The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Elle Wibisono, who was recently named a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, where she and two other University of Rhode Island graduates will spend the next year in Washington D.C. to work on ocean and coastal policy issues.
Wibisono received her Ph.D. in sustainable fisheries from URI this past call and has been placed in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather Subcommittee.
Q: What initially made you interested in pursuing a career in ocean conservation?
Wibisono: Growing up in Indonesia, the hotspot for coral reefs, I was a scuba diver from a young age. During a scuba diving trip in the Komodo Islands at the age of 13, I was struck by the beauty and abundance of colors and life underwater that I’d never seen before, while also being floored by some sites that were completely destroyed due to blast fishing. The management of the area is a lot better now, but at that time, I was utterly heartbroken by what I witnessed. It was during that trip that I decided to dedicate myself to marine conservation.
Q: What is the Rhode Island Sea Grant, how does it work and why are they sending you to Washington, D.C.?
Wibisono: Rhode Island Sea Grant is one of many Sea Grant offices throughout the United States. The Sea Grant program is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and does coastal and marine research, extension, and education in the states where it operates. Among other things, Sea Grant programs help to address knowledge gaps in their states, serve as a liaison between local communities (such as fishers, fishery managers) and scientists to help stakeholders make the best choice based on available science, and provide educational opportunities for students.
Through the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, the Sea Grant program provides an incredibly unique opportunity for qualified graduate students with expertise in specific areas to learn more about integrating marine science with policymaking.
They are sending me to D.C. to learn about the legislative process and contribute my knowledge on marine-related issues as part of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather.
Q: What will your role be in subcommittee?
Wibisono: My main role will be to act as the “in-house” subject matter expert, but my day-to-day tasks will vary from helping to do background research on a particular topic, writing reports, and drafting bills (I’m very excited about this one), to helping identify witnesses for a hearing. The committee is a solid team and I’m there to learn and contribute as much as I can, whatever the task is. So whatever task comes up, I will tackle it.
Just last week, during the “vote-a-rama” for budget reconciliation, I was tasked to write vote recommendations for some of the fisheries themed amendments. It was my first day as a fellow, and I immediately understood what people mean by life on the hill is fast paced!
Q: Can you briefly explain what the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is? And what your role will be in reauthorizing it?
Wibisono: The Magnuson Stevens Act is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in federal waters. The act covers everything from protecting essential fish habitats to establishing regional fishery management councils. The last time the act was reauthorized was in 2006, and there have been multiple discussions in the past several years on reauthorizing it. In addition to learning about the reauthorization process, I will be consulting on various issues covered by the act in order to bring it up to date.
A big part of this will be hearing from diverse stakeholders and working with lawmakers to balance different regional interests and priorities, find common ground, and make decisions based on the best possible science.
Q: How will you advocate for healthy marine environments on Rhode Island’s coasts while working on this fellowship in Washington, D.C.?
Wibisono: I hope that my ability to synthesize different sources of information and discern facts can ensure the most up to date science is used in the decision-making process, which can in turn benefit all marine environments. As a part of the Senate committee, we focus on a range of issues at the national level as well as issues pertinent to committee members. Regardless of the issue, given how interconnected the oceans and fishery systems are, we have to consider how those issues impact all coastal communities.
While I have a special personal interest in Rhode Island, my job is to be the best possible advocate for healthy marine environments everywhere.
Q: Based on your research so far, what coastal policy issues should Rhode Islanders be following right now, and why?
Wibisono: Based on my time in Rhode Island, the coastal ecosystem is near and dear to my heart. Not only do I love Rhode Island beaches and seafood, but I understand these things are central to who we are – both economically and from a quality-of-life perspective. In the years to come, climate change has the potential to impact both of these things significantly.