Meet the former Washington insider working to put some bite in
the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s conservation program
Photography by Patrick Tregenza
Ocean advocate Margaret Spring never imagined a career that has taken her from the halls of Congress—working for the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and President Barack Obama—to her current post as vice president and chief conservation officer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Growing up in New York City, “the aquarium” was a place out on Coney Island to visit on weekends with the family, and the ocean was a place to get rid of garbage. She remembers playing under the George Washington Bridge where raw sewage was allowed to flow directly into the Hudson River and out to sea.
“In the ’60s and the ’70s there was a lot of concern about the environment, but we were not taking care of the oceans at all,” she says.
“There was this idea that the oceans were limitless. You couldn’t use it all up. Ocean dumping was a big thing.”
After nearly two decades in Washington, D.C., hammering out policies designed to protect the oceans, Spring arrived at the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year. She is in charge of research, policy and the Seafood Watch program, but her most immediate and pressing task is to help save the Pacific bluefin tuna from extinction. It seems like a challenge she’s been preparing for her whole life.
In college at Dartmouth, Spring was torn between studying oceanography and archaeology, but archaeology won out followed by multiple stints in Greece and Spain’s Balearic Islands.
Eventually tiring of sweaty excavations on ancient Mediterranean isles, she tried to go back to oceanography, working as a research assistant at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. But she quickly learned she was more interested in getting results than in collecting data and headed to Duke University to study environmental law.
Spring took a fellowship working on Capitol Hill with Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Fritz Hollings (D-SC) on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, then went to work at a private law firm counseling corporate clients on hazardous waste disposal and clean water issues.
“I learned a lot about laws and how they are implemented and, maybe, how they are not implemented and how industry thinks about compliance. Very useful,” she says.
Armed with that experience, she went back to the Senate in 1999 to take the top job on the Democratic side, leading committee staff on oceans and the atmosphere.
Her first assignment was to resurrect and pass the landmark Oceans Act, which got its start at a big International Year of the Ocean rally in Monterey with President Bill Clinton back in 1998.
‘They said: This bill died in the last session. Your job is to pass it!” she recalls.
“There was some opposition from the oil and gas industries, but my experience working with industry helped me a lot in working through those problems,” she says.
She succeeded, and the Oceans Act finally passed in 2000, setting the wheels in motion to establish more marine protected areas and upgrade fishery laws to help get a handle on overfishing—measures which are beginning to show results today.
“I knew the facts were the facts. There is no Republican version of this story, and there is no Democratic version of this story. The oceans were in trouble and needed help,” she says.
She tackled other critical policy issues, like marine debris and reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, then married winemaker Mark Bunter and tried moving to California to be closer to the grapes.
Spring had been working with The Nature Conservancy in Monterey for two years when she got a call from the office of newly elected President Barack Obama, asking her to return to Washington as chief of staff for the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. Jane Lubchenco.
“I was known as a behind-the-scenes person who got things done, and the new head of NOAA was a scientist from Oregon State. I knew Capitol Hill, so they thought matching me with her would help her execute the mission of the agency,” says Spring.
“My husband and I looked at each other and I said, ‘It’s the president, I have to help,’ so I left and he was very supportive through four years of long-distance marriage,” she says.
Just over a year into her job at NOAA, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It was an oil spill that went on for months and months and months, unprecedented in human experience,” she recounts.
NOAA had to predict where the oil would go, make weather forecasts and close fisheries while providing information to the White House hour by hour.
“It was horrifying. Nobody had ever done this at this scale before,” she says. “We were working 24/7, and it was quite a challenge. I think NOAA rose to the challenge well, but it was a really trying time for everyone.”
Spring was preparing for a second term at NOAA working alongside current head, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the former astronaut and UCSC grad, when she was tapped to work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as vice president of conservation and science and chief conservation officer. The opportunity to live with her husband and continue to do important work was one she couldn’t refuse.
PACIFIC BLUEFIN TUNA
Spring’s first step was to do some strategic planning and figure out how the aquarium could make the greatest impact. That’s where saving the Pacific bluefin tuna comes in.
“These are majestic, fantastic animals,” says Spring.
Indeed, the bluefin tuna is the largest finned predator out there, other than sharks. They are practically warm blooded and can grow up to 12 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds. They are lightning fast, traveling across oceans in a matter of weeks. And they are in danger of disappearing due to overfishing.
“The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the only aquarium in North America that displays tunas. We’ve invested a lot of time in tagging tunas and have a lot of knowledge about the status of the stock, where they’re going and how they’re vulnerable. So we are it,” she says. “We’re the advocate here in the United States and we’re so identified with it.”
Tuna is one of the most consumed fish in the world. In the U.S. it ranks third behind shrimp and salmon, making it a lucrative catch for fishermen. Bluefin tuna—delicious as sushi—is especially valuable and has sold for as much as $100,000 per fish in Japanese auctions.
Spring says Japan is ground zero for reversing the dwindling populations of Pacific bluefin tuna. “Because of our tagging at Hopkins Marine Station, we know that the spawning area occurs mostly in Japanese waters, or Taiwanese. They (the Japanese) do most of the fishing; they do most of the eating; and all the spawning occurs there,” she says.
So a delicate diplomatic dance has begun, drawing on both the good relations the Monterey Bay Aquarium has built over the years with Japanese researchers and on Spring’s own Washington connections.
Spring has joined the U.S. delegation, traveling to international fishery commission meetings and trying to reach agreements to end bluefin tuna overfishing. “Already Japan is making some changes,” she says. “They’ve already cut fishing; they are pushing on China and other countries to cut fishing, but it’s not enough.”
On another front, the aquarium is hosting a major international symposium called Bluefin Futures on Jan. 18–20, featuring experts from the U.S., Japan and Australia. Sessions on bluefin migration, behavior, spawning and fertility will highlight the need for better fishery management and are expected to put further pressure on governments to limit catches.
“If we can bring this species back from the brink, it would be great. And it would be a good story for Japan because they need a win,” says Spring.
She predicts a roadmap for recovery will be agreed on by the end of 2016, and she is optimistic about the future.
“Luckily these fish can recover quickly because they are highly productive. I would say we could start seeing signals in about three or four years, but that’s just signals. Recovery would be years 2020 to 2030, depending on how fast the cuts come and how much action is taken,” she says.
One reason she is so upbeat is because aquarium officials know that limiting catches works. To widespread amazement, earlier this year the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program announced the complete recovery of West Coast groundfish—one of the most important fisheries in the Monterey Bay.
Black cod, Petrale sole, Dover sole, whiting/hake and rockfish are some of the 90 species of West Coast groundfish now approved as sustainable choices by Seafood Watch, even when caught by trawlers.
“To have a fishery that’s a trawl fishery now rated not red, but either green or yellow, is an amazing story because nobody thought it would happen. You heard a lot of people vilifying trawling, but we’re all about performance. We’re very neutral and science based,” says Spring.
West Coast groundfish are thriving today because fishermen were proactive. When it became clear that stocks were declining and quotas got cut, they realized there was not enough fish for all of the boats and organized to buy out their fellow fishermen. Back in Washington, Spring drafted the federal loan program that allowed them to do that.
“They reduced the number of fish they took; they right-sized the fishery; then they changed where they fished to avoid sensitive habitats and certain areas with high bycatch,” she explains. “There are many pieces that work together. It’s a modern fishery management system.”
Fishermen also shifted to a “catch share” system, through which they purchase in advance a certain share of the catch, rather than racing out and competing with other boats for fish.
Unfortunately, shares allocated to the Monterey Bay area were quickly sold off to fishermen in more productive fishing grounds up north. As a result, last summer the Monterey City Council—in a solid show of support for the local fishing industry—voted to use $225,000 from the city’s Tidelands Trust Fund to buy catch shares to be used exclusively by fishermen in the Monterey Bay and administered by the newly created Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. Their objective is to maintain Monterey’s historic legacy as an important fishing port.
Apart from saving Pacific bluefin tuna and groundfish, Spring and her team are tackling numerous other ocean policy issues, such as protecting the sea otters. They worked with lawmakers in Sacramento to ban the use of tiny plastic microbeads in cosmetics—a measure signed by Governor Jerry Brown in October. They continue to press for the elimination of plastic bags and other potential ocean debris.
They have also been advising the Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. “It’s a challenge our partners have and seafood buyers have,” she says. “The big problem is how do you know the fish you got is not illegal, that it was caught sustainably, with the right kind of gear.” The task force is pushing for a sweeping new international law that would penalize illegal fishing by restricting access to ports for unloading illegal catch.
But this winter, all attention will be on the Pacific bluefin tuna. “If not us, who? If not now, when?” says Spring, sounding a lot like the politicians she used to work with. “This is the moment!”
Deborah Luhrman is deputy editor of Edible Monterey Bay and editor of the EMB weekly newsletter. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
MARGARET SPRING’S OTHER CONNECTIONS
Wine: She is the Spring in Bunter Spring Winery, which opened a tasting room in Carmel Valley a few months ago at 109 Del Fino Place. Stop by Thursday–Saturday to taste its popular varietals and blends, including Napa Valley “Garagitage.”
Batman: In her 20s, Spring worked as an editorial assistant for Jerry Robinson, a legendary cartoonist who drew early Batman comics and is credited with inventing the Joker character.
Grecian Urns: In a foreshadowing of things to come, she wrote a college thesis comparing the varieties of seafood pictured on Greek pottery from 1500 BC and fresh fish found in modern day Greek fish markets. Verdict: not much difference.