Chesapeake Insider

Dr. Mamie Parker


Dr. Mamie Parker is a well-known fish and wildlife biologist and distinguished environmental motivational speaker. She is the former Assistant Director of Fisheries and Habitat Conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). She is a board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy and is president of Ma Parker and Associates.  She made history when appointed the first African American USFWS Regional Director of the 13 Northeastern states.

Mamie is a pioneer in the conservation field and spearheaded a series of presentations called The Mamie Parker Journey: Inspiring Youth to Embrace the Chesapeake. Through the program, in partnership with USFWS and the Chesapeake Conservancy, Mamie spoke to more than 450 students in Baltimore city, telling her story and sharing career options in the conservation field.

Mamie is an avid angler and loves fishing in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

How did you get started in conservation?

My mother made a commitment to expose me to the outdoors in a more positive way. The rest of her children spent time outdoors, but it was because they had to, working in the cotton fields of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. She decided she was going to help me appreciate the outdoors the way she did, because she was an avid angler and so she took me fishing with her.

I knew I wanted to do something outdoors as an adult, but I didn’t know I had the option of doing it as a profession—I thought it would be just a hobby of some sort. I went to college and I was introduced to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Hannibal Bolton. He, along with Sam Lyons, encouraged me to apply for a summer internship with their program. That internship grew to be an amazing 30 years in USFWS. I started at the lowest grade in the organization and at the end of my career I am proud to say I was at one of the highest levels for a career employee.

Working in conservation has taken you to many different places. How did it bring you to the Chesapeake?

My goal was to go south, because I grew up in the South and I was trying very hard to get back there. I lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin for many years in the cold weather with all intentions of going south. Finally, I got a job in Atlanta as the second in command of fisheries in that region of the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was here that I had a chance to work with a number of the Atlantic states’ fisheries communities learning about resources along the eastern seaboard. This is where I learned about marine fisheries.

I became the chief of staff in Washington, D.C. working for the Deputy Director of USFWS, Dr. John Rogers. Working for him gave me the opportunity to learn about the entire agency. Not only did I learn a lot about fish, I learned a lot about wildlife like migratory birds. Next, I moved to Massachusetts to become the Regional Director of the Northeast states. That included state fisheries resources as well as national wildlife refuges within the unit—from Maine down to West Virginia. In that capacity, I was supervising the Chesapeake Bay field office as well as the Chesapeake Bay Fisheries Resources Office and all the national wildlife refuges that are located in the watershed, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a historic moment for USFWS. I became the first African-American in the 135-year history of the national fisheries program in this country to head up a region, and to be in the Senior Executive Service, which is the highest level for a career employee at USFWS. Being a pioneer and a history maker really inspired me to want to leave a legacy.

How has fishing influenced your life and what do you enjoy about it?

I believe that fishing is a great distraction from some things that would have put me on a different path. Fishing not only gave me lessons on how to catch fish, but life lessons, too.

What fishing does for me, and what it does for most people, is give me a chance to sit in a boat or on a bank and focus on what the fish are eating, as well as what’s eating me. Fishing gives me the opportunity to better understand what I needed to do to release some of the things that aren’t positive in my life.

Conservation is a nontraditional field for women and minorities and for a while I felt on the outside. I made it a goal to make sure that other people feel included, no matter where they were from, to make people feel more like a part of the circle. That was the main idea in The Mamie Parker Journey—to include underserved youth in Baltimore in the conservation movement.

Your goal in The Mamie Parker Journey was to show young people how career opportunities in conservation can affect their lives. What does it mean to you to inspire young people to become involved in conservation?

It was the most rewarding experience that I have had in my entire career. These students had never seen a lot of great things in the outdoors that gave me goose bumps when I saw them. I got chills seeing the big skies of Montana and the wilderness of Alaska, and I wanted to instill this feeling in a young student in a Baltimore public school. They wanted to learn more about something like a snakehead fish or a sea lamprey, and things they could do to reduce their carbon footprint and reverse climate change and they took to it. They followed me out of the building, wanting to carry my books and take pictures with me.

It was very satisfying to influence people in such a positive way and to hear that the message of my journey is relevant. The kids wrote me letters and told me ‘I can relate to your story, because my father was never in my life.’ One girl came up to me with tears in her eyes and shared with me that her mother died when she was young, like my mother. Those kinds of messages meant a lot to me. It was a pleasure not just to tell my story, but also to encourage these students to look to others and facilitate discussions with other role models so that they can also tell their story. That gave me goose bumps.

Where is your favorite place in the Chesapeake?

I do enjoy trips to fish for striped bass in the Bay. But more than just that, I enjoy exploring the tributaries and the streams. I spend a lot of time along the Potomac River in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. My favorite spot right now is Algonkian Regional Park in Loudoun County, Virginia. It is almost 800 acres with trails for hiking. They have a nice boat ramp to enjoy the outdoors by boat. It has great fishing for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and striped bass—believe it or not—right in Loudoun County.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1996 to conserve fish and wildlife habitat along this vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the refuge focuses primarily on protecting and managing tidal and inland wetlands, and adjacent uplands, to benefit wildlife.

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

June 13, 2016

Main image: Scott McDaniel
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