How I Sea: Engaging The Public In Marine Conservation With Rob DiGiovanni

Source: The TerraMar Project/Nicole Carone

Photo: Pascal Mauerhofer/Unsplash

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The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society is a non profit that was founded by Rob DiGiovanni in December of 2016. The group works to promote marine conservation through action. The team of just four staff members relies heavily on volunteers, interns, and the community to effectively promote conservation in New York and beyond. The team responds to all deceased marine mammals and sea turtles in NY, as well as to live whale strandings and disentanglements. By performing necropsy work on these animals, the team is able to see first hand the effects of threats to our oceans.

Please report any stranded or deceased marine mammals and sea turtles in New York to: (631) 369-9829  

How did you get started in the field of marine conservation?

It’s a little roundabout for me. I actually came from a background in management and construction. I went on a whale watch and found out what we had in our backyard and how much we did not know about these animals. I then decided to close my company and go back to school.

I started volunteering with Okenos Research Foundation, and ended up on the whale watching boat throughout the summer. Because I had my own company at that time I had the freedom to volunteer and put in a lot of hours. The knowledge that I had from mechanical and construction work helped when we began developing tanks to rehabilitate seals; this work was back in the 90s when very little was known about rehab of seals.

In prior years they had only gotten a handful, then in the 90s we started to get a significant number of seals. One thing lead to another and I was hired as a technician, to go out and focus on education and outreach, but also to help with the stranding program.

What inspired you to start Atlantic Marine Conservation Society?

I felt there was a need for us to engage the public and to see how we can inform them about what’s going on in our backyard. I realized that education is vital.

When people are experiencing nature at the beach, they are in an environment where they are open to learning about marine life. 

What better way to educate people than when they are motivated to be in that environment and understand not just what is going on there, but also how they can impact and apply conservation right there in their own backyard. It’s different from when we are in the classroom. We can read all the books and talk about ecology and conservation then say okay, now go out and apply it. But what we aim to do is be out there and show them how they can apply conservation.

marine life rescue

Photo: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

I see the mission statement is to promote marine conservation through action, can you elaborate on what the means?

It’s a very good question, and I have a particular stranding story to help answer:

Our field biologist and education coordinator Hannah Winslow and I were out on the beach doing a necropsy for a loggerhead turtle. She was doing the necropsy and I was on the beach talking to students that were there and the camp that was going on.

Then Hannah found a piece of plastic in the animal’s intestine.

We were able to talk about that, talk about the perils of marine debris and that motivated the children and the public to say “Oh, we need to clean up our beaches.”

Whether they did that regularly we don’t know but at least it gave them that catalyst. That same day we went to another beach to do a necropsy on a bottlenose dolphin and I was speaking to a woman telling her the story about the turtle. Suddenly, she just walked away from me, I thought there was a chance she wasn’t listening. She then came back and turns out did her own beach cleanup.

That’s promoting marine conservation through action, it’s making people realize the action is not someone else’s problem, it’s our problem. We all need to pick up some part of it.

Photo: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

It’s only been 19 months since you’ve begun and already are so successful, what does the future of AMCS look like?

I was having a conversation with my colleague about a year ago discussing what our environmental groups do, and she looked across the table and said “you know the funny part is, our job is really to put ourselves out of business and not to be needed.”

So, what does the future look like? If we actually attain out goals then we don’t need people to promote conservation because everyone engages in it.

This is obviously unrealistic at the moment, so what does the immediate future look like? It looks a lot like what we’ve done to make us successful: engaging the public, engaging schools, working with beach clubs and beach communities to make them more aware of how they impact their environment.

We plan to continue expanding through our volunteer board and internship program. We can start focusing a little more on our research, but, that’s through our volunteers and interns helping us.

Photo: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

In your opinion, what can the everyday average person do to contribute towards marine conservation?

The biggest thing the average person can do for marine conservation is not to view these issues as someone else’s problem.

We all want to go to a beach and see a pristine and clean environment. But what we don’t recognize is that when we use single-use plastics at home, they can end up on a beach somewhere! People don’t always connect the dots.

My grandmother used to say there’s a difference between want and need. You want things – those are luxuries. But do we need to have this? We are sitting here and talking about Strawless Summer. Do we need a straw for our drink? 

It’s not saying let’s eliminate everything that’s bad. It’s saying let’s make the wise choices that we think might be better for us and the environment.  

Photo: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

What advice do you have to anybody who wants to enter the field of marine conservation?

When I met many of my lifelong friends after I turned 40, and told them that I began AMCS they all said “oh well that makes sense.” I was confused because all my life I was working in a completely different field. They said “no you were always interested in this, it always bothered you (conservation and addressing pollution).”

You need to understand what it is that motivates you and chase that inspiration. But also you have to tie-in your personality. For me, I like solving problems and looking at issues and saying “Let’s work at this problem and chip away at it. How can we break it down to the smallest common denominator and make little step?” I think that is very evident in how we are building Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. We’re handling all of New York with a staff of four people, which is significantly less than any other organization that has done this work while handling three times the amount of work. One may ask, how we can do that? It’s because we broke the problem down into fundamental components.

Something I have said to people in this field before is that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Many of the people I’ve worked with have a common thread: “Well you’ve been fighting this fight for a long time.” I say yes, but I never really saw it as a battle you win or lose, I saw it as a battle where the only way you lose is if you walk away from it and decided that you aren’t going to do this.

Please report any stranded or deceased marine mammals and sea turtles in New York to: (631) 369-9829  

If you would like to learn more about this organization, have any questions or concerns, are interested in becoming an intern or volunteer please visit the site at www.amseas.org

If you would like to set up an Atlantic Marine Conservation Society Education event in your town please email their education coordinator, Hannah Winslow at [email protected].

How I Sea is a new effort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.

Sign up today to become a citizen of our global ocean community and sign up for your very own passport to the world’s ocean by visiting us at: www.theterramarproject.org