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Spotlight: Navigating from Maryland to Micronesia

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Eric Hartge

Research Development Manager

Published August 28, 2023

My experience growing up as a descendant of boatbuilders in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay region continues to shape my life.

My connection to the water begins with ancestors from 200 years ago who built and repaired boats at a family marina, still in operation today, in a small town on the shore of Chesapeake Bay. As a young child, my days were filled with playing along creeks and rivers – boating, crabbing, sailing, and fishing. That opportunity to immerse myself in nature shaped my passion for observing, understanding, and protecting such beautiful, delicate ecosystems.

Early in my career, I had the great opportunity to expand my knowledge of other marine systems as a mate, engineer, and captain, sailing on tall ships in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific. Those many months at sea were transformative since they opened a window to the curious romance of the ocean: sunsets, moon rises, celestial movements, wave dynamics, bioluminescent critters, sedimentary time capsules, and charismatic megafauna – to name a few.

Upon returning to Maryland to continue my formal education, I noticed a change in the Bay’s characteristics: Seagrass coverage decreased, and crab prices increased. I began to consider the Bay’s historical condition, its health during my childhood, and the extent of intergenerational impacts that I was witnessing. That’s when I decided to not just learn or teach about environmental systems, but to find solutions for sustaining them.

As my career advanced, I worked with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation where I had the opportunity to engage with fishers, crabbers, and oystermen from the Bay’s island communities to discuss how regional regulations might impact their livelihoods. During information sessions, crabbers would ask academics how they came to certain conclusions and they would receive a response such as, “Well, we conducted a three-year study to investigate the dynamics and here are our recommendations.” Those sentiments were not well received because, in many cases, these fishers had worked the local waters for many decades, supported by multiple generations of knowledge about their fishing grounds. Talking with members of those fishing communities provided me with a distinct appreciation for the importance of listening to people whose livelihoods and expertise are – and have been – so directly connected to coastal resources.

Much of my sea experience translates into how I approach my current position at the Center for Ocean Solutions. Considering the different roles I’ve filled on vessels helps me think through how to best serve the needs of the project. Sometimes I'm the third mate, focused on navigation. Other times I’m on bow watch, scanning the horizon for obstacles or opportunities. Or I’m the engineer, mapping systems and identifying maintenance points. I think about what role is missing and work to fill it.

One of my current projects focuses on collaboratively enabling different cultural approaches to collective governance of ocean and coastal resources in Micronesia. As the project manager, I strive to be as informed as possible going into community sessions by learning about the geologic, biologic, historical, political, and social nuances beforehand. I take into account the underlying experiences from others that are providing information and remain humble in the fact that though I may have read up on a topic, I don’t have the direct experience that they do.

If I were to describe to my younger self how I now travel through tropical, remote islands of Micronesia to engage with community leaders about ocean and coastal policy, it would have been exciting and unimaginable to me. Through these travels and project collaborations, I take note of motivating sentiments that resonate with me. A partner in Pohnpei recently commented, “We all strive to be remembered as good ancestors.” It was such a simple yet profound phrase that I didn’t know I had been searching for all along.