Women of the Water

A Century of Women in Ocean Conservation

By Elizabeth Moore and Rachel Plunkett

March 2021

Women have been part of the National Marine Sanctuary System since its inception, but they, like many in prior generations, have to deal with obstacles to their educational and professional goals. Family and caregiving responsibilities cause many women to leave science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational programs and professions, a phenomenon called the “leaky pipeline.” Women also leave STEM fields because of impediments to career advancement and being paid a fraction of the salary male colleagues receive for the same job responsibilities.

Many organizations are undertaking efforts to better understand and address the leaky pipeline and associated issues. We are trying to do our part as well, regularly hosting interns through NOAA scholarship and internship programs, including those with Minority Serving Institutions. We also oversee the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program, geared toward women and minorities and funded each year by 1% of our appropriation, that supports talented graduate students in conducting research, finishing their educations, and beginning their professional journeys in marine science and stewardship.

Several women in conservation over the past century have paved the way for the present generation of conservation leaders here at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. One of our early directors, Dr. Nancy Foster (from 1983 to 1986), laid the foundation for many facets of sanctuary culture. Today, the women who lead many important projects and programs throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System are mentors to undergraduates, interns, master’s students, and PhD candidates, who are starting to make waves in marine and environmental conservation. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve highlighted a few examples that show how elevating women in leadership roles in conservation creates a ripple effect throughout the field.

For the Birds

The great shearwater is one of more than 30 species of seabirds that can be found in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Peter Flood


Harriet Hemenway
Portrait by John Singer Sargent

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fashionable women wore elaborate hats decorated with feathers from birds like egrets and herons, even sometimes, outlandishly, with entire dead birds. In 1896, Harriet Hemenway, a Boston socialite, read a magazine article that explicitly described the horrors of the feather trade. Appalled by what she’d read, Hemenway enlisted her cousin, Minna Hall, and together they recruited the women of Boston to stop wearing hats with bird plumage to help bring a halt to the practice. They were so successful that they paved the way for the creation of the National Audubon Society and legislation protecting migratory birds, waterfowl, and seabirds.


Grace Bottitta-Williamson

For Grace Bottitta-Williamson, becoming the national recreation and tourism coordinator was a dream come true, the chance to forge stronger relationships with those who enjoy the waters of sanctuaries to surf, dive, fish, and paddle. But Grace is a former bird and wetland biologist, and an avid, life-long bird watcher who particularly welcomes the chance to recruit more people into seeking out, studying, and sharing the feathered denizens of sanctuaries, who sometimes play second fiddle to more charismatic animals like seals and whales. “Many sanctuaries are along critical bird migration routes so we’ve got songbirds, birds of prey, waterfowl, shorebirds, and seabirds who fly great distances to find food for hungry chicks back in the nest, all of them in sanctuaries, just waiting to be discovered,” Grace says. “And I’m proud to do the job I do so my daughters and all the members of future generations can enjoy them as much as I do.”


Anna Robuck

Foster Scholar Dr. Anna Robuck, who recently finished her degree at the University of Rhode Island, also finds professional satisfaction devoting her research to seabirds. Her doctoral work looked at the connection between the diet of the great shearwater (migratory birds that enjoy the bounty of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and surrounding areas) and emerging contaminants in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Some of her research indicates that dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and new contaminants like PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are present in the tissue samples taken from shearwaters, and therefore persist in the ecosystem, even though DDT was banned almost 50 years ago. Research like Anna’s allows managers to make more informed decisions about protecting the wildlife and habitats of the sanctuary.

Coral Crew

The National Marine Sanctuary System protects thousands of square miles of coastal and offshore waters throughout the United States, including places with shallow, mesophotic, and/or deep-sea corals. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA


Rachel Carson
© Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A marine biologist by training and famous author of “Silent Spring,” “Under the Sea Wind,” and “The Sea Around Us,” Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a trusted advocate of science and a public voice for environmental ethics in America. Through her work, she shed light on marine research and exploration and raised awareness of issues such as climate change, animal extinction, and pollution.

Of her time spent in the Florida Keys, Carson wrote, “I doubt that anyone can travel the length of the Florida Keys without having communicated to his mind a sense of the uniqueness . . . there is a tropical lushness and mystery, a throbbing sense of the pressure of life; in coral reef and mangrove swamp there are the dimly seen foreshadowings of the future.” Though Carson’s work brought light to just how fragile the habitats of the Keys truly were, never could she have imagined how perilous their existence would become. If alive today, she would likely be right here beside us working to bring Florida’s Coral Reef back to a healthy state.


Sarah Fangman

As someone who has spent most of her life trying to protect the ocean, Sarah Fangman stepped up as superintendent of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary because she saw it as a challenging opportunity to make a difference. Drawing upon her experiences and accomplishments at Channel Islands and Gray’s Reef national marine sanctuaries, Sarah is bringing together research partners, community groups, and local businesses to protect and restore the only living barrier coral reef in the continental United States. Over the past several decades, Florida’s Coral Reef has been damaged by hurricanes, bleaching, disease, and heavy human use, but bold local action through Mission: Iconic Reefs, a restoration effort to increase coral cover at seven iconic reefs, will help to reverse that trajectory and restore ecosystem function.

"We cannot afford not to act," said Fangman. "These systems are in a state that without our active help, they cannot recover fast enough."


Carina Fish

Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar Carina Fish is a marine biogeochemist and PhD candidate at UC Davis' Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute's Bodega Marine Laboratory. She is studying human-induced changes to the deep sea, particularly, deep-sea corals. Like trees, corals have growth rings within their skeletons, which contain clues about past environmental and climatic conditions. Carina seeks to use information hidden within the coral skeletons to quantify how changes in ocean acidification, deoxygenation, and temperature are affecting deep-sea communities in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California. A Ford Foundation fellow, she applies an environmental justice framework to marine and coastal issues, and is passionate about science communication.

Sound Specialists

Scientists use special instruments to listen and record the sounds of wildlife, such as whales, in national marine sanctuaries. Photo: Peter Flood


Katy Payne
Photo: Kris Krüg under a CC 2.0 License, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The songs of whales have inspired and amazed many artists, singers, scientists, and conservationists. It wasn’t until about 50 years ago, however, that people started listening to whale songs. In 1967, Katy and Roger Payne discovered that the intricate sounds of these majestic creatures were not just random noises – but vocalizations with distinct rhythmic patterns – songs! Using recordings by underwater acoustics expert, Frank Watlington, Katy and Roger released a special album of whale songs called “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which sold 100,000 copies and raised awareness of the social lives of marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins. This discovery combined with the couple’s outreach efforts led to a subsequent rise in international activism to protect marine mammals.


Leila Hatch

Dr. Leila Hatch is a marine ecologist who coordinates underwater sound research at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of Massachusetts, as well as for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries more broadly. She became interested in the sounds animals make underwater at age 16 while helping a professor at Cornell University analyze recordings of whale song. During her fieldwork with whales in graduate school, she learned that noise generated by human activities (e.g., commercial shipping, recreational boating, seismic sources) can be one of their main stressors. This realization led her to decide she wanted her scientific work to inform policy that better protects marine life in U.S. waters from noise impacts. She is currently working on a project, SanctSound, to monitor soundscapes in eight of America’s national marine sanctuaries, including all detectable sounds made by wildlife and by humans.


Brijonnay Madrigal

Nancy Foster Scholar Brijonnay Madrigal is a PhD student in the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, studying marine mammal acoustics. Her research focuses on using hydrophones throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago to understand the occurrence and distribution of two Hawaiian resident toothed whale species, false killer whales and short-finned pilot whales, inside and outside of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. She is also interested in understanding how human-made sounds in Hawaiian waters from shipping and naval activity might impact the acoustic behavior of these species.

“A lot of mentors throughout my career have been women, and as a woman, and especially being a minority, I like to put myself out there and be involved in education and outreach in hopes of inspiring young girls to pursue STEM careers.”

All Hands on Deck

Youth participating in the Ocean Guardian School Program in Santa Cruz, California, plant native seedlings to support healthy living shorelines. Photo: Kate Thompson/NOAA

We face many challenges in building a thriving ocean future, in dealing with impacts like climate change’s warming and rising seas, the loss of too many species and habitats, and the demands of overfishing. We can’t afford anything other than “all hands on deck,” the hands of all genders, ages, abilities, and ethnicities, working together to ensure that we leave a better ocean, and a better world, for the generations to come.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Rachel Plunkett is the writer/editor at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Editor's note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of the women in conservation who have worked or are working at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, all of whom have made a significant impact through their work.