Undergraduate alum profile

On October 27, 2016, member countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources unanimously voted to designate Antarctica’s Ross Sea as the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) and the first marine park in international waters.  Known as the “Last Ocean,” the Ross Sea is a biodiversity hotspot and pristine ecosystem that supports marine life around the world. 

“This marks an extraordinary victory for environmental conservation and international relations,” says Andrea Kavanagh (ENVS ’92), Director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work at The Pew Charitable Trusts, “especially when you consider the escalating competition for natural resources at the other pole, in the Arctic, which is warming at an even greater rate.” 

Beginning December 2017, over two million square kilometers of the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf in the Southern Ocean will be closed to commercial fishing for at least the next 35 years. This historic agreement between the European Union and 24 nations, including the United States, China, and Russia, will help to mitigate the impacts of climate change and will serve as a reference area for scientific research on how healthy ecosystems respond to a warming climate. 

Andrea played an important role in the international effort to establish the Ross Sea MPA, which involved years of negotiations, overcoming several major setbacks, and building international support through a myriad of campaign ambassadors. For example, to raise support for the project in Russia (the final country to agree to the proposal), British endurance swimmer, Lewis Pugh, did several long-distance swims through the Antarctic water (in a speedo, no less). 

As a seasoned campaigner, Andrea notes that the Ross Sea MPA agreement demonstrates on a large scale the kind of persistence, collaboration, and creativity needed for any successful campaign. She says being a campaigner is like being a professional athlete. “As a campaigner you have a clearly defined goal and you get to use all your resources to achieve it,” says Andrea. “I’m competitive by nature and I love to win, which is one of the reasons I love campaigning.” 

And win she does. For the past 16 years, Andrea has directed successful campaigns for a variety of environmental issues, including sustainable seafood, global climate change, and national legislation to regulate toxic chemicals. Since joining Pew in 2008, she has managed the Marine Aquaculture Campaign, the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, and the Protecting the Deep Sea Campaign, among others. Previously, Andrea worked as a campaign director for the National Environmental Trust, for which she led initiatives such as the international Pure Salmon Campaign and the Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass Campaign. 

Andrea first fell in love with campaigning in 1992, when she took a job coordinating a call center for the Democratic Party in Burlington, Vermont, where she recruited volunteers to “get out the vote” for presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Her efforts paid off; Vermont “went blue” in 1992 and upset the State’s tradition of voting Republican in every presidential election since the party’s creation in 1852, with the exception of 1964. Having just graduated from the University of Vermont as an environmental studies major in the School of Natural Resources (now the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources), this temporary position turned out to be a defining moment in her career path. 

Despite finding her calling early on, Andrea spent many years working a variety of jobs that didn’t directly relate to the work she does today but instead helped her build necessary skills in effective communication, advocacy, and grassroots organizing. 

She credits late Professor Carl Reidel in the UVM Environmental Program with teaching her the importance of gaining transferable skills that would allow her to succeed in whatever direction she chose. “I learned from Carl the value of being a generalist and to not be afraid to take steps that didn’t necessarily seem connected to what I wanted to do,” she says. 

This advice shaped her choices as an undergraduate, as well. Andrea says that being an active member of the UVM debate team trained her to think critically and to effectively articulate evidence-based arguments. The scientific core classes she took gave her an excellent foundation to understand ecosystem processes and the ability to work with scientists to help develop policy to help inform.  At the same time taking history courses helped shape her worldview, teaching her to see how events interconnect within a larger context and evolve over time. And, a relationship she built with former Professor Jean Richardson in the Environmental Program helped her land a competitive internship position at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, DC, her first experience with environmental policy work.  

Although she can relate to the uncertainty many students feel as they begin to shape their careers, Andrea urges them to embrace a variety of experiences. “I would tell students that they don’t need to worry about specializing in one area,” she says. “It’s more important to build general skills that give you a foundation to do whatever makes you happy.” 

Originally from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Andrea currently lives in Washington, DC with her family. Reflecting her love of winning and doing good, she co-founded D/CLAW (DC Lady Arm Wrestlers), a DC-based league of women arm wrestlers who compete to raise money for charity. And someday, she hopes to travel to the Ross Sea in Antarctica to see firsthand the area she’s worked so tirelessly to protect. 


Alexandra Millar
Map showing the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area
Click on map to view a larger version.