Mike Tosatto is the Regional Administrator for the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO). He is also a veteran who served in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) from 1984 to 2004.
Tosatto joined the military a month after graduating from high school as a means to afford college. He earned a degree in electrical engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, although later he found his calling as a USCG law enforcement officer.
Tosatto was the Chief of Law Enforcement for the Fourteenth Coast Guard District in Honolulu from 1997–2002. He retired from Sector Guam in 2004 at the rank of Commander (O-5). Around the time of his military retirement, NOAA Fisheries began establishing the Pacific Islands Regional Office—thanks to the strong support of Hawaiʻi Sen. Daniel Inouye. Tosatto became PIRO’s first Deputy Regional Administrator, and he was selected as Regional Administrator in 2010. He says the most important part of his job as Regional Administrator is providing staff with what they need to accomplish their important stewardship of the marine resources in the Pacific Islands region.
In this Q&A, Tosatto reflects on his military career and how his time in the USCG has influenced his work with NOAA Fisheries.
As we celebrate Veterans Day, what does it mean to you?
Oddly, I have never thought of Veterans Day as being about me. I think about my dad (who has passed) and his love of his work in the Navy. He put up 28 flag poles to fly the U.S. flag when he became the facilities engineer for the University of Pittsburgh (they had only one when he got there). I think about my uncle (my godfather), who visited me here for eight Pro Bowl weekends in a row (he’s too infirm to travel now). He shared his many stories of his service as a U.S. Navy medical Corpsman treating injured Soldiers here in Honolulu during the Korean War. And of course, I think of my wife, a veteran herself.
What impact did your service have on you?
I can say that my time in the service gave me the experience in leadership, in fisheries, and in the Pacific Islands region that I rely on every single day in my current position.
Were any of your leadership experiences particularly challenging?
My most challenging assignment was as the leader of a Tactical Law Enforcement Team in Los Angeles, California, in the late ‘80s. With one officer (me), one senior enlisted, and a team of four enlisted men and women, we deployed whenever we were called, on every sort of U.S. Navy ship and U.S. Customs boat, operating from Vancouver to Costa Rica. We seized literal boatloads of marijuana and cocaine. We trained together constantly and worked as a team to take down some pretty serious scary bad guys.
What did you find most fulfilling about your military career?
For me, it was the humanitarian mission focus that served our nation at home, well before “homeland security” was a Department. We support national defense missions, but USCG law enforcement, waterways management, environmental protection, and search and rescue missions contribute to our nation’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in a very different way. It was rewarding each and every day of service.
Are there any memorable moments that stand out from your time in service?
I have so many, but maybe there is time for a short sea story about Mother Nature’s wrath. In an event that lasted less than 60 minutes in total, I learned that rogue waves are real.
While on a fisheries patrol in the Gulf of Alaska on USCGC Munro, we were running down swell in heavy seas trying to find the best ride possible on a Sunday morning when we were overtaken by a mountainous wave over our starboard quarter. Trust me—this region has the worst weather and seas of any ocean area, much worse than the Bering Sea!
We rolled severely, dipping the port side main deck into the sea. Both engines and all generators tripped offline with the shaking as the wave smacked us hard. We were dead ship and dark for several minutes as the 378-foot ship was tossed about, and the crew scampered to react. A great engine room crew got power and propulsion started again quickly, and we came about into the seas to hold position as we assessed the damage to the ship and our crew.
The ship would stay afloat, but as the acting executive officer, I found that we were missing two crew members. Reports were that both might have been out on the restricted weather decks sneaking a cigarette when the wave hit. We searched the decks and prepared to search the seas. Fortunately, we found them both still aboard. One was floated by the wave but, fortunately, he got tangled up in piping on the helicopter deck before washing overboard. The other was forced into a bulkhead by the water rushing across the deck. She was found wedged behind a gear locker and suffered an injured spine. She was extracted carefully, and I can report that she ultimately has recovered.
We also had millions of dollars of damage to the ship’s exterior, including a “bent” helicopter deck and the loss of our rear weapons system, requiring us to return to port for a more thorough assessment.
From rushing from my rack (bed) to the deck (floor) to the bridge (pilot house) in a panic, to relying on my crew to do their jobs, to the relief when all crew were accounted for and the ship deemed safe, it was quite a roller coaster ride in many ways and certainly memorable.
Are there similarities between the work you did with the USCG and your work with NOAA?
While in the USCG, I had so many fortunate experiences that intersected with NOAA and helped prepare me for my second career here. I had many law enforcement positions, and I served as the District Commander’s representative to the fishery management councils on the West Coast and in the Pacific Islands. I helped the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council develop the first fishery ecosystem plan: the coral reef ecosystem fishery management plan. I also represented the USCG in the Multilateral High-Level Conference, which hammered out the text for the international management of tunas in the region.
Most rewarding was the groundwork I laid for the USCG to support NOAA Fisheries with the transportation of marine mammals around Hawaiʻi. I did not stop when told it would never be approved by USCG leadership. This never-before mission is now a routine operation for the USCG and a critical aspect of NOAA’s protected species recovery mission.
How has your experience in the military influenced the way you lead PIRO?
I think shipboard and law enforcement experience taught me that while military rank and discipline are important, the most important motivator is teamwork. The boss is only one member of a team. Regardless of its size and purpose, the boss needs to do his or her job to ensure the team can and do accomplish their jobs, and that the team flourishes.
PIRO has always been a hard working team, and we’ve had great accomplishments. The future for PIRO is about being an even better team and working for each other. It’s corny, but that’s what I try to do here.