Career Interview - Marine Ecologist

Career Interview with President and CEO, Dr. Lance Morgan


Q: What is your job title?

A: President

Q: Briefly describe your job.

A: As President and CEO of the Marine Conservation Institute my duties vary greatly. I serve as program manager for many of Marine Conservation Institute's projects, from assessing threats to deep-sea corals to identifying priority areas for conservation along the west coast of North America. I also supervise Marine Conservation Institute’s staff. I spend a lot of time reading, writing and corresponding with other scientists and conservationists, although I once spent a large amount of time underwater looking at marine life. My job keeps me mostly on dry land these days, but I am always looking for opportunities to go snorkeling, SCUBA diving or out to sea on research ships. Most of my work consists of analyzing conservation issues (such as destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling), working on solutions to ocean issues (such as marine protected areas) and making the science clear and understandable to managers and policy makers. I am often called on to give public lectures, science presentations or to speak with Congressmen and government officials on ocean conservation issues.

Q: What encouraged you to choose to be a marine biologist?

A: I grew up with the ocean as a backdrop to everything I did, swimming, surfing, and fishing. I was fascinated by all kinds of marine life. I wanted to SCUBA after watching the original Jacques Cousteau films. As I learned more about marine biology in college, I became increasingly concerned about the fate of the oceans and sea life, and this led me to become interested in applying research to questions of conservation.

Q: What kind of educational background and experiences did you pursue to become a marine biologist?

A: After attending UCSC, I obtained a master’s degree from San Francisco State University and a doctorate degree in marine ecology from the University of California-Davis. In order to get into graduate school I had to work very hard in high school and college, and volunteered as an intern, including field work whenever I could. One of my favorite summer jobs was a volunteer position studying orcas in British Columbia. That experience helped me get my first job as a marine mammalogist with The Marine Mammal Center in California. After graduate school I worked as a post-doctoral researcher at Bodega Marine Laboratory and with the National Marine Fisheries Service. I have researched a wide range of animals including marine mammals, fishes and corals and other invertebrates. I first learned to SCUBA dive as a teenager and have subsequently conducted field research throughout the US and Canada, including missions at the Aquarius Habitat off Key Largo, Florida. I also have explored the ocean as a submersible pilot. Students interested in becoming a marine biologist need to do well in math and sciences. It is also essential to be able to write well-one of the best skills anyone can acquire. 

Q: What does your average day look like? What are your hours?

A: Most of my day is spent at a desk, reading and writing about the latest marine conservation issues and corresponding with the MCI staff, funders, and others involved with conservation. I often attend science conferences. I often work more than 40 hours a week, since there is so much to do. It is rare that I actually have the chance to get into the ocean for work. About once a year I get to go on a really amazing expedition. This year I went of field expedition to help eradicate an invasive species, yellow crazy ants, at Johnston Atoll in the Central Pacific, these ants are very destructive to island ecosystems and may harm the nesting seabirds. Last year I learned how to drive the Deep-Worker submersible (a one-person submarine) and studied deep-sea corals along the coast of British Columbia (you can find out more about this trip at www.findingcoral.com).

Q: What are the benefits of being a marine biologist?

A: On a daily basis, I am at the leading edge of ocean conservation. I get to learn about the diversity of the oceans and the wonderful creatures that live there. I have first-hand knowledge important initiatives to help the oceans, and unfortunately, the devastation occurring to our oceans. I am fortunate enough to work with interesting and devoted associates, exchanging lots of exciting and intellectually stimulating ideas about our oceans. When certain projects work out for the betterment of the ocean, and I have had some part in it, it is immensely rewarding. I’m doing something that benefits us now and also people in the future, as well as the animals that live in the sea. I have a lot of freedom to grow intellectually, and I constantly find new and challenging projects to work on.

Q: What are the drawbacks of the job, if there are any?

A: Having intimate knowledge of the problems of the oceans, often things that most in the public are unaware of, can at times be frustrating and depressing.  Many people don’t care very much about the oceans. I am very aware on a daily basis of the activities that impact the planet and oceans, and it is hard to escape that.  On a personal level you have to maintain a high-level of motivation to do this since you can are faced with much easier career paths if you are only interested in making money or getting a job to pay the bills. Being a marine biologist doesn’t pay as much as some careers, so if you’re thinking about being a marine biologist and are worried about how much money you’ll make, you may want to consider a different career.

Q: How much does a marine biologist make?

A: Being a marine biologist doesn’t pay very well, at least not until you’re older and well-established in your field. Even then, it’s not very lucrative. Marine biologists make anywhere from $30,000 per year for entry level positions straight out of college to $80,000 per year for those with doctoral degrees and experience, occasionally more if you’re lucky. 

Q: What advice, if any, would you give to someone following the same career path as yourself?

A: Marine conservationists are enriched by their work, and are able to lead fascinating lives, often traveling to exotic locations. Most of us do this work because we love the oceans and are rewarded by doing work we enjoy. However it does take a lot of time and effort to get into the field, and there are sometimes many risks. If you persevere and obtain a PhD or become a professor at a college or university your salary can be greatly improved.  Marine conservation biology is a labor of love, with the gratification of making a positive difference in the world one of the rewards. 

Marine scientists work in a number of disciplines— find one that interests you (for example: geography, mathematics, chemistry, photography, exploration, computer programming or fishery biology).  It is sometimes easier to move in to a field you are interested in if you can bring top-notch skills. Get your degree from a college that has a good liberal arts and science curriculum. A diversity of world and educational experiences should make you a better graduate student, and ultimately, a better scientist. And, whenever possible, attend events where marine biologists are talking. Most importantly, try and get some real world, hands on experience, which often comes by way of volunteering your time to be a field assistant, intern or research assistant. Remember whatever you do, it is important to do the job well and hustle. Often re-cross paths with people you've previously worked with or for. You want to make sure you establish an excellent reputation, even if you are presently the low person on the totem pole.

Q: What is so fascinating about animals that would make you want to study them?

A: There are many more different types of animals in the sea than there are on land. Many people don’t realize it but 99% of the habitable space on Earth is in the ocean. This has led to all kinds of diverse and crazy creatures, and yet we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the deep ocean.  Over 70% of earth’s surface is covered by oceans, and over 60% of it is a mile or more in depth.

There is a lot of work to be done, because many of the fish in the ocean have been overfished. Most of the 21,000 species of fish (which largely are in the ocean) are edible, and our insatiable appetite for seafood now brings with it a host of problems for marine life. For example: (1) leatherback sea turtles have lived on the planet for almost 100,000 million years, pretty much doing the same things that they do today. But even though they were on Earth before the dinosaurs, they are going extinct today because of human activities (bycatch in fisheries, and overharvesting of their eggs); (2) The United Nations reports that all 17 of the world's major fishing areas have reached or exceeded their natural limits; (2) some of the most productive fishing grounds, the Grand Banks off Canada and New England's Georges Bank are only a fraction of what they once were; (3) The World Conservation Union lists 1,081 fish worldwide as threatened or endangered; (4) roughly 106 Pacific salmon stocks are already extinct and dozens more are seriously depleted; and (5) we have so altered the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem that it takes the few remaining oysters more than a year to filter the entire estuary — a feat which once occurred three times every day.

Along with figuring out a way to create sustainable fisheries and prevent further overfishing, there are several other significant challenges that the oceans face. Climate change and ocean acidification are topics that marine scientists are focusing on now and will be critical challenges to conservation in the future.