The Evolution of an Activist

For Margo Pellegrino, ocean conservation is about protecting her children’s future.

Part of the Calling All Activists: Submissions Wanted! series

What drove me into activism was a Lemony Snicket-type of “series of unfortunate events” combined with two extremely positive events (becoming the mother of two children) and a few key observations made while dabbling in the aquarium hobby. Oh for sure in the past I’d protested in a few marches for various causes and issues, “take back the night” stuff in college, a NOW march, and more recently, massive anti-war marches prior to our invasion of Iraq in 2003. But it wasn’t until a crescendo of specific events and realizations pushed me from a mere marcher at protests to someone who is now devoting her life to protecting her children’s future, which is exactly how I see ocean conservation.

Prior to having kids my world revolved around my horse, cats, dogs, twelve fishtanks, and a really, really patient husband. I bred African rift lake cichlids. I chose to keep these fish initially because of our tap water. The easiest fish to keep are the ones that require the parameters of the water (hardness, pH, etc) that come out of your faucet. Total no brainer if minimal maintenance and maximum enjoyment are your thing. All of my tanks were pretty successful and soon the fish were breeding like crazy and overpopulating their tanks.

Another basic truth in fish keeping is you can avoid a whole host of problems as long as your water is clean. In an overstocked tank, like what I now had, you really need to keep up with the water changes. If I got lazy and skipped, or if my fish looked stressed, the easiest way to get everyone on the right track again was to do a massive water change, like 50% or more. This got me thinking about our blue marble ocean planet floating in space. Like an aquarium, we are a closed system. Who’s gonna do a massive water change for the ocean if we screw it up? And so I started contemplating….

Becoming a mother shocked my system and poked and prodded me further down that road to activism. Motherhood was something I had put off for almost nine years of marriage until finally my husband wore me down and I started thinking maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I still wasn’t sure if I was ready for the responsibility of caring for anyone other than me, though. After all, horses, cats, dogs and fish are pretty easy compared to kids. But something made me decide to take the plunge into parenthood, biological clock, maybe? Who knows, but it was more of an overwhelming responsibility than I could have ever imagined. I also knew that my kids would not be inheriting great financial riches, so the next best thing I could offer was to give them every opportunity that we, their mother and father, expected while we were growing up. Carl and I were lucky to have been born into an era where the environment was considered an asset, and something to protect. A healthy environment is crucial. You can’t be healthy when your environment is hurting.

Photo: Sergei Grits/AP

The death of my father when I was only weeks pregnant with my second child sent me into a massive tailspin. My father was a man with big ideas, big plans, a big heart and an amazing intellect. He was my grounding force and my solace, despite his many flaws (of which I was painfully aware). Suddenly I was unmoored and bobbing around on rough and stormy seas where nothing was in control, certainly not me, and I could no longer count on a strong opinion or more rational thought to stabilize my oftentimes unquiet mind. I had to find my own way, my own equilibrium. The nature of my father’s extremely sudden and unexpected death also rudely woke me up to what so many of us forget and in fact, deliberately ignore. We are all gonna die, and we have no clue when. My dad used to say, “life is sexually transmitted and is terminal.”

The birth of my kids, the realities of keeping fish in aquaria, the death of my dad, were all motivators for sure, but it took a few added realizations and calamities to really kick me into gear. Also, to be fair, I was not really ready for action. My grief crippled me, and I felt as if staying alive took every ounce of mental strength I had. Two weeks after my father died we lost the lake in our backyard when the dam washed away, as many in our area did, during the “1000 year storm.” It was just a small blow compared to the death of my father, but paddling nightly on the lake helped to soothe me after his death. The very next year the “100 year storm” (both designations originated from the local media, although the “100 year storm” received much less airtime) filled up our dam-less lakes for a bit, and I got to paddle for a day. The irony did not escape me that this very significant storm was so quickly ignored by the media.

There was also a phone call from my youngest brother, who, not able to contain his grief and needing to “do something different,” decided to hike around Patagonia. In the beginning of December he phoned me from Chile. He started the conversation with “don’t tell Mom, this, but…” and went on to basically say that Chile and Peru were on the brink of war over fishing rights for anchovies of all things. He told me he wasn’t really worried too much, though, as Chile had the better army. Small consolation. Fortunately things calmed down so no war broke out, but still. A war over little fish?

Prior to my second child I had, in addition to the “earth as a giant fish tank” theory, been mulling over a conference I had attended. My husband sits on our local town’s “Environmental Commission.” He gets newsletters all the time about ANJEC (“Alliance of NJ Environmental Commissions”) conferences and gatherings, but never goes. These conferences, though, intrigued me. One especially caught my eye. The “Unregulated Compounds in Water.” Interesting and scary. I pitched my case to go in Carl’s stead, and got to go.

“Interesting” was not how I’d blandly describe this conference. It was pretty damned terrifying. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of chemicals now appearing in our water that we know nothing about – and I mean seriously nothing. We have no idea how long term exposure to these chemicals will impact us or our future generations. At this point, much of what the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) is seeing is in minute concentrations in our ground water. At this point it is only visible because of our latest technology. But this is a baseline, and everyone knows the amounts will increase. We are also, though, and this is really scary, seeing these compounds on a minute scale in our drinking water. We know that this, as in our ground water, will only increase over time and use by a growing population. It just seems insane to assume that there is no risk for us and our children. At the very least, we should know what the ramifications are for constant, chronic exposure to these “unregulated compounds.” But we haven’t the foggiest idea, because of the “proprietary” clause.

The thing that FINALLY tied it all together for me was an article I read in a Patagonia catalog, of all places. It was an excerpt from Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It was about Easter Island and how the incremental environmental degradation over generations wasn’t head-smackingly obvious until too late. Just like my family and I missed the obvious signs of male-sex-linked heart disease in our paternal grandmother’s side that could have prevented dad’s death, it seemed that we, meaning all of humanity, were missing very important and obvious signs that we were quickly making our world uninhabitable for our species by killing the ocean. At some point we will not be able to push the snowball back up the hill to save the village below. At some point we will have ruined our children’s future. No amount of money will fix that. We need the directional change, the paradigm change, the new vision, whatever the hell you want to call it, we need it now. We need to correct our course in a big, big way.

With this excerpt and my dad’s death as the “kick in the butt,” and these observations swirling around in my brain, I dove into the world of ocean activism using whatever I could to raise the alarm about our ocean and its destruction on our future generations. Bernice Johnson Reagon of “Honey in the Rock” sums it up perfectly before singing “the ballad of Harry Moore”:

you could really go for broke, you gonna die anyway, make a difference!

Hell, no matter what, I’m gonna try until I die, anyway. After all, what is this life for?

–Photo Credit: Michael Sahadi

About Margo Pellegrino

Margo Pellegrino is a stay-at-home mother who does a lousy job of staying at home. Fortunately she has a very supportive husband, patient kids, and a very saintly mother making up her team. Since 2007 she has paddled the coasts of the US in partnership with various environmental nonprofits, including NJ’s own Clean Ocean Action, and is currently a project of the Blue Frontier Campaign. The goal of all of her paddles has been to educate as many people as possible about the problems facing our ocean and hopefully inspire them to take action. Margo has a BA from Rutgers University and lives in Medford Lakes, NJ.


  1. Photo of me (Margo) with my yellow outrigger canoe taken by Michael Sahadi.

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