By Paige Welsh
Eric Hartge first joined COS as a research and curriculum development intern in November 2010. Six years and several promotions later, he is now COS’s Research Development Manager. Eric plays a critical role in our internal organizational management and project portfolio development. He also works with the COS coastal adaptation team, helping decision makers protect coastal communities by advising them on nature-based adaptation strategies. His current coastal adaptation projects include continuing the progress of the Incorporating Natural Capital into Climate Adapatation Planning Project (INCCAP) and creating a tool to help coastal managers prioritize habitats for protection through the Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grant provided by the Stanford Woods Institute for Environment.
Eric’s passion for environmental science budded from many years spent along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and other coastal waterways. He received his M.S. in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Johns Hopkins University and his B.S. in Marine Biology from the College of Charleston. In our conversation, I learned about Eric’s professional journey, from conducting tropical fieldwork in the Caribbean to his current role providing policy and management tools to coastal decision makers.
Hartge often presents findings from COS's coastal adaptation work at state and national conferences.
Was there ever a moment when you knew you wanted to work with ocean issues?
When I was small child I was fortunate enough to go down to where my grandmother lived part of her life in the Bahamas. She and the rest of my family showed me all the beauty of the small island chain, the Abaco Cays. She gave me a wooden bucket that had a glass on the bottom so I could see all the critters and cool things under water. It was very different from where I grew up in the Chesapeake Bay where the water is murky. I was amazed by all the critters that were living down there. I asked her if these were all the same things that were in the Chesapeake Bay and she said, “Well, they’re similar but different. They have different colors and styles.” I asked her why and that was the beginning of finding out why some critters are in one place and other critters in another place. I grew up knowing I wanted to focus on marine ecology or coastal work in some fashion.
I saw from your profile that you did work in places like the Leeward Islands and Costa Rica. What were you doing there?
In the Caribbean, I worked primarily in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. I worked for Sail Caribbean which was a summer-long program where they bring students from America and parts of Europe to learn about sailing and island life. I taught the marine biology program on topics such as coral ecology and human impacts on water quality to high school students for two summers.
In Costa Rica, I taught English in a very small community in the mountains near Monteverde. I volunteered for three months teaching English and a little bit of elementary school science as well. I was able to learn the language and the culture. I lived with a family that included the woman who made lunch for the school and was a mother to one of the students. They were farmers who grew bananas and coffee. They talked about how they were in year two of switching to an organic growing approach. They also noted how difficult it was to make that transition. They thought it was the right thing to do, but they weren’t sure because they hadn’t really seen the financial returns on what was promised to them. It gave me an impression of some of the broader impacts of sustainability work and the human aspects to environmental progress. Ultimately, my experience in Costa Rica is what motivated me to go to graduate school to have a broader impact.
What kind work have you done in the field?
As an undergraduate student, I went on a program called Sea Education Association. It was a very pivotal moment for me in which I sailed from Saint Croix to Venezuela, Cuba, Roatan and Key West conducting a carbonate reef formation study. One of my favorite parts of research was the “ah-ha” moment. There was one time when we were filtering sediment and studying a core sample. You take a large core sample of the sea floor in the Caribbean and look at it under a microscope. You see with amazement that what you thought was a grain of sand was actually a very intricate shell that had gently rested on the bottom for thousands of years. But then, once that “ah-ha” moment is gone, you have six more hours of counting. I enjoyed the “romance” of it, so to speak, but I didn’t want to count shells for hours on end for the rest of my life.
Before working with policy, Hartge had exstensive experience at sea.
How has your promotion changed your responsibilities at the center?
My recent promotion further defines the difference between my content work and my organizational work. I still have time reserved for ongoing projects which are currently focused around coastal adaptation. In addition, I focus on internal strategic decisions for COS. For example, I identify project opportunities, conduct many hiring processes and enhance our organizational structure. This also involves organizing our projects to ensure we’re accurately allocating our resources. I also help identify new funding opportunities for proposals from public or private funders.
What do people not know about climate change that you wish they did?
I don’t think that people are fully aware of the severity of the issue. It may seem like there is slow onset to climate change, but there is a rapid projected rate of change. The real, large impacts are within our lifetime and will last for generations. We, at the Center, can work on thoroughly identifying the role climate change will play on the shifting dynamics in the ocean and the ways humans interact with ocean ecosystems.
I’ve been told you carry around a spice mix to add to your food on the go. Care to tell me about that?
The spice mix is “Old Bay” which is a very popular seafood seasoning from the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve eaten it my whole life. It was always salt, pepper and Old Bay at my house. When I used to sail on long voyages, I always had a little smell and taste of home. I could be off on some island in the Pacific, and I would have this aroma that would bring me back to my porch at home.
I understand that one of your hobbies is Ultimate Frisbee?
I wouldn’t say hobby—I would say lifestyle. I started playing in college, and I wanted to travel and compete so I started a team. I got introduced to the great culture of the sport. I continued playing after college. Anytime I moved, I knew I could find good people playing Frisbee. Then, I got into some competitive teams. Many years ago, while playing a tournament in Italy—the World Beach Ultimate Cup—I met my wife as she was playing for the Chinese team. So, that was a great outcome! Right now I help organize a team in San Francisco with my wife where we play together. We compete regionally, and we love it.
It’s a great way to focus all of my intensity. I’m a very, very, very competitive player. I may not be the best in the world, but I really want to be the best player I can be in every single game. I think it has helped me balance my focus and my composure.
Hartge competed recently at the US National Beach Ultimate Championships in 2015 and 2016. Photo: Ultiphotos.
What is it about the culture that you enjoy?
It has a strong culture of internal refereeing. The calls are made by players on the field. I think it’s a really good way to think about governance as well. The onus is on the individual and not an external oversight group.
If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?
I would definitely be on an island in the tropics. If I could find an island community with access to high level Frisbee and with a big enough city for my wife to also have a job, I would be there. For the coming years, San Francisco will do. My “go-to” place is my great uncle’s waterfront shack in Man-O-War Cay, in the Abacos. It is a peaceful place to detach and get back into the rhythms of the sea.