Talk NERRdy to Me: Mike De Luca

May 26, 2022

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Mike De Luca, manager at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve in New Jersey. A young rising star in marine science, Mike discussed the Jersey Shore, NERRA lore, and why he ever left the Caribbean. 

Nik: According to my online research, your life begins with your college graduation. Before that it’s …  a black box.

Mike: I like to keep it that way. 

Nik: Sneaky. Your name, like Leonardo Da Vinci, means you’re “Mike from Luca.” 

Mike: Northern Italy, my grandparents’ heritage area.

Nik: But YOU didn’t grow up there. Narrowing things down – New Jersey?

Mike: Born and raised.

Nik: Which exit?

Mike: 139A off the Parkway. Union, New Jersey. In Union County. There’s more than one Union in New Jersey. 

Nik: Electricians, plumbers, garbagemen …

Mike: It used to be a farming town. When I was in elementary school, we had cows grazing in the pastures. Now it’s very urbanized. My fondest memories are visiting the Jersey Shore in the summer with my family. That may be where my interest in water comes from. 

Nik: Where on Da Shore? 

Mike: Island Heights across Barnegat Bay from Seaside. We used to go crabbing, fishing, swimming. I wanted to understand what was going on under the water, rather than just seeing it from the surface. In high school, I took a scuba diving course at a quarry in North Jersey and decided that was what I wanted to pursue as a career.

Nik: But why?

Mike: I enjoyed diving and trying to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of species and habitats. I wanted to contribute something to the environment and community.

Nik: You’ve been doing this since … I’m not even going to say the year.

Mike: I graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University—a small liberal arts college in New Jersey with a very good biology program—in 1978. At the time, they ran a tropical marine field station on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I got to spend a semester down there; it was wonderful. I wanted to go further, so I went to graduate school at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, which focused on coastal science and coastal issues.

Nik: That’s where Willy Reay used to be before he tragically passed away. 

Mike: … He’s still there.

Nik: I’ll have to check my notes. Isn’t there talk of a Reserve in the USVI?

Mike: I think it would be a wonderful addition to the System. There are challenges there that a reserve could help address: overharvesting, overuse of reef resources, declining reefs due to climate change … It would also bring more diversity into the System and the sciences. Not only did I study in the Virgin Islands, but I managed NOAA’s undersea research program facility there as well. 

Nik: Like, you’d swim down and … live in a pineapple under the sea?

Mike: We would place scientists underwater for two weeks, so they could study reef complexes. NASA also used it to understand how astronaut candidates operated in tight quarters over long periods of time. 

Nik: How deep was it?

Mike: About 45 feet underwater. Great visibility. 

Nik: Weren’t we just hunting for underwater Russians in the 1980s? 

Mike: There is a submarine training ground near St. Croix.

Nik: Good thing we won the Cold War and never heard from Russia again! When did you return to New Jersey, and why have you been there ever since?

Mike: I was working at NOAA for six years but: Did I really want to make government service a career? I did find the bureaucracy and the hierarchy a bit constraining. In the late 1980s, Fred Grassle established a new institute of marine sciences at Rutgers University and I became the associate director and … I’ve been there ever since. 

Nik: Is setting up a new institute anything like setting up a new Research Reserve?

Mike: Lots of grant writing. But it led to the Jacques Cousteau Reserve. Fred went to a meeting in Washington, where he met Joe Uravitch, who suggested the idea of a Reserve in New Jersey. Fred asked me to take on the project. I attended a NERRS/NERRA meeting in the early 1990s at Elkhorn Slough and ran into Peter Wellenberger, manager of NH’s Great Bay Reserve. We didn’t have a name for the Reserve in New Jersey yet, but we were thinking about naming it the Mullica River Great Bay Reserve, so my name tag said “Mike De Luca, Great Bay” and Peter thought he hadn’t gotten the message that he’d been let go.

Nik: But instead, it’s the Jacques Cousteau Reserve. Because, you know: famed French undersea explorer and … New Jersey.

Mike: We were destined to be the Mullica River Great Bay Reserve, but I got a call about a month before the designation from one of Congressman Saxon’s staffers, who explained that Captain Cousteau had passed away earlier that year and had been close friends with Congressman Saxon. The congressman wanted to honor his friend by naming the Reserve after him. I wasn’t too keen on the idea because Cousteau didn’t work much in coastal bays and estuaries. Fred Grassle and I decided to offer a naming a trail, facility, or building after him instead. I called back and presented those options and the staffer said, “Congressman Saxon is prepared to introduce legislation to name the Reserve after Jacques Cousteau.” I didn’t hesitate at all and said, “That’s a great idea – let’s do it!” 

Nik: Legislative affairs in a nutshell.

Mike: Congressman Saxon for his remaining tenure was a tremendous support for the Reserve and the larger System. 

Nik: As a Sea Grant Fellow you worked on Capitol Hill, but you’ve also been NERRA’s man on legislative affairs since NERRA became NERRA. But why? If there’s any place worse than New Jersey, it’s Congress, non?

Mike: I enjoy working on behalf of the System and making folks aware of the value that we bring to coastal management by helping communities protect themselves from a rapidly changing environment. 

Nik: But talk about a changing environment! Congress is volatile. Do people see you coming now and go, “that’s De Luca, the estuary guy.” 

Mike: Hill advocacy is all about establishing relationships so that you can graduate from a two-minute meeting in a hallway to sitting in the legislator’s office for half an hour. It takes time and there’s a lot of changing personnel, particularly at the staff level. It can feel like starting over every year, but there are long-term resident staff on the hill in key committee positions. Rebecca Roth does a great job engaging them and maintaining relationships. 

Nik: According to some estimates, you’ve spent hundreds of hours on the NERRA executive committee educating not just Congress but also the System. Why? What keeps you going? 

Mike: I’ve always responded to challenges, and I don’t like being told no. I also place a lot of value in the Reserve network because we work on issues from a local, regional, and national perspective. It’s a labor of love ensuring that the System remains robust and vibrant and is in a position to succeed for years to come.

Nik: I thought you were going to say that you’re trying to keep up with Lisa Auermuller. Seriously, is she always so perky?

Mike: We try to limit her to two cups of coffee a day.

Nik: You’re also the director of the Aquaculture Innovation Center. You built that too??? 

Mike: The Aquaculture Innovation Center has a long history to it. I started working on aquaculture in the early 1990s in response to farmers and fish harvesters that wanted to diversify their industry and interests. There was a lot of concern about declining fish stocks. Fred and I went to the hill and started discussing the need and value of aquaculture to diversify the farming and fishing industries, so that folks could remain viable. 

Nik: This is all shellfish?

Mike: Shellfish is big business in New Jersey. We’re developing new culture candidates. Most recently I’ve been involved in a proposal to work with the Federated States of Micronesia to develop a giant clam culture. A lot of the techniques and strategies we use for raising shellfish here in New Jersey are transferable to other shellfish elsewhere.

Nik: I feel like the giant clam just gets more meat for the dollar. Say, we’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. How ya doing with all that?

Mike: I was part of a research effort in the late 1990s which revised the shore protection plan for New Jersey. We came up with a recipe of actions that could be taken. One of those actions, “retreat,” wasn’t received well by the public or state legislature. The report was about to be published and a member of the state assembly passed a resolution condemning the report, which they hadn’t seen yet, because of the word retreat. Sandy opened up a whole new way of looking at resilience to storms, particularly with development along the coast. Several communities were bought out by the state and restored to marshes to serve as storm buffers. Sandy also resulted in a lot of available funding through FEMA, NOAA, and the Army Corps to reduce communities’ vulnerability to sea level rise, flooding, and storm impacts. The Jacques Cousteau Reserve received quite a bit of funding to step up our Coastal Training Program and help prepare communities to deal with changing shoreline dynamics and storm impacts. We created tools like the New Jersey Floodmapper, New Jersey Adapt, and My Coast, that are terrific resources for communities to inform their coastal hazard management and master plans. 

Nik: Kind of like the San Francisco earthquake or Great Chicago Fire rebuilt those cities better? 

Mike: There was a silver lining to Sandy. It woke people up and made them ask what they can do to protect their interests along the Jersey Shore in a collaborative way. 

Nik: With Peter Wellenberger’s disappearance over Greenland and Gary Lytton’s arrest for drug smuggling down in Florida, you’re one of the last original NERRAins. What do you think about the future of the organization?

Mike: There are some things I still want to accomplish and I still have a few good years left in me …

Nik: Unlike Willy Reay? 

Mike: I want to get a better understanding of the rain shifts occurring in response to climate change. I would like to partner with communities to predict some of these changes in advance and use that information to inform resource management strategies.

Nik: After 40 years, that sounds like a great … mid-career project! Listen, thank you, Mike. I was going to ask you to sing “Red, Red Wine” as your exit music but instead I’m going to put into the chat something I’ve always wanted to hear you say … [typing] 

Mike: [reading] I’m Mike D and I get respect. Your cash for the estuaries is what I expect. 


NERRA is proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Coastal Zone Management Act—the legislation that led to the creation of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesJacques Cousteau, New JerseyTalk NERRdy to Me: Mike De Luca