By Lisa Cavanaugh
For Massachusetts native Tom Dempsey, Pacific Grove, California seems like home.
“It’s a fantastic small town, feels almost like Chatham,” he says. “The coastline is stunning and beautiful, like on the Cape.”
For the past four years, Dempsey, his wife and their three children have lived on this West Coast peninsula adjacent to Monterey, where he works as the California Oceans Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He first took a position with TNC as Senior Fisheries Project Director in 2014, after seven years with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance as Policy Analyst and then Policy Director.
Dempsey, who holds degrees in both environmental biology and wildlife biology, came to the Alliance in 2007. “It was a place with great energy,” he recalls. “Fishermen would drop in, back from the pier, to talk about the day.” Dempsey believes a spirit of collaboration and relationship was built through these conversations. “It was usually about what was going wrong and what could be done about it, but the broader context was always what we were trying to create with the organization as a whole.”
In his current job, Dempsey often references the Alliance and the work he did here. “I had been leading the sustainable fisheries strategy, so much of the approach, mindset and innovation that was going on at the Alliance has led to so many things happening here,” he says.
Dempsey first learned about the TNC team and their work through Paul Parker, who put him in touch with TNC’s Chuck Cook and Michael Bell. “We wanted to find innovative ways to secure fishing rights and leverage them to support local businesses and healthy oceans,” says Dempsey. “Chuck and Michael, who started the Oceans Program out here, were close peers on that effort.”
Dempsey now works on protecting sensitive sea floor habitats, including kelp forests, and exploring ways to stem the flow of plastics into the ocean. “We (at TNC) want to reduce the impact of fishing, while still ensuring robust and thriving fisheries,” he says. “That is the space the Fishermen’s Alliance also inhabits: Advancing conservation and stewardship while also building strong and productive fisheries.”
A former member of the New England Fishery Management Council, Dempsey feels his time at the Alliance was valuable and formative: “Working with partners, handling policy battles, being entrepreneurial and creative in tackling solutions, I think my time at the Fishermen’s Alliance was an incredible part of my learning, understanding how to improve fishery management and how to protect the oceans that support us.”
While TNC has close partnerships in a whole range of fisheries in California, Dempsey misses on-the-water experiences that were so readily available at the Alliance.
“My time there shaped my thinking on how I try to improve collecting information from fisheries and turn that into effective management, while tackling other ocean conservation issues as well,” he says. “Too often these are treated as opposing concepts, but in my mind they are aligned goals that the Fishermen’s Alliance has worked to support.”