For the past 40 years, the recognized leader, the main man in the New York State Senate on needs and issues involving the State’s marine resources was Senator Owen T. Johnson, from Babylon, New York on Long Island’s South Shore. Little marine legislation passed the Senate unless the Senator allowed it to pass. After a long and illustrious career, Senator Johnson has decided not to run for re-election. In mid-September, SoMAS hosted a small and informal ceremony honoring Senator Johnson and his leadership on marine issues in New York. Attending were State Senators John Flanagan and Ken LaValle, Jim Gilmore, current Director of Marine Resources for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Gordon Colvin, Gilmore’s predecessor who served as Director of Marine Resources for nearly 25 years, and Cornelia Schlenk of the New York Sea Grant Program, as well as others from SoMAS and Sea Grant.
After a welcome and introductory remarks from SoMAS Dean Minghua Zhang, Bill Wise, Director of SoMAS’s Living Marine Resources Institute, gave a brief summary of the Senator’s legislative career and his many accomplishments. He noted that Senator Johnson sponsored virtually all of the major pieces of legislation that shaped New York State’s approach to marine resource management since 1972. He was the father of the State Environmental Protection Fund, a landmark mechanism for open space conservation and land acquisition for such uses as parks, public forests, recycling facilities and historic preservation. The Senator was a Commissioner with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years and honored by that group. Wise concluded by observing that Senator Johnson was always a good friend to SoMAS, but never moreso than in 2000, when he secured $1 million in the State budget to create the Marine Animal Disease Lab (MADL) at SoMAS.
Mr. Johnson’s Senate colleagues spoke feelingly of his quiet leadership among the Long Island delegation to the State Senate. Messrs. Gilmore and Colvin noted the importance of the Senator’s support for enlightened marine resource and fisheries management as that field evolved from a purely state-by-state approach to a collective, multi-state regional approach on the East Coast. Ms. Schlenk described the many interactions the Sea Grant program in New York had with Senator Johnson over the years and his consistent advocacy of State support for the program. Sea Grant and SoMAS presented the Senator with plaques commemorating his accomplishments in the Legislature.
When the speakers had spoken, it was Senator Johnson’s turn. He spoke briefly and simply that his interest in marine resources grew from a boyhood spent on Great South Bay. He expressed some discomfort with receiving such praise for doing in the Legislature what, in his view, “…he was supposed to do; trying to do what was right.” The Senator confided that he had missed a lot of birthday parties and family occasions over the past 40 years and that he was looking forward to spending some quality time with his wife and family, perhaps some of it on the 900-acre dairy farm that he owns in upstate New York. He thanked all present for their comments and wished them well. Then, it was time for cake.
A video of the event honoring Senator Owen Johnson is here.