My Journey to Ghost Gear

Introducing the first Joanna Toole Intern

Written By
Guest Blogger

This blog was written by Jenna Schwerzmann. Originally from upstate New York, Jenna began her marine conservation career on Long Island after graduating from Stony Brook University with a B.S. in Marine Vertebrate Biology and M.A. in Marine Conservation and Policy. She has experience with both research and outreach for local estuarine conservation efforts, including horseshoe crab monitoring, shellfish restoration and water quality projects, all through Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program. Jenna has also volunteered aboard whale watches since 2015 and interned at NOAA Fisheries in Gloucester, Massachussets to assist with outreach for the Whale SENSE Program.

Jenna and horseshoe crab
When someone decides to pursue a marine biology degree, they will find themselves in unexpected learning and work environments. Outside of my formal education, I’ve had a variety of experiences, some of them glamorous, most of them not. I’ve sifted through the foul, half-digested contents of sea turtle stomach samples. I’ve walked moonlit beaches after midnight, despite rain, wind, heat or cold, searching for mating horseshoe crabs or nesting leatherback sea turtles. I’ve snorkeled, SCUBA’d, and sailed for marine science, often uncomfortably, resulting in dozens of bruises, countless bug bites and blistering sunburns. I’ve dug for groundwater samples, studied shellfish feces, counted hazardous marine bacteria and helped dissect a decomposing humpback whale. I’ve taken a lot of directions, many involving unpleasant odors.

All those changes in direction led me to this blog post. My name is Jenna Schwerzmann and I’m excited to be serving as the first-ever Joanna Toole Intern. Named after Joanna Toole, one of the co-founders of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) who was tragically killed in the March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash, the internship is hosted by Ocean Conservancy, the Center for Coastal Studies, the Joanna Toole Foundation and OceanCare, and seeks to support women in conservation. During my time with the GGGI, which is part of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas© program, I will support ongoing research and communication efforts. This includes working on the Ghost Gear Data Portal, updating the GGGI website, analyzing ghost gear policy, and writing for our newsletter and blog. The second half of my internship will be hosted by the Center for Coastal Studies, where I hope to return to the field in-person when it is safe to do so. As part of my fieldwork, I will provide hands-on support, raise awareness for ghost gear and marine debris, organize and participate in shoreline cleanups and data collection, and analyze sea turtle entanglement data.

While I’ve always been passionate about marine life, the issue of ghost gear and entanglement became more significant to me after an internship with NOAA Fisheries in Gloucester, Massachussets. During that time, I assisted with marine mammal education and outreach with a focus on the whale watching industry. I met several people in the field, explored the New England coast and saw a lot of whales! But there was a downside. Back in my cubicle, I couldn’t help but overhear reports of whale deaths and entanglements as soon as they were discovered. Sometimes the cause was unknown, other times it was a ship strike and sometimes it was an unfortunate encounter with fishing gear. While this was disheartening, I learned there were people working to solve the problem from all sectors, not just government, but also fishers, engineers and other nonprofits.

My experience with NOAA Fisheries led to a greater interest in sustainable seafood solutions. I was drawn to the Joanna Toole internship because it ties in all the things that I care about most through work with incredible organizations. The GGGI drives solutions for abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG)—the most harmful form of marine debris—using a collaborative approach that supports the fishing industry adaptations that benefit everyone.  These innovations will protect the marine environment, the people that depend on it and the marine creatures I love.

I’ve been a long-time admirer of both Ocean Conservancy and Center for Coastal Studies, so it is incredible to have the opportunity to work with these organizations.  While I didn’t know Joanna Toole, I am inspired by her work and incredibly honored to be chosen for a position created in her memory. I’m grateful to take this opportunity to work on the passions that Joanna and I share. Thank you to everyone who made this internship possible, including Ocean Care, the Joanna Toole Foundation, Center for Coastal Studies and Ocean Conservancy.

Jenna in field
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