Interview With International Environmental Policy Student, Andrea Fisher

This article was originally published by the Monterey County Weekly.

MONTEREY, CA—Like many graduate students, Andrea Fisher found herself busy, busy, busy. Pursuing a degree in International Environmental Policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies meant that her schedule was packed with classes, group projects, and professional networking opportunities.

Andrea Fisher grew up in Oregon and lived in Washington, D.C. before the research and scenery – ”the things that made me fall in love with Monterey” – brought her to the Peninsula for graduate school.

Yet Fisher, who first visited Monterey in 2015, also sought to carve out quiet time to connect with the very beauty that brought her here from Washington, D.C. – the ocean.

During these periods of decompression, she could always be found in the same place: snorkeling and free diving in the waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off Lovers Point.

Fisher has always been an artist, and she got into the habit of painting what she saw on these snorkeling trips. She would capture the swaying of the kelp forests and the dancing light, but also made sure to include scientific illustrations of purple ochre sea stars, harbor seals and giant kelp – a clever way of codifying her experiences.

Yet these snorkeling trips got her thinking – if this was how she connected with the ocean in her free time, how did other people do the same?

While other members of her cohort spent their summers researching more traditional policy topics like shipping, coral reefs and mangrove forests, Fisher thought back to her time spent snorkeling and crafted her own project: travel to the five West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries, interview locals about how they connect with these protected areas, and produce an acrylic painting capturing the “sense of place” of each.

WeeklyWhat inspired you to come to Monterey?

I first came to Monterey to speak with researchers at Hopkins Marine Station [in Pacific Grove] about their research on [environmental] DNA and tuna species, and was inspired by the meaningful work they were doing in such a beautiful location.

Ever since that visit, I knew I had to come back to Monterey. I was drawn to the natural beauty, the ocean activities, the hiking, the marine research. It’s a place where I feel inspired to learn, to explore and to create. It was only after coming here that I enrolled at MIIS.

You maintain your interest in the arts while pursuing an environmental policy degree.

Art has always been a part of my life, though I have often placed it on the back-burner, thinking of it as separate from my career. My summer fellowship [in 2018] helped me realize that the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I heard from quite a few scientists and decision-makers that they see a need for more creative ways of reaching the public. Art has the power to connect people to the environment.

How important is it to understand how people connect with a place when setting policy for that place?

I believe we should strive for sustainable, equitable and effective environmental policies that consider the needs and desires of various constituents. When creating marine protected areas it is essential to understand the aspects that are important to a group’s identity, culture, livelihood, or health. Without these considerations, the policy is unlikely to be effective.

What do you think is more important – enacting policy that compels people to interact with the environment in a particular way, or encouraging them to connect with the environment through art?

Both. There are too many users of environmental spaces for there not to be restrictions or guidelines as to how an area or resource is used, but policy isn’t always restrictive – it can allocate resources to help people connect with the environment through education or recreation. Our national parks, similar to the idea of marine sanctuaries, are based on this premise.

I think it’s important to empower people to connect with places in a way they’re passionate about. People connect with the ocean in many ways – surfing, walking along the beach, fishing, doing yoga, having a bonfire with friends, or painting. But I believe expanding support of the visual arts is important to educating people. It brings them closer to the natural world.

Now that you’re here, what is the sense of place that you experience with Monterey?

The scenery and the research happening here are the foundation of my connection. But now, I have my own experiences: whale encounters, snorkeling at Lovers Point, surfing at Asilomar and camping in Big Sur are all a part of my connection.