By Dominic Moore ’05
It covers two-thirds of our planet’s surface. It is a treasury of life, a source of abundant food, and a cradle of biodiversity. It can also be a powerfully destructive force, unleashing energies that devastate property, wreak economic havoc, and cause tragic loss of life. Growing up in coastal New Jersey, Porter Hoagland ’77, P’13 has always been aware of the complicated relationship between the ocean and those who lived by its shores and made their livelihoods from its waters. “As a kid I always wanted to be a marine biologist,” Hoagland says, “My hero was Jacques Cousteau.”
A biology major at the Colleges, Hoagland absorbed as much experience on and under the water as he could, learning to SCUBA dive and carrying out lab assignments on The William Scandling (then the HWS Explorer). After graduation, his career path took a different turn when he took a job as a paralegal at a law firm in Washington, D.C. Despite the new setting, Hoagland continued to take courses in the sciences and to nourish his passion for marine biology, but with a new emphasis. “In Washington, public policy is at the forefront,” he says. “And so I began to see a new career for myself, combining science and public policy in some way.”
In 1982, Hoagland finished a master’s degree in marine policy at the University of Delaware and the following year was offered a position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). While there, he earned another masters from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Delaware. “I never really left Woods Hole,” Hoagland remarks.
And why would he? At the forefront of research in the marine sciences, WHOI provides the perfect place for Hoagland to focus on his passion: understanding the ocean and the ways in which it benefits or impacts humans. “Our work here is really about trying to understand the biology of the ocean—including understanding how humans respond to both its valuable and hazardous aspects.”
One recent example comes from the Gulf Coast, where toxic algae blooms, known as “red tides,” can be harmful to humans when the toxins found in these algae are ingested by shellfish, and the shellfish are consumed, in turn, by humans. Hoagland and his colleagues continue to research the subject, analyzing the potential harms to public health and seeking ways to mitigate the economic and ecological impacts that red tides can inflict.
Hoagland’s work has taken a distinctively economic focus in recent years, with the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy and the threat of sea-level rise putting shoreline management and conservation into the public eye. Hoagland studies the best ways to manage the risks of coastal development, involving choices between protecting coastal properties and retreating from the shoreline.
“The research we do at Woods Hole finds its way out to people interested in practical issues,” Hoagland says. “Our research is always evolving, reflecting the complex relationship between humans and the ocean.”