Meet the WildAid Marine Team: Mike Cenci

September 9, 2021; Interview by Mary Pantenburg, WildAid Marine Intern
This interview was adjusted for clarity.

Throughout the year, we interviewed experts on the WildAid Marine team to provide a behind-the-scenes look at our work. The goal of the series was to curate personal stories that communicate who we are and what we do, highlighting the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our team members. As our interview series comes to an end, we thank you for following along with WildAid Marine. 

Mike Cenci: Senior Law Enforcement Advisor
As a kid, Mike spent so much time in nature that his mother often called him “Waldschrat,” the German folklore reference for a mystical person who has an intimate connection with the planet. Mike took this connection with nature and turned his passion into a career. His drive to protect what he loves pushed him into the enforcement field. After witnessing firsthand how illegal wildlife crimes affect our marine environment, Mike focused his efforts on reversing the damage done by illegal marine poaching and educating people on ways in which resource utilization can be mutually beneficial to us and marine resources. Mike firmly believes that conservation can benefit ecosystems while simultaneously contributing to local economies. This balance is what Mike strives to find and continues to work toward with every project he advises with WildAid Marine. 

What do you do for WildAid Marine?
Generally, I design detailed protection systems for the marine law enforcement operating environment. After a comprehensive assessment process to identify gaps, I evaluate that information to make implementation recommendations. Those recommendations are intended to elevate agency capability to increase compliance with marine-related regulations.

Mike on assignment in The Bahamas.

What first got you interested in oceans? Was it a documentary? A book? A friend?
My career trajectory was oriented toward wildlife and terrestrial species protection – I had a romantic vision of the traditional “Game Warden” and wanted to be one in the worst way. Nevertheless, opportunities were rare, and fate had other ideas. While I put my dream job on hold and worked as a County Deputy Sheriff, I was introduced to the Fisheries Patrol Officers. These were the state’s marine and freshwater fish cops, and as I got to know them through my role as a Deputy helping to catch poachers, I was hooked on the oceans…literally. 

Even though separate fisheries and wildlife agencies eventually merged, and I supported people and operations across marine and terrestrial jurisdictions over a 30-year career, I gravitated toward the marine protection aspect of the job. Not because the work was familiar, but because I felt that marine protection was underrepresented. The view by many officers was that marine work was an intimidating and complex operating environment, primarily because of the illegal trafficking in fisheries resources. I loved nothing more than catching poachers who thought they were too smart to be caught, and it was a target-rich environment. Catching these poachers was immensely satisfying and required a unique set of skills, drawing me in like a magnet.  

How did your career in conservation start?
I always knew what I wanted to do: protect what I love. I felt that the best way to do that was through law enforcement, believing that conservation strategies are simply suggestions without enforced regulations. Plus, the thought of chasing poachers kept my battery charged. I felt that protecting the oceans was where I could contribute the most. 

Fish and Wildlife Protection jobs were hard to come by 30 years ago, so I started working for natural resource agencies in several contract positions conducting fisheries studies, working at a fish hatchery, and monitoring Peregrine Falcon eyries. I finally went to work as a Deputy Sheriff in a rural county where I had a lot of exposure to officers from the former Departments of Fisheries and Wildlife.  

Mike out fishing.

What is one thing about your job or the work you do that might surprise people?
The level of focus and subject matter expertise required to control and investigate poaching. It’s one of the most complex forms of law enforcement. Many people seem surprised at that statement until they learn more about what poaching looks like, including the depth and breadth of the activity. Over the course of my career, I have heard poaching erroneously described as a ‘victimless crime.’ That description minimizes how serious the impacts of poaching can be, and the skills and abilities required to address it. Yes, much of the work is directed at deterring decent people from making criminal mistakes, but there are plenty of examples where entire communities have been impacted by large-scale or sustained resource rip-offs. The criminals involved can be really bad actors who are skilled at hiding serious illegal profits. For this reason, the skills, abilities, and level of preparedness necessary for traditional enforcement are not enough. My role is to find and implement effective approaches for enforcing the natural world based on what is happening in the real world. 

What gives you hope for the future of our oceans?
Increased public awareness. The good news is that support for marine protection is rising, but this did not happen overnight. In part, this was accomplished by WildAid Marine and many other incredible organizations leveraging blogs, magazine and news media, social media, documentaries, and even reality TV. It is a complicated story, but one that people are beginning to understand as more and more organizations are talking about it. There seems to be an understanding of the consequences that occur when the planet is threatened, and this understanding is contributing to the success of WildAid Marine’s mission of protecting the oceans.

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
I have always categorized fish and wildlife violators into three areas – the unintentional, the opportunist, and the hard-core poacher. Educate those that make a mistake and build support systems for them; deter those that are on the fence by keeping them guessing; and above all, develop your skills and abilities to the extent that those causing the greatest harm are not able to mock what you stand for. You are men and women of action, so I will never fault you for gravitating toward things sure to fill your veins with adrenaline. I always loved a good chase! But don’t forget about what you are here to do, and ask yourself: “am I investing in what really matters?” Use the latitude that the agency or organization gives you to be at the right place at the right time, focused on the right thing, with the appropriate level of effort.

What is the best advice for young people trying to go into conservation?
Keep an open mind. For conservation to be successful, community needs must be considered. People poach for a variety of reasons. They didn’t know the law, didn’t think it was a big deal, didn’t care either way, were desperate, or were simply career criminals. You will always be chasing some hard-core poacher, but whether the mainstream population is additive to your compliance problems is often dependent on reasonable approaches and ensuring the community appreciates the benefits of your protection efforts and sees a benefit to themselves as well.