UW News

April 30, 2018

Q&A: Washington Sea Grant’s Penny Dalton a leader, mentor in ocean policy field

UW News

2014 class of Washington Sea Grant state policy fellows

Penny Dalton (back row, far right) with the 2014 class of Washington Sea Grant state policy fellows.Washington Sea Grant

When Penny Dalton accepted a prestigious Sea Grant ocean policy fellowship during graduate school, it forever changed the course of her career. Instead of focusing on fisheries research, she landed on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies and oceanographic associations and, ultimately, to Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington, where she has served as director for 12 years. Dalton will retire May 1.

penny dalton phot

Penny DaltonUniversity of Washington

Dalton brought to Washington Sea Grant years of experience in ocean policy, research and outreach. She served as a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation for 13 years, then oversaw nationwide management of living marine resources as head of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for two years. She also worked as vice president at a consortium of oceanographic institutes and universities across the country to further their scientific and education goals.

Over the years, Dalton has mentored dozens of fellows who participated in the same program that launched her career, the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. She also managed four additional fellowship programs at Washington Sea Grant, including three she helped create.

UW News sat down with Dalton during her last week at the UW to learn more about her drive to serve the public through Washington Sea Grant and the ways in which she has helped young marine policy experts get started in the field.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishments while leading Washington Sea Grant?

PD: I think the expansion of the program into new areas — such as coastal resilience, ocean acidification and social science — and the recruitment of staff experts in those areas, are probably my biggest accomplishments. The wonderful thing about Sea Grant is when you hear about ocean and coastal issues over and over again, the program has flexibility to let you figure out ways to address them.

Talk about the importance of fellowships in the field of ocean policy.

PD: My fellowship completely changed my life. I was studying Chesapeake Bay fish ecology and discovered the world of ocean policy through the Knauss program. It’s almost impossible to overestimate the power of these kinds of hands-on opportunities in helping students at the beginning of their careers get started.

At Washington Sea Grant, you created three new fellowships (science communication, state policy and research) and, in total, managed five fellowships for students and early career graduates. What inspired you to start the state policy program, in particular?

PD: Because the state of Washington has always been a national leader in ocean and coastal policies, it seemed like a logical place to have a state policy fellowship program. Soon after I came to Washington Sea Grant I started working with Marc Hershman (former director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs) to develop the program. It quickly became our most competitive fellowship because we have many students who are really interested in policy, but want to stay in the state of Washington. This past year, we revised the program to broaden our list of host agencies and offer candidates from schools around the state more diverse opportunities.

Our fellowship programs really do open doors. If you look through the alumni list, you can see many examples of students who started as fellows and stayed at their host agencies. The experience also can introduce them to new career pathways. And Washington Sea Grant has hired some of them, too!

Let’s talk about earlier in your career. What did you take from your experiences on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that you have applied to your Sea Grant work?

PD: When you are working in a congressional office, you hear about a lot of problems from constituents and your goal is to find solutions. It was there that I developed the idea that being a Sea Grant director would be a great job, because you actually get to work at the science-policy interface, and you have the flexibility to try innovative approaches. The National Marine Fisheries Service was a really intense regulatory environment, and I think that gave me a longing to be able to deal with things in a less confrontational framework. At Sea Grant, we find constructive, pragmatic ways to deal with problems.

seedling clams

Penny Dalton seeding baby clams at Penrose Park, Hood Canal in 2016.M. Wagner

What do you hope people remember about your work here?

PD: Washington Sea Grant is a program of people. The staff, students and researchers I have been able to bring into the program and the great work they are doing — that is really the legacy for me.

This past year was challenging for Sea Grant with the threat of losing all federal funding. Talk about that experience.

PD: The situation this past year provided an opportunity to go back to the partners and constituents we work with and rely on — and who rely on us — and ask them to make the case to the Congress for Sea Grant’s work. Here in Washington state and in programs around the country, everyone involved was very willing to provide the support we needed. While the threat continues this year, I am very grateful for last year’s success and optimistic that the funding will be restored again.

If you look at the Sea Grant program over its existence during the past 50 years, there have been several points along the way where it has been slated for elimination. I think it’s the power of the program itself, and the fact that it is a government-funded program that listens to stakeholders and works to address their needs, that really speaks to its importance. It funds a small group of technical and outreach experts and a fair number of targeted research projects that are really geared toward trying to address problems that are locally identified and motivated.

Where do you think Washington Sea Grant will be in 10 years?

PD: We have been trying to tackle more complex environmental issues, such as coastal hazard resilience and ecosystem approaches to managing marine harvests. The goal is to translate the best social and environmental science into information that communities can use to improve their wellbeing, sustainability and economic resilience. I think Washington Sea Grant will continue to pull together the different aspects of an issue and help figure out creative solutions; it is becoming increasingly respected for doing that. I also anticipate that the demand for technical assistance, training and public engagement will maintain its growth. I don’t know where Washington Sea Grant will be in 10 years, but it’s sure to be some place amazing.


A national search is currently underway to fill the position of director at Washington Sea Grant. Kate Litle, Washington Sea Grant’s assistant director for programs, will serve as interim director until a new director is named.