By Dylan McDowell
Dori Dick’s research on marine mammals and seabirds has taken her from Hawaii to Belize to Florida. Lately, however, she has been in the nation’s capital, helping federal managers better predict how these animals might be affected by climate change.
Dick is a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) headquarters near Washington, D.C. Sponsored by Sea Grant, the prestigious one-year fellowship places recent graduate students in executive and legislative offices in and around the capital to work on issues affecting oceans and the Great Lakes. More than 1,100 fellows have participated in the program since its inception in 1979. Dick is one of four Knauss fellows in 2016 who were previously graduate students at Oregon State University.
Since February 2016, Dick has been working at NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources, which safeguards marine mammals and endangered species. She led the revision of guidelines that aim to help NOAA Fisheries make better and more defensible decisions regarding the management of endangered species when climate change is taken into account. For example, the updated guidelines state that the agency should ensure that designs for infrastructure, like fish passage facilities, anticipate future climate conditions.
“Some work has been done for climate change planning for terrestrial animals, but not for marine animals,” said Donna Wieting, who is the director of the Office of Protected Resources as well as Dick’s mentor and a former Knauss fellow.
Dick is also co-leading a team that is assessing how climate change could impact the endangered Atlantic salmon, which is now found only in Maine. The team is also determining which management actions, such as improving stream flow or restoring vegetation, could increase the fish’s chance of survival.
Dick started her career researching seabirds and Hawaiian monk seals. Later, while getting her master’s in geography at San Francisco State University, she embraced a technology called GIS – geographic information system – to estimate the abundance and habitat use of bottlenose dolphins around a Belizean atoll. The technology allowed her to digitally sort through extensive amounts of environmental and species-specific data to identify trends and produce detailed maps. As a GIS analyst in Florida, Dick later conducted similar work involving North Atlantic right whales. Dick said her work has helped establish protected areas for the dolphins in Belize, and reduced collisions between right whales and ships off the Florida coastline.
Dick furthered her studies at OSU, where she earned a doctorate in geography in 2016 as a student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
“Everything I did leading up to my Ph.D. made for a perfect fit starting at OSU. I could study in the marine environment, apply my love of spatial knowledge and GIS, and work to conserve the marine environment,” said Dick, who is known as “the navigator” in social circles.
As a student at OSU, Dick delved into two research projects in which she used GIS. First, she helped develop spatial visualization and mapping tools that combined photos of and genetic samples from north Pacific humpback whales. These tools allowed her to analyze relationships between known individual whales and environmental factors like sea surface temperature or depth. Second, she analyzed 15 years of data to predict where seabirds might congregate over the next 50 years as climate change potentially affects the southward-flowing California Current. She hopes that policymakers can use the information from both projects to create protected marine areas that are expected to be important for the species in the future as climate change progresses.
After her fellowship with NOAA ends in late January 2017, Dick hopes to find a position where she can conduct research that informs policy decisions.
“I'm a true believer in doing science that's relevant,” she said.
She is drawn toward research around marine protected areas -- similar to her work with seabirds -- where she can help ensure that managed areas include anticipated habitats of marine species. One thing she has been certain of since she was 10 years old: her work will involve the ocean.
“There is a quote from Sylvia Earle: ‘No water, no life. No blue, no green,’” said Dick. “Basically, it means if we don’t protect our ocean, we aren’t going to have the rest of our environment.”