Lessons Learned By A Federal Enforcer

by: Posted on: December 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: Tim Ragen enforced federal environmental policy as executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission. He reflects here on what he learned:

An excerpt: “If we don’t take [social and economic factors] into account, we end up dealing with approximate causes of the problem, but never get driving causes. If we really want to solve environmental issues, we have to start looking at the ultimate causes…Were I to have that job again, I think I would be inclined to speak up more.”


Francine St. Laurent: How did you become involved in the Marine Mammal Commission?

Tim Ragen: I was working as a marine mammal biologist for the National Marine Fishery Service where I worked mostly on endangered and threatened species. I had been working in Alaska on some controversial fishery management issues and at about the same time a job opened up for the scientific director position at the Marine Mammal Commission. Some colleagues encouraged me to apply and it seemed like a natural step to take because I had been in science and then shifted to management.

Most of my work was done with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — to make sure their fishing strategies weren’t contributing to the decline of the Steller sea lion. I helped coordinate some of the research done to address the relevant scientific questions. I also worked on some of the management efforts related to controlling the fisheries in such a way to minimize their impact on Steller sea lions.

I also worked on the Pribilof Islands [a group of four volcanic islands off the coast of Alaska] for three summers and two winters. I was up on Prudhoe Bay one summer. And I was on a Korean fishing trawler in the Bering Sea for a few months.

FSL: Was that transition difficult?

TR: A little bit. When you’re doing science you’re really interested in research and studying different phenomena related to the conservation of these marine mammals and you’re out in the field a lot. When you’re doing management you’re mostly interested in applying policy and law to management action so you can recover and conserve the species. With oversight you are monitoring what other federal agencies are doing to make sure their actions are consistent with the policy set by Congress.

FSL: How has your experience as the Marine Mammal Commission’s executive director influenced your view of innovative policies and how change is implemented?

TR: It broadened my view as to how we need to solve environmental conservation problems. During my transition from being a scientist to a manager I tended to look at problems as things that needed to be solved usually by a single discipline. As a scientist, we go out and study X or Y and that helps us get the answer or identify ways to solve certain problems. Or helps managers take certain actions. What I learned by going to the Marine Mammal Commission was that our problems are usually pretty complex and have many different aspects. They are biological in many regards, but also social and economic. We can do a much better job solving problems if we combine efforts from all of those different disciplines. We need to take a more holistic approach to solving conservation problems.

Usually we thought if we came up with one answer using science that would solve the problem and everyone else would be comfortable with that and would move on. What we are realizing is that the problem is deeper than a single question that can be resolved by a certain kind of research. It often involves economic and social considerations and if we don’t take those into account, we end up dealing with approximate causes of the problem, but never get driving causes. If we really want to solve environmental issues, we have to start looking at the ultimate causes.

FSL: Is there an issue that helped you come to that conclusion?

TR: If, for example, you were concerned about the effects of fishing on Steller sea lions, you might want to know how much Steller sea lions eat and how much the fisheries remove. If this is what you study you might be able to come up with a compromise between the fisheries and sea lions. But when you get into those circumstances, you realize, “Well, wait a minute. We have a whole fishing industry here that is based on being able to take a certain amount of food, or catch.” You can’t just take a whole fishery and say, “Whoops, you’re taking way more than we’re allowing you to take.” That’s an economic concern I hadn’t considered before.

In addition to industry, you may have many small communities that depend heavily on fishing to make their livelihoods. That becomes a social concern that you also have to take into account. You can’t go in and rapidly change the way a fishery operates when there are whole communities that depend on it. You have to find ways that can provide for their livelihoods and still accomplish your environmental goals.

Virtually all of the environmental problems we have in the U.S. are created by our activities, which are often compounded by the sheer number of people involved. Population numbers are a significant concern. We could do many things we are doing now with much less impact if we had fewer people doing them. But we are in a position where we think that continued population growth is essential to our economic vitality. That seems an almost suicidal type of approach. We cannot grow forever. We have a finite world with finite resources. We need to look hard at total population growth, consumption patterns and our deeply held values to figure out why the problems we are facing exist and what we might do, not necessarily to change the environment so it can better withstand human impacts, but to change the way we personally act so we have less of an effect on the environment. We have to learn to live in concert with the environment, which means we are managing ourselves more than we are actually managing the natural environment.

FSL: Is there something you would have done differently as executive director? Why?

TR: Many things. One of the really hard things to do – and you have to do this if you’re in an oversight agency – is speak up when you think that we as a country or nation are heading in the wrong direction. You’re always trying to find the best way to do the most good. That sometimes means you don’t speak up at times when you’re concerned about a problem because you’re worried about your future ability to speak up and whether or not you might compromise that.

Were I to have that job again, I think I would be inclined to speak up more. The question we often faced in the commission was, “If we are too strong on a particular issue, do we put ourselves in a vulnerable position where we might be eliminated – through losing funding — and would that then compromise our ability to improve things in the future?” Obviously it would. But you have to be careful because if you take that approach, it may mean you’re not really doing your job to speak up when your best convictions tell you to.

One of the reasons I retired early was that I felt it would give me more freedom to speak up about certain things — environmental things — without compromising the Commission. I would speak up more about population growth, personal responsibilities and the way we manage our environmental issues. I would speak up much more about the impact and role of religion on environmental conservation.

I felt that speaking about those things would have made it more difficult for the Commission to do other things because it is viewed as a group of marine mammal experts who should focus their attention strictly on marine mammal issues. We’re finding that even marine mammal issues are intimately tied to economic, social and philosophical issues.

And at the heart of our conservation efforts are simply values that people in our country hold. We make decisions based on our values, no matter how much we say we like to be science-based. We have to be a lot more introspective about how we do that.

FSL: What is the most difficult aspect of marine mammal research?

TR: I think the most difficult aspect of doing research on marine mammals is conveying the importance of that research to the public so they continue to understand, appreciate and support efforts to conserve our marine environments. That’s particularly difficult now because we are having other crises: budget, health care, war and social unrest, energy, and so on. All of these things detract from environmental conservation and policy. If we cannot figure out how to make people more aware of that and adapt our behavior accordingly, I’m not sure that doing a lot of research is necessarily going to solve the problem.


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