When was that light bulb moment for you?
I initially was interested in studying human biology, and that kind of grew into zoology and studying animals more broadly and then into wildlife. And I had the opportunity to do an internship at the Department of Wildlife working on birds.
I did both bird surveys in eastern Washington, which tend to be game birds, and then I also did surveys out on the Olympic coast doing marbled murrelet surveys. Marbled murrelets spend a great deal of time of their lives out in the ocean. So they're an ocean dwelling seabird that then flies about 50 miles straight in from the Pacific to cliffs in Washington to nest.
So that was a really good connection for me, for the wildlife and then transitioning to fisheries. So a fisheries biologist position came open at Fish and Wildlife after I graduated, and I applied for that and have spent most of my career then working on marine fish fisheries in the ocean and working with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, eventually serving on the Council as the state representative.
What was that like to start working at the Department of Fish and Wildlife?
The Departments of Fish and Wildlife were separate departments and they merged just shortly after I started working there. And by that time, on the fisheries side, we have state fisheries in the ocean and federal fisheries in the ocean, whereas in wildlife we really only had state management for all wildlife species. And so it was a very different dynamic learning about the governance system. I was really reliant on most of the staff at the department or across very different disciplines from the science group to other fishery managers to enforcement.
And we really had to coordinate with everyone from the data collection collecting the biological data on the fish as they were being harvested and brought to shore, as well as then doing the lab work. And using that data into stock assessments that tell us what the status of the different fish populations…
What do we mean by “stock”? So a stock here is a stock of fish that refers to a group or population of fish that is managed as a unit, but can also refer to a bunch of species managed together. So the stock that we're talking about is not the type you can trade on Wall Street. Although imagine a slice of New York City in business suits dealing with tuna or cod or salmon. Isn't that an interesting image?
…And then using that information to formulate fishery regulations that we would either adopt at the state level or take through the Pacific Fishery Management Council process. And then coordinating with enforcement to make sure that our rules and regulations were understandable and enforceable. And throughout all of this, also just working with various stakeholders, both sportfishing and commercial fishing, charter operators, and conservation groups and just the public at large.
So you mentioned that when you were at the agency, you were on the Pacific Council and was actually the state representative on the Council. Can you walk us through that?
Yeah. So I started working in the council process and on the Habitat Committee, and that was back in 1998. And then I added the highly migratory species, and at that time it was the plan development team. So we were drafting a brand new fishery management plan and that took a couple of years. And then after the plan was developed, I was on the HMS management team as well as the groundfish management team. And then I started serving on the council as the State Representative beginning in 2006, and I served on the council for 15 years through 2020.
And 2006 was also a big year for the Magnuson Stevens Act. So what role does the council have with this key federal legislation that guides how federal fisheries management is in the United States? I'm wondering about that relationship and interaction with this law.
Yeah, so the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act, or the MSA as we refer to it, started back in 1976 and that was the legislation that actually created the Regional Fishery Management Councils around the United States.
That also created the area of federal fisheries jurisdiction. So the state fisheries jurisdiction extends out to three miles offshore and federal jurisdiction is from three to 200 miles, so that exclusive economic zone. And then that area is what is managed by each of these regional fishery management councils.
So what do those councils do?
So the Pacific Council really has a strong interest in the MSA and making sure that all of our management decisions are aligned with the National Standard Guidelines, which are in the MSA.
Ooh. Can you tell me more what those guidelines are?
That's a series of ten guidelines that direct how the councils are to make their decisions. And in the highest and most general sense, they’re our national standard guidelines that require the councils to consider the effects on the fishery. From an economic standpoint to looking at the effects of the fisheries and on the communities, as well as the conservation, the needs of the resource, making sure that fish stocks are harvested at levels that promote long term sustainability.
And so there's a lot of science that gets introduced into the council process. And then there's a lot of guidance that's provided through National Marine Fisheries Service.
That's great. Thank you for explaining more about the Magnuson Stevens Act. I think it's always important to raise this.
I want to pivot to what you're doing now. Most recently in 2020 you made the move to leave the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, so the agency. Can you tell me about OceanBeat Consulting?
Sure. It was kind of a pivotal moment for me in 2020, and there were a couple of things that I was looking at. One was I really enjoyed working with fisheries and working with the federal fishery management council process, and really wanted to transition to owning my own business and kind of giving back to the agencies and the management council and the fishermen that I had worked with all of these years.
On the other hand, I kind of went through a little bit of an identity crisis in making the change. I had spent over half my life working at the department and it really defined who I was. And I didn't realize how much that change was going to affect me from that perspective, how much of what I had been doing was really embedded with where I worked and the agency that I worked for.
I really appreciate you sharing that story of you going through that identity crisis, which I feel like resonates with a lot of people when they make huge decisions, especially going from somewhere where you're so comfortable and you've spent so much time at, and then, yeah, deciding something for yourself. And I feel like that's so empowering.
So climate ready fisheries, it's definitely sticking out to me. I know in the fisheries policy world, it's a term that's widely used. Can you introduce to us this term and how you define climate ready fisheries?
I think that it's become kind of a phrase that is readily used, that is broad and encompasses a lot of changes in ocean conditions that are affecting the stocks that fishermen harvest or have targeted. And it typically refers to things such as stocks that change their geographic location. So shifting stocks. Many stocks are moving in search of cooler waters as we have in the North Pacific.
We've had what we refer to as a warm blob that has been off the coast in the last couple of years. And as we experience climate change, it has stayed around longer and it has come in closer to shore. There's these warm current events that in the past maybe stayed around for a week or two. And now they're staying around for months.
And that has really changed where the different animals in the ocean, whether it's fish or marine mammals or sea birds, the places that they inhabit. And so what we are hearing from fishermen is that places that they would typically go and fish, their target species is not as readily available. Or they're having to be more exploratory and look at new areas for fishing. Or in some cases new species that they haven't caught before have moved into those areas. And so the composition of their catch has really changed.
But when I think of climate ready fisheries I think that it's a much broader term that also encompasses at least the fisheries off the West Coast has really been affected in indirect ways. And one of the ways that I see that impacting, for example, the Dungeness crab fishery has been through increased interactions in humpback whales that have become entangled in their pot gear.
Here, pot gear means crab pot gear, which is used by fishermen to catch crabs. Think of basically a wire cage that sits on the bottom with one way tunnels on the sides and crabs can crawl into those tunnels. And this is all connected by a rope to a buoy at the surface.
Michele, can you tell me more about how climate is affecting the interaction between humpback whales and the Dungeness crab fishery?
The theory is that the humpback whales used to forage further offshore. And by doing so, they were kind of outside of where the Dungeness crab fishery takes place. And so there were no pots in that area for them to be entangled in. But now their forage fish–in this case, it's anchovy–are further inshore, likely being pushed closer to shore and in the bays and estuaries because of the warm sea surface temperatures and staying longer off the coast.
So the humpback whales are coming closer to shore and they're overlapping in the area where the Dungeness crab fishery takes place. And then they're getting entangled in the gear. So I think that's an example of how climate is affecting a fishery that is not impacting the Dungeness crab resource directly per se, but it's impacting the fishery because it's causing a change in the behavior of these protected species through climate change that has affected their habitat.
What was the management response to what was, or what’s, happening with the crab and the whales?
Yeah. So first of all, this is a primary concern for the Dungeness crab fishermen. So they don't want to be entangling whales. They have traditionally fished these areas because that's where Dungeness crab are more abundant. And so they really don't have the ability to shift their fishery further offshore or to other areas because the crab aren't available in other areas.
So the management response was to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and with the fishermen to see if there is a way for this state–and in this case, all three states working together on the West Coast–to get a permit under the Endangered Species Act for the fishery to to be able to keep going but taking steps to reduce the likelihood of their entangling whales.
And so I don't know what the other states have done, but through the state of Washington, we did reduce the amount of gear that could be in the water and we worked with a locally based research group. They do marine mammal surveys and studies, and they have studied humpback whales. And they were able to provide information on what the monthly status is of humpbacks and the waters that they frequent off the coast. And so we could see when there's more humpbacks that are present and would be able to take action, regulatory action, to reduce the amount of gear that's in the water at that time.
And it is very much reliant upon both fishermen at sea, as well as researchers who are studying the whales to report if there are any gear interactions or any entanglements. And then if there are, that would trigger more stringent regulations, which could include actual closure of the fishery to get the gear out of the water where the humpbacks are inhabiting during that time.
What are other climate impacts you're seeing on fisheries? And also, how does this connect with the fishermen that you work with? I remember the last time we talked, Michele, you also said it becomes a matter of their identities.
Yeah, definitely. I think that there could be higher levels, for example, of both sea surface temperatures. There's harmful algal blooms, there's higher ocean acidification. We're still trying to understand the breadth and the scope of everything that's happening out there, but it's very much been unpredictable and it happens very quickly.
And I think fishermen have been affected in just having to be adaptable to these changes, and in most cases not having a lot of time to respond. And so I think what's embedded in preparing for climate ready fisheries is to make sure that there– first of all, there needs to be a discussion about it. There needs to be some open dialogue and communication about what effects could be happening and how their fisheries could be affected, and then developing a strategic plan to deal with that.
And then getting back to your question about fishermen identities, I think as we look at community resilience and communities’ vulnerability, we very much look at what they're dependence is on fishing, and, I'll say, how diverse their portfolio is in terms of what else people could be doing in the communities other than fishing, what other industry or infrastructure is available to them.
And one of the proposed solutions that comes up from time to time is how to retrain fishermen, how to prepare them for a different career. And I think that's something that is very difficult for fishermen. And in my discussions with individuals, they've very much been, “Hey, this is what I do. This is my livelihood.”
Many of them are second, third, fourth generation fishermen. It's what their family has always done. It's not that they're not capable or couldn't do something else, it's that they don't want to. I think that's very much part of who they are, and I had a very similar experience with my career transition, and so can really relate to how they would be feeling.
And preparing for climate change is very much part of who I am. And I think that would be a very, very difficult change to make.
Thank you. And I’ve also had conversations with fishermen. And it is really striking how so integrated it is in their identity to fish for certain species that, you know, like they talk to their kids about like, “Hey, this is a really cool fish and like I want you to like learn how to fish this.” So that narrative changes with climate change.
So you've developed a lot of knowledge and expertise of fisheries policy, gained a lot of skills with people through your different roles and have also worked with a variety of stakeholders in your time. So my question is, how do these different roles and these different levels of management, what can they do together to make sure that we do have climate ready fisheries and that we work on and have sustainable, healthy fisheries into the future?
Yeah, I definitely think that there's a lot of work that we still need to do in terms of the science and the data that we need to inform our fisheries management. And so I want to make sure that there is a good understanding that the decisions that fishery managers make are only as good as the science and information that they receive as the basis for those decisions.
I think that the thing for everybody to remember is that we're all in this together and we are all stronger together. And I think starting the dialogue, making sure that the communication pathways are open among the fishery managers, the stakeholders and the scientists, so that we're all working together toward a common goal. And, I'll say, it seems like in many cases climate change is on a lot of people's minds, but it's not something that they regularly talk about.
And I think that more dialogue needs to happen. I think there's a lot of people who are concerned about it, who want to do something about it, but who are feeling a little bit stuck. They don't know what to do or how they can help. But certainly the motivation is there and the desire to help is there. And so I think as they talk to more people about it, they will realize that others feel the same way and also want to help and do something.
I think just coming together with that realization and doing some brainstorming and some strategic planning about what's possible now and what could be possible in the future, but maybe they need some additional science or some tools to help them get there, I think that's really the way that everybody's going to be successful.
Well, I think that the dialogue around climate change is certainly happening here. Thank you so much, Michele, for describing so well what the role of a fisheries manager looks like. It's complex, it's difficult, but it's important and I learned a lot from you. It was wonderful also to reminisce on Hawaii, and I really appreciate your ecosystem perspective on fisheries and climate.
To our listeners, head on over to oceanbeatconsulting.com if you'd like to learn more about Michele's consultancy and all the areas of her work and expertise.
Lastly, I wanted to give a huge shout out to Nicole Dornsife of thornwolf.com for our very own logo design featuring photography by Rafeed Hussain. We also have 4Site Interactive Studios to thank for all of our editing magic.
This is Alliyah signing off, till next time.