By Lisa Cavanaugh
Growing up, Claire Fitz-Gerald always wanted to do something with oceans as a career.
“I’m a Chicago native,” she says, “so at first I thought it would be at an aquarium, with dolphins.”
After studying marine biology in college in New England, Fitz-Gerald got a position as a federal fisheries observer, which gave her first-hand knowledge about life on the water.
“I talked to fishermen about the things that impacted them, the regulations and management, and suddenly I pivoted from ‘Flipper’ to being really interested in fisheries.”
After funding cuts caused observer layoffs, Fitz-Gerald used her biology degree to work in lab science, but really wanted to get back into ocean management. She entered the Duke University Ocean and Coastal Resources Management Program and through that connected with Fishermen Alliance staff and eventually was hired as a policy coordinator/analyst for the Fishermen’s Alliance in 2011.
Fitz-Gerald was promoted to Sector Manager in 2013 and worked even more closely with fishermen.
“There is real value in connecting directly with the fishing community and learning what’s important to them, what drives their businesses,” she says.
This insight serves her well at her next job, as Fishery Management Specialist at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she has been since 2015.
“It helps me be an asset to the government,” she says of her Fishermen’s Alliance experience. “We were working locally in areas that mattered to us, which is a good stepping stone to regionally managed fisheries.”
Her policy implementation work in sustainable fisheries and Electronic Monitoring, and her role as co-lead overseeing the sector program, means that Fitz-Gerald is working on the same fishery issues that she was before, but on other side of the regulatory fence.
“I also went from working on things specific to the Cape to working on things that impact New England as a whole.”
Like many of the Alliance’s alumni, Fitz-Gerald misses working so closely with fishermen.
“I’m still doing good and important work, and occasionally the fishermen here in Gloucester do come into our building, but it was really great to be interacting on a daily basis with the folks these policy issues really matter to.”
Fitz-Gerald has a lot of respect for Cape Cod fishermen who would often spearhead action to improve the fishery.
“It always seemed like someone — not always the same person — would step up to take on an issue and be the lead and the voice and go to council meetings and attend meetings locally and talk to people on the pier, and ultimately build positions as a group,” she says.
She also recalls fondly the team spirit at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“In 2013, we got it into our heads to host a food booth at the Wellfleet Oyster Fest, which was probably a terrible idea since we were not restauranteurs,” she said. “But we worked with local fishermen to showcase lesser known products, like skate and dogfish, and we ended up being so wildly successful that we burned through all the food on Saturday.”
The staff had to call both fishermen and local distributors to find extra fish, and then they stayed up until midnight prepping more food for Sunday.
“We made lobster salad, battered skate wings and dogfish filets, prepped fried scallops,” says Fitz-Gerald. “We had fishermen help man the booth, side by side with us, getting people to taste the seafood they bring to shore every day. In the end, it was a really great experience for everyone.”