NOAA leader looks to cultivate culture of collaboration

Courtesy photo/Mike Pentony became regional administrator for NOAA's Gloucester-based Greater Atlantic Regional Office in late January.

As debuts go, Mike Pentony's first day on the job as the regional director for NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office was a corker.

The federal government marked his ascension on Jan. 22 as only the federal government can — shutting down all but the most essential government services as a consequence of the usual congressional mumbley-peg.

"My first action was to come in and proceed with the orderly shutdown of government operations," Pentony said recently during an interview in the corner office on the uppermost floor of GARFO headquarters in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park.

The respite was short-lived. The shutdown lasted a day. When it was over, the 53-year-old Pentony began his new job in earnest as the leader of the regional agency that manages some of the most historically productive — and at times contentious — fisheries in the United States.

It is, as his successor John K. Bullard would attest, a monumental task, working on a canvas that stretches geographically along the Eastern seaboard from Maine to North Carolina and west to the Great Lakes.

But the geographical sweep pales in comparison to the scope and density of the regulations Pentony is charged with enforcing.

There is the crisis of cod in the Gulf of Maine, the alarming demise of the North Atlantic right whales, the malfeasance of cheaters such as New Bedford fishing kingpin Carlos Rafael and a myriad of other issues that affect every fishing community within his purview.

There is incessant wrangling over habitat protections, the usual tug-of-war between environmentalists and conservationists on one side and fishermen on the other. It is a drama with a disparate cast of characters and Pentony is convinced the only way to address extraordinarily intricate problems — usually requiring even more intricate responses — is by forging a collaborative spirit.

"I want to try to develop a culture, not just within GARFO and the agency, but within the region, both mid-Atlantic and New England, where we're all partners with a collective goal of healthy fisheries and healthy fishing communities." Pentony said. "The problems and challenges are so huge that we're only stronger if we're working together."

He also understands, given the varying degrees of conflict that exist among fisheries stakeholders, that achieving that collaboration will be far more difficult than contemplating its benefits.

"There's always going to be people that find it easier to stand outside the circle and throw stones than to get inside the circle and work," Pentony said. "If they stand outside the circle and just shout about how everything is wrong, that generally doesn't do much to solve the problem."

Campaign of engagement

Pentony served under Bullard as assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries starting in 2014. He was asked what advice his predecessor gave him.

"He told me there are a lot of people cheering and hoping for your success," Pentony said. "Not just me personally, but if I'm successful, then the regional office can be successful and the agency can be successful. And if you tie that success to our mission, then our success would mean healthy, sustainable fisheries, healthy and sustainable resources and healthy and sustainable fishing communities."

Pentony made his fishery management bones as a staff member at the New England Fishery Management Council prior to joining NOAA Fisheries in 2002. That experience, he said, instilled in him a solid faith in the ability of the council system to ultimately arrive at the best decision once all implications are considered.

"I've been involved with the council process for 20 years," Pentony said. "It's not perfect. But I have a ton of respect for the work and effort council members put into being informed and working through what I think is unique in the federal regulatory process. We have this incredibly unique process that engages stakeholders."

Pentony didn't even wait for his first official day in the big chair to begin his own campaign of engagement.

The Friday before his official starting date, he traveled to the Yankee Fishermen's Cooperative in Seabrook, New Hampshire, to meet with David Goethel — a frequent critic of NOAA Fisheries — and other New Hampshire fishermen to give them a sense of how he plans to approach the job.

Later that day, he had lunch in Gloucester with Vito Giacalone and Jackie Odell of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. He's also traveled to Maine to breakfast with Maggie Raymond of the Associated Fisheries of Maine and met with New Jersey fishing companies and processors while in the Garden State on personal business.

His message?

"I wanted to make sure that even though these people knew me, that they understood how I was going to approach being regional administrator in terms of my availability and my willingness to engage with them directly," he said. "I am available. I want to listen and engage people and let them know I hear them and can learn from them."

Pentony said he understands the demands of the position will not allow him to meet with every individual seeking a slice of his schedule.

"But certainly there are some major areas of focus and some major aggregations of fishermen and stakeholders that are engaged and participate in the process and I want to engage with them on their turf, as well as ours," Pentony said.

The six-year Air Force veteran, who holds bachelors and masters degrees from Duke University,  assumes command of GARFO at a critical time, both within and without the agency's brick walls of the headquarters on the hill overlooking Great Republic Drive.

Pentony has a full buffet of issues vying for his attention at a time when internal staff changes — a handful of senior management with decades of institutional knowledge retired around the same time as Bullard — and significant cuts to NOAA's budget threaten its ability to complete its mission.

Those positions, he said, will be filled. But he conceded it could take more than year to fully navigate the federal government's hiring process to replenish the upper levels of GARFO management. Still, he prefers to view the turnover as an opportunity to re-energize the ranks.

"Five or six people left who were very experienced and had a lot of knowledge," Pentony said. "But they left behind 155 people who also are very knowledgeable and very experienced. Now there is a lot of opportunity for growth and I think that's motivated the staff who see room for professional growth within the organization rather than having to go to headquarters or even leave the agency."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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