Profile: Tom Allen


Progress on national and global issues arrives more like a tide than a tidal wave. Leading that progress takes incredible perseverance and grit, and few can do it for decades with their optimism and warm smile intact.

A self-described “glass-half-full person,” Tom Allen has spent much of his life as a public servant. He served on the Portland City Council, including one term as mayor. In 1996, he was elected to represent Maine in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for 12 years. Since that time, he’s maintained his involvement in national politics as an advocate for ocean conservation.

His experience has taught him a lot about how to make steady progress and maintain optimism when dealing with big issues. He has also learned to rely on some wisdom attributed to Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

When it comes to serving in Congress, Allen believes there are three things you need to come to terms with if you’re going to be successful. The first is the incredible complexity of every issue that comes up. The second is that, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re going to need a lot of help from subject experts. The third is that it takes more time than you might like to get things done.

“If you can accept those contours, you can keep slogging away toward progress,” said Allen, who joined the Bigelow Laboratory Board of Trustees last fall. “Unfortunately, there’s almost never a magic answer.”

It is perhaps this outlook that has enabled his longstanding dedication to the global challenges of the oceans — overwhelming in size and scope, but critical to our future.

Allen feels like the ocean has generally been an afterthought during much of his lifetime — something to play in or travel across. Most people haven’t perceived its complexity and contributions to impact their lives.

“More and more, people are understanding that the health of the ocean is tied to the health of the planet, and that the health of the planet is tied to the health of the people,” Allen said. “More and more, we are realizing that we had better get this right.”

Allen considers himself part of that group that has come around to the importance of the ocean later in his lifetime. A seventh-generation Mainer who grew up in Portland and still calls it home, Allen has never lived far from the sea. But his ancestral roots lead inland, where his great-grandfather lived, and his cherished family farm still stretches over the gently rolling woodlands.

After joining Congress, however, he was quickly pulled into one of the hot topics of the day — commercial fishing. It was complicated and contentious, with competing interests all trying to control how the country managed the ocean’s natural resources. This introduction to the complexity and importance of ocean issues changed his relationship with the sea, now a focus of his work and passion for more than two decades.

In the late 1990s he co-founded the bipartisan House Oceans Caucus to raise congressional awareness about the need for a coordinated global oceans policy. In 2006, he helped negotiate the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing U.S. marine fisheries management. In 2008, he introduced the first bill in the House of Representatives to address ocean acidification and fund needed research on the topic. After leaving Congress, he joined the board of the Ocean Conservancy, where he has continued to serve and inform ocean advocacy, particularly in regard to climate change.

Allen believes that Bigelow Laboratory holds a critical perspective on the ocean and its role as the lifeblood of the planet — generating everything from the oxygen we breathe to the food we eat.

“If we can help people come to grips with how much all our lives are bound up with each other and with this planet,” Allen said, “I think we can generate the sort of changes the ocean needs to be as clean as possible, as stable as possible, and as productive as possible.”

Allen acknowledges that the scale of the problems and of the changes needed mean that they aren’t going to happen overnight. They will require sustained attention over a long period of time, which means that there is no time to waste.

“With the right leadership, I believe that the United States and the rest of the globe can do it,” Allen said. “It won't be easy, and it won't be done immediately. But it can happen. It has to, really.”