Where Money Meets Water

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Retiring Sea Grant extension agent reflects on his career

Upon entering eighth grade, Tom Murray moved from West Virginia to Chappaqua, New York—one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. The change was a social shock. And because Murray had a West Virginian accent, school officials placed him in remedial English.

“But I’ve always liked a challenge,” he says with a grin. By the next semester, he was in an honors English class. Murray’s professional career in marine resource economics reflects this same delight in confronting and overcoming obstacles.

As an undergraduate student at Kenyon College, he was studying biology and English until a mandatory economics class changed his life’s course. “I got excited,” he recounts. “ I was deeply interested in natural resources and it seemed to me that economics was a way of looking at problems of scarcity and allocation.”

Realizing that he wanted to work on these types of problems, Murray changed his major to economics, earning his bachelor’s in 1971. He went on to receive a master’s degree in applied economics in 1975 from Clemson University. Following graduation, he began his career at the South Carolina Marine Resources Research Institute studying the economics of the shrimp industry. Then he moved to Key West, Florida, where he became the “southernmost Sea Grant extension agent” with the University of Florida.

Since 1999, Murray has continued his engagement with Sea Grant as a Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) extension staff member affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant, applying economics to marine business and coastal development problems. He’s also been the associate director of Marine Advisory Services at VIMS for seven years, overseeing a unit of scientists whose primary responsibility is to provide expert advice to Commonwealth citizenry, marine industries, and government.

Murray enjoys the intersection of economics and extension because it goes beyond just theory into the application of theory. At VIMS, this means Murray is applying theories from economics to marine resources, like the oyster industry, to give people the information they need to understand the way money moves in their industry.

Murray also develops educational materials for industry members, like a budget calculator for oyster aquaculture that allows growers to input predicted costs and crops to estimate their bottom lines.

"I think that first working waterfronts conference was landmark. We really lit the fuse here in Virginia."

“The calculator helps people before they risk any money, to see what the costs and returns might be,” he explains. The budget calculator is also used in loan applications so that lenders can see what growers’ profitability might be. “The better they can define their economics costs and returns, the better they can present themselves for lending.”

He has also designed other, Virginia-specific educational materials, like a long-standing shellfish grower survey that annually assesses the Commonwealth’s oyster and clam aquaculture landscape.

Murray first came to VIMS in 1979 from the University of Florida to be a Sea Grant extension marine economist for Marine Advisory Services. After two years, he went to work with the Farm Credit Banks of Columbia, the nation’s largest private credit cooperative, where he managed their aquaculture and fisheries lending programs and conducted loan officer training in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. In 1984 he returned to Florida to run the Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation.

As the executive director of this nonprofit research foundation in Tampa, Murray funded turtle excluder device research. In the late 1980s, the booming shrimp industry from Texas to North Carolina was at risk of being shut down because of its accidental bycatch of marine turtles. Murray developed funding and contracted Sea Grant programs in the nine states involved to support their extension agents and industry members as they jointly developed excluder devices that would prevent turtles from being caught with shrimp, helping save this important industry.

“That to me was the heart of extension: technology transfer and development,” Murray says. “So I really feel good about that. The extension programs we facilitated can take great credit in supporting an industry that was on the verge of experiencing a regulatory disaster.”

Twenty years after leaving his first position with VIMS, Murray came back to begin his current stint here. That’s when he started noticing the displacement of traditional marine industries from waterfronts by housing developments. After talking to people around the country, Murray realized the problem was pervasive: Working waterfronts, like ports, boat harbors, and fishing docks, were being lost to re-development nationwide. Murray and a few others in Sea Grant saw this as a “disaster in slow motion.”

But for Murray, the problem presented an opportunity. In 2007, he lead the development, co-chaired, and convened the first national working waterways conference in Norfolk, Virginia, bringing people together from across the country to talk about the issue. There have been four since the first, held every two years all over the country.

“I think that first working waterfronts conference was landmark,” he says. “We really lit the fuse here in Virginia.”

While waterfronts are critical to coastal communities, they’re also a constant in Murray’s life. He’s always lived on or near the water, and when he retires from his current position at the end of 2016, he’ll continue doing so at his home on the North River.

By Chris Patrick, science writer
"The calculator helps people before they risk any money, to see what the costs and returns might be."