CFAES Alumni Spotlight: Mark Monaco

Mark Monaco

Even at an early age, Mark Monaco knew he wanted to spend his life working in marine science. He’s been able to do just that thanks to the start he received at CFAES—a start immersed, often literally, in Lake Erie.

Monaco, originally from Dover, Ohio, came to the CFAES School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR) and earned a BS in fisheries management in 1981, an MS in environmental biology in 1984, and from 1981–1983 also served as the manager of Stone Laboratory, CFAES’ island campus at Put-in-Bay. The job included conducting long hours of Lake Erie water-quality sampling aboard the boat the R/V Hydra, and teaching eager high school students and teachers on the R/V BioLab—collecting water samples, netting fish, getting their feet wet in science.

From Ohio, Monaco went east in 1984 for a national Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and he has worked for the agency ever since—including as supervisory marine biologist and director of NOAA’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment; and, since 2017, as supervisory marine biologist and director of the Marine Spatial Ecology Division in NOAA’s Silver Spring, Maryland-based National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, the position he holds today. Along the way, in 1995, he earned his PhD in marine and estuarine environmental studies from the University of Maryland.

Over his career, Monaco’s water world has expanded to include the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay, coral reefs and Capitol Hill, and the second-largest marine protected area in the world in the form of the northwestern Hawaiian islands. But he said Put-in-Bay—located some 5 miles out in Lake Erie, the home of Stone Lab—still holds a special place in his heart.

He answered a few questions for this CFAES alumni spotlight.

On his work and career

Q: Can you talk about in a nutshell what your work involves?

A: I am extremely fortunate to have a very diverse portfolio of activities that I cover as supervisory marine biologist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). I direct the Marine Spatial Ecology Division within NCCOS, and my work portfolio is primarily comprised of conducting scientific investigations and leading and managing approximately 100 federal and contract staff. In addition, as part of the NCCOS leadership team, I am engaged in a number of activities to support my office and other NOAA entities. I really do not have a “typical day” as it can range from SCUBA diving to conducting monitoring of coral reef fishes, briefing congressional staff and members on Capitol Hill, mentoring staff, to developing research initiatives within and outside of NOAA.

Q: How has the pandemic changed your work?

A: Well, I have never spent 100% of my time at a desk via remotely teleworking during my career. Needless to say, I am a bit restless, but we have just started returning to some very limited field-based activities. Thus, I’m looking forward to interacting with my staff and getting underwater in the late summer!

Q: What are you most passionate about in your work? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

A: I knew from a very young age I wanted to have a career in marine science, and I’ve done so for over 40 years. The part of the work I am most passionate about is making a difference in the sustainable management of living marine and Great Lakes resources. Leading and conducting very cool research with an extremely talented and dedicated NOAA workforce and external partners makes it very easy to report to work each day. I often tell folks that I feel like I have not worked a day in my life as my opportunities in leading and conducting marine science are so rewarding and fun!

Q: What’s been the biggest achievement in your career, and what’s been the biggest challenge?

A: I have had many great achievements, ranging from creating scientific programs to conserve and protect natural resources, leading efforts to map nearly all of the nation’s coral reefs, educating the public and policy makers on the importance and value of marine and Great Lakes natural resources, designing and evaluating the efficacy of marine protected areas, and mentoring and leading staff in conducting applied research in support of management needs.

The largest challenge has been integrating natural and social science data and information into actionable science to facilitate implementation of management policies by governance entities that attempt to balance conservation and human uses of our oceans and coasts.

On Earth Day

Q: Earth Day is April 22. On reflection, what gives you hope when it comes to the state of the coasts and oceans? What are you optimistic about?

A: There are many stressors and human activities impacting the condition of our coasts and oceans. However, I have been part of many successful efforts to conserve and manage our natural resources in sustainable ways, including spatial planning of human uses in coastal and marine environments to minimize resource use conflicts. In addition, I have witnessed the restoration and resiliency of various coastal ecosystems, such as increases in water quality, recovery of fish populations, and enhancements of coral reef ecosystems. Often these environmental success stories are directly linked to community-based management actions.

Q: On the flip side, what are you most concerned about? What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

A: I think the impact of climate change on our coastal and Great Lakes communities and ecosystems is our greatest scientific and management challenge. Since the impact of climate change is a worldwide issue, we must continue to strive to reduce environmental stressors, increase coastal resiliency, and mitigate the impacts of coastal changes at local, regional, national, and worldwide spatial scales.

On his time at Ohio State

Q: How did your time at Ohio State—in the CFAES School of Environment and Natural Resources, at Stone Lab—influence your career?

If not for The Ohio State University and my experiences at Stone Lab, I would have not had the successful and rewarding career that I have enjoyed for over 40 years. My academic training at Ohio State, my professors, and research activities enabled me to successfully compete for the 1984 Knauss Sea Grant Fellowship that resulted in working for NOAA. Most importantly, my time at Ohio State enabled me to develop lifelong professional and personal relationships that have guided me through my career and life.

Q: Who were your biggest mentors while you were here, and what did you learn from them?

A: Drs. Eddie Herdendorf and Jeff Reutter, both former Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab directors, were my incredible mentors, and we have maintained our lifelong friendships. Eddie taught me about critical thinking in addressing scientific research, and Jeff helped shape my ability to communicate scientific information to the public. I was very fortunate to have Eddie and Jeff help lead and guide the early development of my scientific and professional career.

Q: What are your favorite memories from your time at Ohio State?

A: The friendships I developed at Ohio State in Columbus and at Stone Lab are my greatest memories, along with the research opportunities. I was able to participate as a student and as the Stone Lab manager in over 50 research projects from 1979–1984. These activities included environmental monitoring (part of my MS thesis), as a scientist on the R/V Hydra that was operated by Ohio State, and as a research assistant who supported Stone Lab’s faculty and students.

And finally …

Q: What are your favorite places on Earth, coastal or otherwise, and why?

A: I have travelled much of the world in my professional career and on vacations, and I still list Put-in-Bay, Ohio, as one of my favorite places on the planet. Of course, this is significantly influenced by my great memories and experiences at Stone Lab, fun times at PIB, and enjoying the beauty of Lake Erie!

Q: Along those lines, what are your favorite organisms on the planet, marine or otherwise, and why?

Fish, as they are cool, good to eat, and significantly contributed to my professional and personal experiences as I have travelled the globe to conduct many fish ecology studies.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Go Bucks!


Connect with Dr. Monaco on LinkedIn. Learn more about NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.