Smallest federal agency looks after the biggest creatures on Earth

The Marine Mammal Commission might be the smallest with 12 people, and besides filling out surveys, what else do they do there?

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Judging by its employees 100% participation in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the Marine Mammal Commission is an engaging agency. It might be the smallest with 12 people, and besides filling out surveys, what else do they do there? For more,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to its Executive Director Peter Thomas.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Thomas, good to have you on.

Peter Thomas: Yeah. Thank you, Tom. I’m glad to be here.

Tom Temin: And I guess I was drawn by the fact that OPM mentioned that all of your employees, all 12 of them had filled out the FEVS. And do you know for a fact that you’re the smallest federal agency? That’s my conclusion, there might be somebody smaller.

Peter Thomas: Yeah, I think the Marine Mammal Commission is definitely a small agency. We’re a micro agency. We have lots of names for what we are, but I think there are smaller agencies that aren’t actually captured in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Tom Temin: And what is the mission of the Marine Mammal Commission?

Peter Thomas: So the Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government agency. We’re charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was passed by Congress in 1972. To further the conservation of marine mammals in their environment, and interesting, we’re about to celebrate our 50th anniversary of providing science-based oversight over domestic and international – the policies and actions of the federal government, which are designed to address human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems. I think it might be good right now to say what’s a marine mammal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They include the cetaceans – those are the whales, dolphins, porpoises, beaked whales, killer whales, of all sizes from four or five feet long up to 90, 100 feet long, and includes what are called the pinnipeds. Those are the seals, the sea lions and the walruses. Then the sirenians – think of the sirens of ancient Greece, Greek myths like the manatees and dugongs. And then a couple of carnivores are thrown in: The polar bears on the sea otters. So we cover a wide range of marine mammal species.

Tom Temin: And what is the state of marine mammals these days?

Peter Thomas: It’s a very mixed state. I think the Marine Mammal Protection Act has what’s the moratorium on commercial whaling, which was passed, again, almost 50 years ago, had a big impact on the large whales, which were pretty much being decimated toward extinction. Many of those whale species are recovering. But others such as the North Atlantic Right Whale off the east coast of the United States is still in a very precarious position. So we follow over 100 species of marine mammals and a range of status is really variable.

Tom Temin: And is there pretty good international cooperation? I recall some years ago, there was a dispute with Japan over whale harvesting.

Peter Thomas: Yeah, I think the international consensus has moved toward, feeling that we can make more money off of whalewatching than we can make off killing whales for meat or oil. I’m actually participating this week in the meeting of the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee, which has gone from focusing on “OK, how many can you kill over a certain time and still maintain populations?” kind of a basic wildlife management approach, to much broader discussion of the issues of ecosystem management, how to manage whalewatching, in fact, which 50 years ago nobody imagined would be an economic activity. There’s cooperation there, but actually, Japan left the International Whaling Commission now two years ago or so. And so that’s an area of uncertainty for those concerned with marine mammal conservation.

Tom Temin: And the day-to-day work of the agency, therefore, is research or maybe I should say, researching the research that’s going on with respect to these different species, and then formulating recommendations?

Peter Thomas: Yeah, well we’re kind of a mixture of an oversight agency and a think tank. So we interact with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, those are the two agencies with the regulatory responsibility under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. But we also in really facilitating the conversations that need to happen or supporting – we have a small research grant supporting research that will delve into areas of either new research or questions about conservation. We also deal with the Navy, we deal with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Geological Survey, anyway, a number of other federal agencies and even with state and local and tribal entities.

Tom Temin: There was an issue a few years ago with the Navy and I don’t know whatever happened there, but they were using some sort of really powerful sonar to detect other submarines And that was interfering with, I think some of the life mechanisms of marine mammals.

Peter Thomas: Yeah, the issue of sound. And the anthropogenic sound – that’s sound produced by humans in the ocean – is a big area of concern. It’s also a big area of research. And so we comment really from a very technical side on activities related to Navy sonar, related to the use of seismic air guns to explore for oil on the continental shelf, really to develop – I hate this term, but the mitigation measures, what are the measures that the Navy or the oil companies, the exploratory companies can take to reduce the impact of their activities on marine mammals and other marine life? And that sort of goes to our role, which is a kind of a centric role. We’re not an environmental group. And we’re not an industry group. We’re really charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to look after the interests of marine mammals and what’s called the taking of marine mammals whether through killing them or injuring them, or harassing them.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Peter Thomas, he’s executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission. And how did you come to this work personally?

Peter Thomas: Well, essentially, I’ve got kind of an interesting government story. I know your focus is on the federal agencies. And so I’ve always been a naturalist. I’ve always been interested in biology and ecology and pursued a career as a biologist. But early on, when I was at Carleton College in Minnesota, I had a professor named Paul Wellstone who ended up being the famous Sen. Paul Wellstone who campaigned around Minnesota in a famous green bus. Well, I took his kind of introductory government and community organization class, sort of sat through it, it was a requirement. But at the end, I got the exam, I just nailed the exam and the Wellstone put on, he said, “A+, who are you?” I was just shy, and I was into ecology and conservation, so I didn’t pay attention. That took probably 12 years to figure out that he had really spotted my strengths. And I spent years on the cliff doing whale research up in the Beaufort Sea on ships going around looking for bowhead whales. And then one year back in Minnesota, actually, I got involved in a policy issue related to keeping marine mammals at the Minnesota zoo. And I really loved it. And I guess I got an A+ on that work because people began to tell me you actually like people and working with people. And so I got a triple AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, science and diplomacy fellowship to come here to work at the State Department. And I loved it. I just got right into the work. I really loved the policy, the science, mixing it all together. When I first got here, we were doing orientation on Capitol Hill, and I see this guy coming toward me. It’s Paul Wellstone. He was a wrestler, he had a very distinct walk. And I go, “Paul!” He goes, “Who are you?” So I told him the story about the A+ who are you? And he said, “I remember that!” That was sort of emblematic of my career, moving into government. And, I’ve been here now for, I think 30 years, working at the State Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service. And now back to marine mammals at the Marine Mammal Commission.

Tom Temin: Wow. So not too many people can say they pursue a passion in all of these different formats, and yet you have been able to.

Peter Thomas: Yeah, I’m really lucky.

Tom Temin: And can I just ask you about the manatees? Because I worry about them in Florida. There’s a bill I think, co-sponsored by Florida Rep. Brian Mast, to take more measures to protect manatees. How are they doing these days?

Peter Thomas: Well, the manatees at the moment have been declared an unusual mortality event which under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, there’s a whole section on marine mammal health and stranding. When you have one of these times when you see a lot of dead dolphins, manatees, whatever, sea lions – whatever it might be, they have a formal process to really evaluate what’s going on. So we’ve had over the last several months pretty large die off of manatees on the east side of Florida. Again, they’re working on figuring out what exactly is going on. It could very well be lack of food. Sometimes it’s cold water events that’s done manatees. But it’s a good example of the processes set in place by the Act to get the answers and it also shows we actually have spent time with some of the Florida congressional delegations to talk to them and our role as a congressionally established agency, tiny little agency. We spend a lot of time up on the Hill, talking with different congressional delegations from different states about what are the issues in your area and what might be done.

Tom Temin: And a final question for this little tiny agency of 12 people, what do you look for in people that want to work at the Marine Mammal Commission?

Peter Thomas: Well, actually, Tom, you sent a longer question about what was the sort of a fun fact I can tell about marine mammals. And so I sent it out to my 14 staff. And I think we, the fun fact is that we are probably the greatest concentration of marine mammal nerds in the D.C. area actually spread out now because of the pandemic. And I got great answers. One is that whales are so long lived, there are bowhead whales who’ve been found to live 200 years or more. There are killer whales swimming around right now who are 95 years old – 90, 95 years old – out off of the Puget Sound and the West Coast. So we look for scientific expertise, we also look for I would say, we look for people are just really excited about contributing to the science and conservation, not just of marine mammals but of the marine environment.

Tom Temin: So you could have a T shirt that says, “Thar she blows?”

Peter Thomas: Yeah, we could. We sure could.

Tom Temin: Peter Thomas is executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission. Thanks so much for joining me.

Peter Thomas: Thank you, Tom. Glad to talk anytime, really appreciate it.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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