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Environmental specialist: What I do and how much I make

Ainsley Smith, an environmental specialist, works with NOAA's Protected Resources division to ensure the survival of endangered marine species. She collaborates with federal agencies, manages databases, and assists in marine animal rescue and rehabilitation. Ainsley also educates the public about marine conservation and the impact of human activities on marine life.

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Video transcript

My name is Ainsley Smith. I'm 30, I'm an environmental specialist and I make about $59,000 a year. As an environmental specialist, I'm a government contractor, so I'm not a government employee. I work through my contractor with NOAA which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Protected Resources division. Within NOAA, Protected Resources oversees any animal that's on the endangered species list or protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. So we work with sea turtles, whales, salmon, sturgeon, and basically want to ensure the health and survival of these species and different regulations that protect them from diseases, from incidental take in marine debris or fisheries or from projects that are going on in the ocean. So right now, I work with two different teams within Protected Resources. The section seven team primarily deals with consultations with other federal agencies. So working with them, I would correspond with federal agencies about their project plans. I also work on some smaller projects like updating our website so we are conveying the best available science to the public and to those agencies we work with. I do some projects on efficiency and administrative procedures and I also review our endangered species observers which are people that are out on federal projects working say with the army or on a fishery research project. And they are the ones who are reviewing what's going on on the water. More recently, I become part of of the marine mammal and sea turtle team which handles stranding and disentanglement from Maine to Virginia. My role on that team is right now a supportive role so I will answer the on-call phone if someone needs to report a stranded animal in our area. I help with database entry and administration, filing pictures and reports as they come in, dispatching calls. If we receive a call, we need to make sure the appropriate network responders are working on that, so we'll relay back and forth. We share information with the Coast Guard, with local harbormasters, marine patrol. I'm still new to the team but I'm being trained in our stranding and disentanglement protocols. So eventually if there was a situation in our response area which is about the north shore of Massachusetts, I would be able to assist our team and our other trained responders and be able to assist with a stranded marine mammal like a dolphin or a seal or eventually the disentanglement of an animal like a sea turtle or a whale who's been caught up in marine debris or fishing gear and able to safely work with our other teams to free that animal and hopefully get it back out into the ocean. An additional part of my job on the marine mammal and sea turtle team is transporting animals. In the fall and the winter, we see a lot of stranded sea turtles on Cape Cod and we have volunteers who have been trained to take those animals to New England Aquarium for rehabilitation. But once they're there, they need to be transferred sometimes down south or to other facilities for long-term care before they are released back to the ocean. So we coordinate with facilities like aquariums or animal rehab centers and then we help to transport the animals either in our van or taking them to the airport and working with a private pilot to donate their time and bringing those animals to other facilities where they can be cared for and then released back into the ocean. The animals we see are very seasonally dependent up here. In the summer, whales and sea turtles will be up in this area feeding and making their way up to Canada. And in the fall, we see them going back down south. So our busiest time is actually fall into winter when sea turtles are coming from the Gulf of Maine and they're trying to get back down south, they tend to get stuck in the hook of Cape Code and they don't know how to go around it so they tend to wash up on the beaches on Cape Cod. So our busiest season is working with our trained volunteers to pick those animals up and bring them up to the aquarium for care and coordinating the care and transport sometimes hundreds of sea turtles in between Thanksgiving and Christmas which is everybody's favorite time to take off and do family events, but also when we've got the most sea turtles. Another part of my job is to do some education outreach. So we have education specialists who do that full-time but we also take other staff and we do events like Endangered Species Day at the zoo where we take some big blowup sea turtles and a blowup whale with us and we educate the general public about what NOAA does up here. A lot of people think that NOAA is just the weather or just fisheries management, but a lot of people don't know they're so much more. Starting kids young is just a great opportunity to get them aware of different issues like marine debris that affect our marine animals and also what to do so they are safe and helpful if they see an animal that needs help. So probably the biggest challenge coming from field work positions was readjusting to sitting at a desk and being in an office again. It's not always the most glamorous, we do a lot of paperwork and a lot of database management, and keeping files organized on our computers. And it's hard to compare that to oh it's a beautiful day and I'd rather be out on a boat or out doing field work and observations. But it's a trade off and we do have great days and you have to remember that it's a little balance of everything at this point. So I make about $59,000 a year right now. And going into marine biology and coastal management, I wasn't particularly focused on what the salary would be like. I just knew that it was in my heart, it was what I had to do and I just had to do it and I would figure out a way to make things work. And if they didn't work, I'd keep figuring it out. (laughs) In marine biology and biology in general, there's a pretty wide range depending on who or what you work for. So working for a nonprofit, you could make significantly less. I've worked in nonprofits where I've made 10 or $12 an hour doing field work which is a lot of fun but it doesn't always pay the bills. Biologists that work for consulting companies might make significantly more than I do, but my salary is pretty comparable to the government employees who are about on my range. When I was offered the position to be a contractor for NOAA, they originally offered me about $47,000 a year and I had a great grad school advisor who always said, "Always ask for more, always try to negotiate." And so I did and it got me up to about 57 or so and since then, I did receive one more raise last year. Being a contractor, you're salary is pretty much set for one to two years at a time so there isn't an opportunity really to do performance-based races throughout the year. So you have to renegotiate when your contract is resigned each year, so it's something to keep in mind and be sure you ask on time. Having a basic background in biology is a great start, but I learned so much more about different species that I hadn't worked with before when I got here. So I didn't know anything about salmon or sturgeon and those are two very important species in our area, but I was able to learn on the job once I was here. Writing and communication are big keys both in section seven and communicating with federal agencies, and on the marine mammal and sea turtle team, communicating with the public, the Coast Guard, people who might be very frantic or panicked about what they're seeing, and knowing how to ask the right questions to get the right information out of them so we can make the appropriate response in a timely manner. Being calm under pressure when you're working on boat with people in close proximate, you need to be safe with what you're doing with the people around you. And also when you're working with an animal, your safety is utmost importance too. A lot of what we do is driven by our compassion for marine animals, we tend to see them not always in their best. It can be very emotional when you see an animal that is hurt or entangled or has died and a lot of times it can be human cause. So from our marine debris for our fishing gear that has caused an injury to an animal, it's very emotional and it's something that really tugs at your heart and makes you wanna work harder and make sure that we are doing what we can to prevent or to mitigate these measures in the future.