Life on the Seas: Navigating a Career in Marine Conservation
Hundreds of Hoyas within the vast network of Georgetown alumni are working towards a greener future, leading critical projects in wildlife conservation, sustainable business, ecological research, and other vital efforts. Our Alumni Spotlight series elevates alumni voices in the environmental field and shares their inspiring stories.
We profile Elizabeth Hogan, SFS ‘97, a passionate marine conservation scientist and Program Director at National Geographic.
Tell us a little bit about your work.
EH: It’s very much a hybrid of conservation science– marine conservation science, in particular– policy, and project management, which is by design. I like having those three disciplines intersect with one another.
At the National Geographic Society, I’m the science lead for a team called Perpetual Planet. Our mission is to develop a science-informed protection and conservation plan focused on three different biomes– mountains, rainforests, and oceans. We work with our expedition leads to bring together all of their expertise and specific research initiatives to form one holistic program that drives toward an overarching conservation goal.
What led you to this career? What interests and experiences led you here?
EH: I had an interest in marine biology ever since I was a kid. That was always in the back of my mind. When I went to Georgetown, I was very torn. I had applied to the School of Foreign Service and was interested in international policy as well as marine science. In fact, it was the only undergraduate school I applied to where I didn’t list a science major. I was fascinated by the law of the sea and the role of civil society organizations in determining environmental policy. So, that was the angle I took while I was doing my undergrad.
I lived in South America for a while after I finished at Georgetown, and when I came back to the US, I got into the nonprofit sector in DC. I decided I really wanted a more scientific focus and I realized I needed graduate school to gain the scientific background I needed.
I got two master’s degrees– one in Marine and Coastal Natural Resources from a university in Costa Rica, and one in Climate and Sustainability at American University. After finishing graduate school, I returned to DC and pursued the career that I wanted in the nonprofit sector. I started at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, working on issues pertaining to sustainable fisheries and the North Atlantic Right Whale.
I focused on the conflict between the North Atlantic Right Whale population and lobster fisheries, since these critically endangered whales often become entangled in the gear. It also involved looking at issues like the speed of ships in the water and whale strikes (collisions between ships and whales). It was a perfect fit right out of grad school for me. I’m originally from New England and had been around lobster fisheries for a lot of my childhood and it paired well with my degrees.
Afterwards, I worked for World Animal Protection, a global nonprofit headquartered in the UK, and worked for over seven years on issues related to, again, sustainable fisheries.
At World Animal Protection, I found that the issue of marine wildlife being entangled in fishing gear coincided perfectly with the growing issue of ocean plastic. In 2012, believe it or not, very few people were talking about ocean plastic– it wasn’t considered a mainstream issue. At the time it felt like we were the only people focused on macroplastics. Fishing gear is almost always the largest source of plastic lost in the ocean. It causes a great deal of damage. Ingestion of plastic is obviously a major concern, but so is entanglement (when animals become caught in gear or other plastics). It’s designed to trap and kill. When it gets lost, it continues to do that.
I spent seven years working on that issue, and it was a good mix of fishing policy, sustainable fisheries work, and working with the plastic sector on everything related to the circular economy, recycling, how to repurpose recovered ocean plastic (and actually get it out of the ocean), as well as the rescue of entangled ocean wildlife. So I got to do a lot of hands-on work, especially with seals and sea lions, but also with whales, dolphins, and sea turtles, which I enjoyed tremendously.
After I left World Animal Protection, I consulted for USAID and for the Australian government for about a year. Then, the National Geographic position came along and I’ve been here for about a year and a half.
That sounds like a fascinating career path. Among your many experiences, have you had a favorite project?
EH: I’m starting work in the Arctic, which I’m very excited about. I get to study belugas, narwhals, and Arctic char– which are all of tremendous importance in terms of food security. The project involves working with Indigenous communities in the Arctic. The work we do will be co-generated with the Elders, must meet their needs, and be of use to their communities. Blending traditional knowledge with Western academic science is a new challenge for me that I’m tremendously enjoying and learning a lot from.
Over the next two to three years, I’ll have the chance to do some first-hand beluga and narwhal conservation, research aspects of food security (particularly related to the Arctic char population), and look into why the Arctic is warming as quickly as it is and the role that it plays in keeping our planet cool.
In the past, one of my favorite projects has been working on the conservation of the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise. Unfortunately, there are probably only twelve or fewer alive now, all in the upper the Sea of Cortez. I worked in the community of San Felipe trying to locate the abandoned or illegal fishing nets used for the totoaba fisheries. It was a lot of first-hand experience with the immediate effects of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and the impact it has in driving a species to extinction.
What do you consider some of the most relevant or overlooked topics in the field of marine conservation today?
EH: I’m pleased to hear that IUU seems to be gaining some traction. Even ten years ago, you didn’t hear about illegal fishing that often. Now, it seems to be getting more recognition and mainstream press.
I think deep-sea mining is also a topic that needs to be addressed. It’s challenging because the metals from deep-sea mining are what make our phones and computers work, and nobody’s in a hurry to cause any issues or disruptions within that supply chain.
Like all areas of marine work, most of the laws that govern deep sea resources haven’t been written yet. They’re beyond areas of national jurisdiction, and while the U.N. certainly pays a lot of attention to these areas, the U.N. does not have an enforcement arm. The International Court of Justice could help regulate marine practices, but it’s a very difficult and slow process to get a case in front of them. A lot of damage can be done in the time it takes to bring an issue to light and get the safeguards that are needed.
Do you see these enforcement issues as one of the biggest challenges facing marine conservation efforts? What other major problems do you see facing the field today?
EH: Yes. There are no vehicles for safeguards when you’re operating in areas outside jurisdiction. Who’s in charge? Who gets to say whether you can use those resources? And who enforces that when someone ignores what the international community has recommended? There’s no guiding law and means of enforcement to really protect the ocean the way there is for land. There’s also the issue of a lack of responsibility. No one lives in the middle of the ocean, which means that there’s no accountability.
Trade agreements tend to have the most enforcement when it comes to issues like that. They tend to have some teeth in them, as long as free trade agreements are written with forums for dispute resolution and consequences. I think that is where some of the hope for resolving this issue lies.
CH: Have you seen any particularly inspiring conservation stories in your career that you’d like to share?
EH: I’ve participated in rescue work where an individual animal that was caught in plastic is rescued and released. Disentanglement work is not easy– there’s a very small group of people around the world that do that– and it’s incredibly rewarding any time an animal recovers and is able to rejoin its population.
I take the most encouragement from protection language in trade agreements because I know that there’s a higher likelihood of enforcement and accountability in those than there is in other forms of international law.
I also find hope in general public awareness. Public awareness and concern are always the first major step. It wasn’t that long ago when no one was talking about plastic in the ocean, now I feel like that topic is absolutely everywhere. That tells me that there is going to be some accountability somewhat soon.
More specifically, Iceland stopped hunting whales in the last year or two. That was a story I wasn’t expecting to see and was a good win. You have to take a win whenever you can get one.
For people that are interested in working in your field, where would you recommend that they start?
EH: If fieldwork is what you want to do, I definitely recommend that you get a graduate degree. It’s not necessarily a requirement, but for me it was necessary. Try to be open-minded because a lot of people have dreams of fieldwork. Be prepared to say yes to whatever opportunity comes along because you never know where it will lead.
I am often asked how much I have to scuba dive to do my job– I’ve never once had to scuba dive as a part of my job! I think a lot of people think it’s a skill needed for a career in marine science. Instead, one skill you should devote more time to is being able to drive a boat. If you want to do rescue work, if you want to be out on the water, every team wants to know that everyone on that boat can take over at any point in time when it’s needed.
Unfortunately, when it comes to a lot of field sciences, they are not usually jobs where you make a lot of money. A lot of people are willing to intern for free because they know how competitive it is, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or not dedicated if you’re thinking about your own financial well-being. I find that the field is often very skewed because the people that were able to advance were the people that could afford to work for free. But when it comes to things like going to graduate school, taking out loans, and taking unpaid internships, be conscious about your financial future. You’re no less dedicated for taking those things into consideration.
Do you have any book, film, or podcast recommendations that you’d like to share?
EH: This may sound silly at first, but the movie Finding Dory was actually incredibly well done. That film has an interesting backstory to it.
Separately, Blackfish. After the release of the documentary, the producers learned more about what happens to marine animals in captivity and changed the film to take place in a rehabilitation center instead of its original setting, which was something similar to a SeaWorld. That meant redoing a lot of the movie, but they did.
It presents issues about ocean plastic, entanglement, and sea life in captivity, and it’s very well done in that it doesn’t send a message of “This is why sea life in captivity is evil, shame on you for going to the aquarium.” Instead, it just shows what it’s like from the animals’ perspective without painting the humans as selfish or horrible. The messaging is an excellent lesson in how to go about making change and inspiring other people. Scolding and telling people they’re doing something wrong in life never works. If you can illustrate the message in a way where people can come to that realization on their own, it’s usually more effective.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
EH: Fieldwork isn’t the only path to working in conservation. If you’re someone who can think beyond the scope of one single issue, and realize the way in which an entire system is connected, then you’re actually someone who is very suited for an environmental career. Environmental issues are often caused by a lot of small things coming from different directions, rather than from one big problem. Anyone who is a systems thinker would be incredibly valuable to the environmental field.