Q&A with Kate Killerlain Morrison

Kate Killerlain Morrison’s desk is crowded with thick manuals, a horseshoe crab shell, maps depicting strange underwater lands and a crayon drawing of an octopus. The Conservancy’s director of marine conservation in Massachusetts emerged for few minutes to talk about a landmark plan to restore oyster reefs and what gives her hope when it comes to our waters.
"Our maritime traditions allow us to work with a community that has strong ties to the ocean, creating a window for dialogue."

Kate Killerlain Morrison, Massachusetts Marine Program director

What makes Massachusetts’ marine systems special?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

Mainly, two things: geology and geography. When glaciers formed what we now know as the Massachusetts coast, they created rocky coasts up north in places like Cape Ann and the sandy beaches of Cape Cod in the south, giving us a huge variety of habitats. We also sit where warm ocean currents coming up from the south meet cold ones flowing down from the north. And our maritime traditions allow us to work with a community that has strong ties to the ocean, creating a window for dialogue.

The ocean is a big place, facing many challenges. How do you know what to protect?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

Think of the ocean as a medical patient. You wouldn’t prescribe treatment without a close look at the symptoms. Through our ecoregional assessment of the Northwest Atlantic, (pdf, 1.1MB) we are identifying the species, habitats and processes we want to see- those that would represent a healthy system.  Next, we will be looking at all the current vital signs, examining data from oceanography, biology, chemistry and even social science.  This will give us a roadmap for where to work and what strategies to employ.

Why are coastal areas so important?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

Without healthy coastal areas, fisheries would be in big trouble. Coastal areas basically play two roles. They provide nurseries for fish, and they buffer the flow of things coming from land to sea: holding onto pollutants and converting nutrients.

What’s the most exciting project you’re working on right now?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

We are working with Mass Audubon and the Town of Wellfleet to launch the first-ever oyster reef restoration project in Massachusetts. We are also engaged in discussions with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries on the technical aspects of the project. At our two-acre restoration site in Wellfleet Bay, we will experiment with various reef structures with the goal of bringing back populations of the American oyster that have declined significantly since the 1970s.

How will you know if the project is successful?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

We hope that oyster larvae from our restoration site will feed into surrounding shellfish beds and improve the overall oyster population in Wellfleet Bay. In the long-term, surrounding beds should bolster wild populations and allow for sustainable harvesting of the famous Wellfleet oyster. Oysters and their reefs also filter water, help prevent shoreline erosion and provide habitat for finfish and other species.

What about impacts from climate change?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

The Conservancy is using the latest technology to assess and prepare for this threat. For instance, we are learning from our colleagues in Albemarle Sound in North Carolina and Long Island Sound in Connecticut as they model sea level rise in order to protect lands that will become tomorrow’s marshes. We are also working to ensure that human response to sea level rise is smart and sustainable, encouraging the use of  natural, “living shorelines” instead of sea walls and jetties that can impair flow and eliminate habitats.

As the climate gets warmer and sea water temperatures rise, productivity will suffer too. Some studies suggest that species like cod will swim farther north in search of colder waters. Since many of our stocks in New England are overfished, they are often less diverse in age, size and geographic distribution, making some fisheries less resilient to change.

What gives you hope when it comes to our waters?

Kate Killerlain Morrison:

I’m encouraged by the strong coordination between marine colleagues both inside and outside of the Conservancy. And in Massachusetts, strong maritime traditions allow us to work within a community that has a strong connection to the ocean. Whether it’s an annual family trip to Cape, birding on the North Shore or fishing for stripers, people need to be passionate about something to advocate for it — so we’re at least halfway there.

Kate Killerlain Morrison is director of The Nature Conservancy’s Marine Program in Massachusetts. She works closely with coastal and fisheries managers and conservation and industry partners to assess the health of our oceans, and to develop on-the-ground strategies that push for policy change.  Killerlain Morrison holds a M.A. in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington and a B.A. in Environmental Policy from Eckerd College.

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