Knauss Fellowship: Ben Carswell, Georgia Sea Grant 2011 Knauss Fellow
Originally published by Georgia Sea Grant
By Erin Geoffroy
The sun is setting over Jekyll Island, and Ben Carswell is making his way back to the island from a standup paddleboard offshore, his favorite way to unwind after work. From where he stands, Carswell can see from one end of the eight-mile-long island to the other, the island that he calls home and cares to protect. He is passionate about preserving the beauty of this area for future generations.
Carswell is the director of conservation for the Jekyll Island Authority, a state agency that is responsible for overseeing the conservation, development and management of Jekyll Island. While he spends more of his time in meetings than he does outdoors, the perks of the job include monitoring wildlife like “Boris” the Bobcat via trail cameras, checking on bird nests and planning for salt-marsh restoration. A former Georgia Sea Grant Knauss fellow, long-standing outreach partner and current advisory board member, Carswell says that his collaborations with Georgia Sea Grant have been influential in helping him get to where he is today.
Carswell attended the University of Georgia while pursuing a master’s of science degree in fisheries from the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. He was awarded the John A Knauss Marine Policy fellowship from the National Sea Grant College Program for the 2011 academic year, which allowed him to work in the NOAA Marine Debris program in Washington D.C.
Marine debris encompasses all oceanic litter, including abandoned vessels, derelict fishing gear and drifting plastics. The program is charged with investigating and solving the problems that stem from marine debris through research, prevention and reduction activities that protect and conserve the nation's marine environment and ensure navigation safety.
“That was a really good appointment for me,” said Carswell. “I ended up helping plan the International Marine Debris conference in Honolulu, and I served as the lead editor on the proceedings that came out of that conference.”
He says that his experience in D.C. was valuable in understanding how complex policy decisions are made.
“When we say policy, it’s this catch-all phrase,” said Carswell. “But a lot of what it boils down to is a group of people who have decision making responsibility and authority getting together in a structured way and making decisions that affect how people behave and impact natural resources.”
When his fellowship ended, Carswell was selected for his current role with the Jekyll Island Authority. He was thrilled to be able return to coastal Georgia. Carswell first visited Jekyll Island at age three and was amazed by the island’s beauty. His parents retired and moved to the island in 2002 and, although Carswell wasn’t born there, he always felt that Jekyll Island was home.
In 2012, Carswell reconnected with Georgia Sea Grant to develop the Jekyll Island Green Screen, a mini film festival that is affiliated with Athens Georgia’s EcoFocus Film Festival. The annual event features thought provoking films about nature and environmental issues along with a poster session and Q&A panel following the feature film.
He hatched the idea for Green Screen with Jill Gambill, communications director of Georgia Sea Grant, and Sara Beresford, director and programmer of the EcoFocus Film Festival, now with Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf. The event partners now include several coastal organizations such as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, One Hundred Miles, the Surfrider Foundation and more.
“We’ve done that for four years now, and over that time we’ve had close to 2000 people come out to the event and learn about coastal research,” said Carswell. “It’s been a really positive partnership.”
Although it’s been five years since his fellowship, Carswell is still close with many of the Knauss fellows in his cohort. In fact, he notes that a few of them even attended his wedding.
Carswell has come full circle and is now in a position to provide insight to Georgia Sea Grant. He sits on the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant advisory board, a position that he has held for nearly a year. Carswell provides input on emerging research needs and opportunities in coastal Georgia, advises the organization’s leaders on strategic planning and helps create connections and partnerships throughout the state.
“I think it’s important for me to provide input on decisions and strategies in the conservation world, even outside of Jekyll Island,” said Carswell.
He also serves on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Advisory Council, the board of coastal Georgia Greenway and on a subcommittee tasked with evaluating the environmental impact of a proposal to build a spaceport in nearby Camden County, Georgia. It is obvious that Carswell cares deeply about conservation and environmental stewardship.
He shrugs this off, “It’s easy to enjoy working on issues where the main goal is to preserve your home and keep it a unique place with a rich environment.”