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By Robin Garcia

Last month I attended Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW) – a three-day conference hosted by the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation (NMSF) where hundreds of people from various levels of government, nonprofits, the business sector, and Capitol Hill come together to discuss marine and aquatic policy issues. NMSF also holds an annual Ocean Awards Gala in conjunction with CHOW to recognize leaders with a commitment to a healthy ocean. With my background in marine biology, current position in science communication, and interest in environmental policy, I could not pass up the opportunity to experience such a meeting.

"Changing Maritime Commerce Space: The Direction of U.S. Shipping" panel.

“Changing Maritime Commerce Space: The Direction of U.S. Shipping” panel.

While I felt very much at home in the audience among women my age, I couldn’t help but notice that there were few women – literally – to look up to on the panel platform. Women are becoming a larger portion of the marine science workforce: my own graduate program is mostly female. But no one could figure that out by looking at the panelists. Women made up only 30% of the panels, and 35% of them served as panel moderators instead of panelists. CHOW’s online OceansLIVE sessions were marginally better with 55% female representation, yet like the panels managed to include a session featuring only men. Women as a whole were underrepresented, but women of color were frightfully scarce. CHOW included only three women of color throughout the entire week. Women were similarly misrepresented at the Ocean Awards Gala. Of the four individuals that were presented with a top award, one was a woman – Laura Bush, who was awarded the Leadership Award in partnership with former President George W. Bush.

"Commanders of the Sea: Women Leading the Way in Ocean Stewardship" OceansLIVE session.

“Commanders of the Sea: Women Leading the Way in Ocean Stewardship” OceansLIVE session.

There were one specific situation in which women were front and center. The last OceansLIVE session was “Commanders of the Sea: Women Leading the Way in Ocean Stewardship”. The session featured women from high school to well-established in her career, and explored the roles that women have played in ocean leadership and stewardship. It is worth noting that while the gender representation in CHOW was similar last year, this session was a clear effort to increase recognition of women in the field.

Overall, CHOW was a wonderful experience. There were lively discussions on topics ranging from sustainable seafood, to collaborative marine conservation with Cuba, to what the American youth think of the future. It was exhilarating to hear the passion behind comments such as “We must accept the science” from a senator and “I am sick and tired of pervasive myths about aquaculture in this country” from a university professor. The material was engaging and exciting, and I hope that CHOW builds upon this year’s efforts and continues to support women in marine and aquatic fields, specifically by inviting more female panelists. There is a wealth of female environmental champions on Capitol Hill to engage with during a future CHOW, including Chellie Pingree of Maine, Dianne Feinstein of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Nita Lowey of New York, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio. There are many female scientists that could contribute to CHOW, including Nancy Knowlton, the Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History; Jackie Savitz, the Vice President for U.S. Oceans at Oceana; Deborah Lee, Director of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory; and Kimberly Reece, Department Chair of Aquatic Health Sciences at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. These list are of course not all-inclusive, but they would be an excellent place to start.

Dr. Dionne Hoskins with a group of Savannah State University students at NOAA's 2014 Education and Science Forum.

Dr. Dionne Hoskins with a group of Savannah State University students at NOAA’s 2014 Education and Science Forum.

I would also like to see more diversity in the panelists, for both women and men. Female marine biologists of color that could be featured during CHOW include Dionne Hoskins, a fishery biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Galveston Laboratory and an Associate Professor at Savannah State University; Danni Washington, Founder of The Big Blue and You; and Shuyi Chen, Professor of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The need to increase diversity in the marine science community could also be a topic for discussion at a future CHOW and has been addressed by some of these women.

CHOW must remain on the cutting edge of the scientific and social implications of marine and aquatic issues in order to remain relevant to Capitol Hill and to the nation. Over half of the U.S. population is female. The Hispanic population has increased by over 40% in ten years, and U.S. citizens of color support environmental protection at a higher rate than Caucasian citizens. It is time for CHOW to reflect those trends. Next year’s CHOW has already been scheduled for June 7-9, 2016, and I will definitely be attending again and looking to see whether NMSF increases its encouragement of women in this important discussion.

Robin is a Communication Specialist at NOAA and a DC EcoWomen board member. A DC native, she enjoys exploring her hometown, developing her yoga skills, and getting out on the water as much as possible. She is also waiting to see what Shark Week replaces Megaladon with this year.