Rob Moir, Ph.D.


Moir, RobDirector
Ocean River Institute
Cambridge, MA, USA
Industry: Nonprofit
Field: Environmental Conservation

“To save oceans and all the species of inhabitants that dwell within, we must be more thoughtful of the connections between land and sea, take an ecosystem-based management approach, and become more responsible in how we interact with the sea,” states Rob Moir, director of Ocean River Institute. “Savvy to the troubles oceans are in, we must practice better ocean stewardship for the greater good of all.” This is a belief that Dr. Moir holds close in the management of his nonprofit organization, which focuses on helping individuals and groups to make a difference where they live and work through environmental stewardship and science. Over the past four decades, Dr. Moir has honed his expertise in the areas of conservation, environmental organization management and environmental studies. His oversight of Ocean River Institute includes coordinating with local groups, maintaining a strong network of partners, and leading environment-related initiatives. One of the organization’s recent successes involved stopping nitrogen pollution and saving dolphins in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

“For me, there has always been life in oceans,” Dr. Moir explains of his motivation in establishing the Ocean River Institute. He was also strongly influenced by his father, who first sparked his love for the water, as well as by the Moir family motto: “Not for self, but for all.” “Consistent with family tradition, it is most rewarding for me to work with others to save wildlife, watersheds, rivers and oceans,” he states. To prepare himself for such work, Dr. Moir earned an extensive academic foundation. He holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies and a Master of Science in Teaching, both from Antioch University New England, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Natural Science from Hampshire College. Additionally, he holds a certification in ecology from The Marine Biological Laboratory.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Moir has proven himself an educator, scientist and activist with a background in institutional management and marine policy success. He has also held leadership positions in a number of advocacy organizations and museums. Dr. Moir currently serves on the Partnership of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area, representing the BID Advisory Council. Looking toward the future, he intends to continue providing efficient leadership for the Ocean River Institute in its mission to support a greener and bluer planet Earth. “Our long term goal,” he shares, “is to fill the void between ocean management extremes.”

Conversation with Rob Moir, Ph.D.

Worldwide Publishing: On what topic(s) do you consider yourself to be an expert?

Rob Moir: Conservation, managing environmental organizations, and environmental studies.

What characteristics help to separate you from your competitors? 

I’m a Switzer fellow, founding chairman of ocean champions, and founder of Salem Coastwatch in Massachusetts. I’m also a recipient of the National Marine Educators Association’s James Centorino Award. I was appointed by Bruce Babbitt to the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership. I hold a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from Antioch University, a Master of Science and Teaching from Antioch New England Graduate School, and a Bachelor of Arts from Hampshire College.

What motivates you?

For me, there has always been life in oceans. For a lullaby, my dad would sing me the Skye Bonnie Boat Song. I mistakenly took it to be a hopeful song of a boy who would be king, sailing over a sea filled with possibilities. At the beach, my cousins and I were engineers, ditching waterways in the sand. We were herons plucking with two fingers little fiddler crabs and hermit crabs hiding in black mud snail shells. Crabs went plunk into castle moats. We fished with an old beach towel netting little minnows that sparkled and writhed in the receding water. Fish were flipped into our waterways. Finally, we were lock-keepers opening sluiceways to release crabs and fish back to the sea.

What short-term and long-term career goals are you currently pursuing?

The short-term goal of the Ocean River Institute is to provide opportunities to make a difference and go the distance for savvy stewardship of a greener and bluer planet Earth. Our long-term goal is to fill the void between ocean management extremes. At one extreme the ocean is treated as the Wild West. At the other extreme are Marine Protected Areas which are like gated communities with sovereignty given to chosen scientists. In between are the many peopled seascapes with varying degrees of stewardship practiced by the users. I call these areas Ocean Stewardship Places (OSP). These are ocean areas where respect is given first to those closest to the natural resource and where management is handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Project OSPrey is a long-term effort to chronicle and catalogue Ocean Stewardship Places.

Often lacking regulatory authority, the strength of an Ocean Stewardship Place is indicated by the extent of collaboration between all of the ocean users. For example, the Friends of the Bay group may start as a weak OSP and grow in strength as user groups join with concerned citizens participating in modifying behaviors for the good of the bay.

The Western Gulf of Maine Closure Areas is quite strong because all commercial fishermen have agreed not to fish the place, yet recreational fishermen continue to do so. The OSP becomes stronger to the extent that recreational fishermen modify their practices there. Ocean Stewardship Places that are in the National Estuary Program with active collaboration of all users due to comprehensive committees are the strongest of OSPs. Recognizing Ocean Stewardship Places with a catalogue of descriptions and strength assessments would foster learning across places, especially between places with similarities. Groups embarking on the long deliberative process of finding common ground would be inspired to stay the course by accounts of what other Stewardship Places have accomplished.

What’s your ocean stewardship place? The Ocean River Institute invites descriptions of collaborative efforts taking an ecosystem-based approach, modifying practices, to conserve and restore ocean places. Already much is being done through local initiatives worthy of greater recognition.

What is the most difficult obstacle or challenge you have faced in pursuit of your goals?

To save oceans and all the species of inhabitants that dwell within, we must be more thoughtful of the connections between land and sea, take an ecosystem-based management approach, and become more responsible in how we interact with the sea. Savvy to the troubles oceans are in, we must practice better ocean stewardship for the greater good of all.

Our practices of better ocean stewardship begin with the people most closely tied to ocean places. Those who have voyaged out and have seen the shore from the sea know ocean better than do people on the shore. People who walk shores, who go down to the sea, know ocean better than do those who do not dwell in reach of the sea’s spray.

Ocean stewardship begins with respect for the individuals and groups closest to oceans. Respect for individuals who take the time to observe the rise and fall of tides, the set and fetch of waves or the shifts in shorelines. Respect for individuals and groups who sally forth to transit ocean places or extract from oceans fish, minerals, or wave, tidal and thermal energy.

Given the multitude of connections we have to oceans including recreation and lifestyle choices, the complexities of management challenges are no less than the complex diversity of lives is the sea with many permanent members and many transient. Ecosystem-based management recognizes this most remarkable challenge. Our practice requires systems – thinking at the highest level.

What is the most significant issue facing your profession today?

We must do better at respecting the base of the management pyramid, those closest to the resource. Top-down or expert-driven management lacks the experiential base. It can topple over, fail, damaging the resource and those closest to the resource with little consequences to the decision-makers.

Better to build management from the bottom up where each level manages to the extent it is capable. The next level of management steps in with specific practices not found in those closer to the resource. For example, in Massachusetts, clam beds have been managed successfully for the most part by clammers. Each municipality with productive clam beds has appointed a Clam Warden. The Clam Warden makes sure everyone follows the stewardship practices agreed to by the clammers, who know the resource. The Clam Warden checks licenses and measures take. However, municipalities with Clam Wardens do not have the capacity to test clams for bacteria levels. The state has the competency to run bacteria-measuring laboratory to certify that clams are ready for consumption. Finally the clam purging facility on Plum Island is inspected by the federal government to help meet the nation’s appetite for clams.

There are four tiers to clam management, not counting how well the clams manage themselves: Individual clammers, municipal Clam Warden, state bacteria laboratory and federally inspected clam purging facility.

The Clam Wardens work closely with clammers. They determine how many clams to harvest unfettered by the state or a regional council. Each management tier above brings a competency lacking in the entity closer to the resource. There is always respect for the more local competencies. If a municipality should fail in its clam management, the state will not take over.  Instead, the state assists the municipality to regain its competencies to manage.

Subsidiarity is a form of governance where management is handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Respect is given first to those closest to the natural resource. The word “subsidia” was used by Johannes Althusius to indicate the supply of all the necessities for life and association. It is the “logic of the supply of mutual needs in an interdependent world.” The word was used more loosely by Althusius than the concept of subsidiarity would be applied three hundred plus years later. Subsidia presupposes diverse and cooperative groups of people. There is support of local autonomies within a wider federated framework with an ascending series of contracts.

For an American subsidiarity, Abraham Lincoln once said: “A community of people whatever they need to have done but . . . cannot so well do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.” Credit is due to those who operate closest to the resource.  Responsibility for environmental management, restoration and conservation belongs to all, in nested hierarchy from the most local to the most national and more global.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your profession?

Environmental subsidiarity makes more democratic and competent the work of stewardship and conservation by bringing multiple groups with differing competencies from many levels of authority to manage an environment, and to then bear the burden of responsibility broadly.

The Moir family motto has been since the fourteenth century “not for self, but for all.”  Consistent with family tradition, it is most rewarding for me to work with others to save wildlife, watersheds, rivers and oceans.

Who have been your mentors or people who have greatly influenced you?

Dad had me get into the big old blue fiberglass heavy rowboat called Doodle Bug. The front came to a point and there was decking back to the first of three benches. This was a sailboat with a tan-bark red sail, dagger board and a big rudder that fitted onto the back with a stick to steer by.

Dad must have had enormous confidence in me because he never got into the little bug of a boat. He stood feet splayed holding steady with water to his knees. I was instructed to sit in the back with one hand on the tiller stick and the other holding the line to the sail. The most important lesson was to start by going into the wind because that was the most challenging direction.

Sailing Doodle Bug to windward was a big responsibility that took skill and a heap of patience. I was beating nature by taking its wind energy with a rag and a pole moving forward against wind and waves. A windward mark is only reached by turning back and forth, tacking with sail on one side and then sail to the other rail. Progress is not straight forward; it’s a zig-zag. Sometimes the powers are too great. Where, no matter for how long or how many times the heavy boom attached to sail swings over one’s head, it cannot be done.

What advice can you offer fellow members or others aspiring to work in your industry?

Sailing, one encounters an ocean assaulted by problems we have caused: pollution, harmful algal blooms, red tides, ocean dead zones, toxins accumulating in animal fat cells diminishing fertility, and overfishing. I am torn between two groups of people: Those that call for closing of the cod fishery and/or ocean areas from any fishing; and those, mostly fishermen, calling on conservationists to get to work cleaning up the waters to the damages that hemorrhage into ocean ecosystems. The answer lies in the midst of it all. The answers are more inclusive, holistic ocean planning at regional, national and international scales. So I choose the more difficult course of both better conservation and better resource use. Tack towards more ecosystem-based management by fisheries and tack towards more responsible stewardship of oceans.

The crooked course we take is wonderfully complex and dynamic where we must be responsive to changing fish populations and to changing seas. With the many synergistic effects in play, we must be ready to adjust course swiftly. Only if we demonstrate knowledge, competency and progress as one, will government assist in fisheries research and sustainable stewardship management. I invite you to join in our voyages, doodlebugs to windward, to save both fish and fishing communities as well as the ocean.

What is your favorite or least favorite work-related task to do and why?

2014 will be remembered as the banner year for stopping nitrogen pollution and saving dolphins in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. We collaborated with many local groups to achieve three victories, passage of strong lawn fertilizing ordinances in Brevard County, St. Lucie County and Volusia County. All the counties in Indian River Lagoon have enacted responsible stewardship ordinances. After campaigning for more than four years, the Treasure Coast is now showing signs of recovery, with fewer dolphin and manatee deaths, clearer water, and sea grass beds returning.

What changes have you observed in your industry/field since you started?

There is good news for fish. ORI’s campaign urging the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to restore river herring and shad populations has succeeded. The Council has protected an estimated 1.6 million fish by reducing the catch limit by 62 percent, from 236 metric tons to 89 metric tons. We delivered petition letters and went to court to get better protections for these forage fish – more food for bigger fish, birds and marine mammals. While encouraged, there is still much more to be done and new challenges to be met.


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