“Fisheries Management isn’t about managing fish, it’s about managing people,” said William J. Brennan, Ph. D., Maine’s former DMR [Department of Marine Resources] Commissioner. Asked in a 1995 interview if he thought his background in fisheries science and marine biology had adequately prepared him for the job, he remembers replying that he would have been far better prepared had he studied psychology and sociology.
“As I look back on it now,” he explained in a recent phone interview, “at each juncture [of my career] I realized that I needed to learn more. That’s how I got into Marine Biology in the first place; that’s why I landed in Marine Policy and what led me to pursue the doctorate.”
But Brennan’s story is that of, as he put it, “A kid that barely made it out of high school” and who “wasn’t an especially good student.” Originally a fine arts (oil painting) major, he admitted, “I didn’t shape up my first run at college.”
What drove him to a career in environment and natural resource stewardship resulted from the time he spent in the merchant marine and as a commercial fisherman. “Through that experience,” he said, “I realized a love of the ocean, of the things that live in it and are supported by it, and in the rigors of a life associated with making a living from it.”
This led him, after graduating from University of Maine-Orono in 1977, to take a job with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] at its Woods Hole laboratory. He spent most of his time there aboard Russian ships, working on a research program.
“It was through that experience,” he said, “that I became kind of fascinated with Marine Policy.” This, in turn, led him to University of Rhode Island’s Marine Affairs School to pursue a Master’s degree. Following his graduate studies, he served four years as then-Congressman John McKernan’s fisheries legislative assistant in Washington. When McKernan became governor, he appointed Brennan DMR Commissioner, a job Brennan held until McKernan left office eight years later.
In 1994, Brennan opened a consulting firm in Portland, offering marine and environmental policy guidance to private and public sector clients. During that time, the Secretary of Commerce appointed him to the New England Fisheries Management Council and the Governor, to the Aquaculture and Marine Technology Board and the Maine Oil Spill Advisory Committee.
“At that point,” Brennan said, “I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t know about fisheries management: the political economy side of it: what drives people to make decisions.” This led him back to graduate school, this time to pursue a doctorate in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Political Economics and received his doctorate from the University of Maine.
While working toward his doctorate Brennan was appointed Sawyer Professor of Ocean Studies, an endowed chair, in the Corning School of Ocean Studies at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, where he and his wife grew up. He said that in many respects the best thing about being in graduate school was being able to demonstrate to his three children, then in middle and high schools, “That education is a life-long experience. We’d compete for grades,” he recalled. “We’d put our report cards up on the refrigerator.”
In 2002, President George W. Bush appointed Brennan Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Affairs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). His primary job consists of managing NOAA’s International Program, a hundred-million-dollar activity. “The full sweep of it,” he explained, “involves not just the Fisheries Service side, but involves satellites, involves the Weather Service, the Ocean Resource activities, Oceanic and Atmospheric research.”
As if that weren’t enough to keep him busy, two years ago Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman appointed him Director of U.S. government research on climate change for which he coordinates two billion-dollars’ worth of climate science activities of 13 federal agencies and White House offices.
Of Brennan’s current post, lifelong friend Craig Reed said, “It’s a rare example in the political world where a good person got the good job and did good work with it.” Apparently others felt he has fulfilled expectations because in January of this year, President Bush nominated Brennan to be the Assistant Secretary of Commerce, which would make him second in command at NOAA. Of that position, he said, “I can think of no more significant capstone to my career than to serve as the number two NOAA official.”
Brennan summed up his philosophy by saying, “One doesn’t get in the “game” to make the world a better place in an abstract sense; one gets in the game to make the world a better place than it would otherwise be if you sat it out. And in my view, it doesn’t matter if one’s impact is great or small, whether it is advancing a positive versus slowing a negative; I’m just extremely gratified that I have had a meaningful opportunity to participate.”