Faces of Conservation

Q&A with Geoff Smith

Explore the Gulf of Maine

Learn more about one of Earth’s most productive marine ecosystems.


Geoff Smith credits his parents with encouraging his curiosity about how things work and teaching him some basic principles of conservation. “It began with basic things like don’t litter and turn off the lights when you leave the room. And when I went fishing with my dad, he always told me to throw back the little ones so they could grow up to be big ones,” he explains.

Today, Smith and a team of conservationists are trying to figure out how to keep things working in one very large and important marine system: The Gulf of Maine.
"The Gulf of Maine is an incredible system that supports microscopic zooplankton, majestic whales and thousands of species in between. In fact, it is one of the most productive marine systems on the planet."

Geoff Smith, marine director


Why has the Conservancy chosen to focus so much effort on conserving the Gulf of Maine?

Geoff Smith:

The Gulf of Maine is an incredible system that supports microscopic zooplankton, majestic whales and thousands of species in between. In fact, it is one of the most productive marine systems on the planet. The Gulf is also tremendously important to those who have chosen to live in Maine. The first year-round European settlements in Maine were founded at fishing stations. And 400 years later, Mainers still depend on the Gulf as a source food, work, recreation and cultural pride.


The Gulf of Maine is a big place. How do you know what to protect?

Geoff Smith:

Developing a strong scientific foundation is always the first step at the Conservancy. We’re completing ecological assessments now that will help us narrow in on the places to work and the strategies to employ.

One thing we’re finding is that many nearshore habitats — like salt marshes, eel grass beds and shellfish communities — have been degraded over time. These coastal habitats provide important nursery areas for a number of marine species, and we need to do a better job of taking care of them. We’re working hard to determine what sites can provide the biggest bang for restoration dollars.


Freshwater and marine habitats are interconnected. How is the Conservancy working to keep these connections intact in Maine?

Geoff Smith:

The Conservancy is thrilled to be a partner in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, an incredibly ambitious project centered around removing two dams on the lower reaches of the Penobscot River and installing state of the art fish passage on the third — all while maintaining hydropower production.

The project will improve access to nearly 1,000 miles of river and tributary habitat for sea run fish like Atlantic salmon, shad, alewife, blueback herring and American eel and reopen almost 100 percent of historic habitat above the head of tide for shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, rainbow smelt and tomcod.


How will the project benefit life in the Gulf of Maine?

Geoff Smith:

We are optimistic that the project will improve conditions in Penobscot Bay and along the coastal shelf. River herring, alewife and other sea run species used to be a major food source for cod, haddock and other groundfish species. We hope that restoring those fish runs will expand the forage base for these fish and improve the system’s overall resilience.


With other organizations working to protect the Gulf, what added value does the Conservancy bring?

Geoff Smith:

One of the Conservancy’s biggest strengths is its ability to work at multiple scales. We have marine staff in each state bordering the Gulf who can focus on finer-scale projects in nearshore waters. But we can also coordinate across state boundaries on larger-scale conservation and management issues.

When cod move inshore to spawn, they may wind up in Ipswich Bay in Massachusetts, the Isle of Shoals in New Hampshire or Penobscot Bay in Maine. When right whales, bluefin tuna and other seasonal migrants come to the Gulf to feed in the summer, they need abundant prey, clean water and safe migratory corridors regardless of the state whose coast they happen to be near. Political boundaries don't mean a whole lot to these species.


So what's the next big thing in the Gulf of Maine?

Geoff Smith:

We’re exploring a potential permit banking strategy for the groundfish fishery. Under this strategy, we would work with partners to identify ways to use the “power of the permit” to leverage better conservation practices in the near-term, while also helping to secure long-term access for Maine fishing communities. We also hope to support efforts to improve the selectivity of fishing gear and reduce its impacts on seafloor habitats.


What is the single most important thing that must be done to keep the Gulf healthy and sustainable?

Geoff Smith:

In my mind, building trust and encouraging collaboration among stakeholders is the single most important step. If we take the time now to build an effective network of agencies, organizations and individuals with common goals for the Gulf of Maine, there are countless opportunities for positive change.

Geoff Smith is the marine director for The Nature Conservancy in Maine. He has an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and a Master of Studies in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School.

Prior to joining the Conservancy in 2006, Smith gained 15 years' professional experience in natural resource management with an emphasis on watershed management and fisheries, including four years as Fish Conservation Project Manager for The Ocean Conservancy in Portland, Maine. He currently serves on the New England Fishery Management Council's Groundfish and Habitat Advisory Panels, the Northeast Consortium's Collaborative Research Advisory Committee and on the Board of Trustees for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.


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