Why I’m Hopeful We Can Save the Oceans

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Published on March 8th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

A couple of weeks ago I had to give two lectures to final-year students in studying conservation biology at Cambridge University. Two hours on the subject of threats to the marine environment — what a depressing litany. A tangled web of cause and effect, of combinations, synergies, shifted baselines, phase shifts and collapses, of altered states, declines, losses, mechanisms, sources and drivers…all adding up to apparent looming disaster.

What a relief it was to move from there to the Conservancy’s Marine Aggregation just a few days later in sunny Monterey, California — and not just because of the climate shift. The Aggregation is an occasional gathering of marine staff from across the Conservancy and, since the Conservancy works around the globe, from everywhere. How uplifting to suddenly find myself in a packed plenary hall with over 150 people who are all, in myriad ways, working to turn the oceans around.

There’s not another organization in the world that could come close to matching this. Not even close. It’s not only the number, nor is it the geographic scope. It’s the extraordinary mix of field workers who are more comfortable in a boat or scuba gear alongside smart social scientists and policy brains who know what it takes to provoke change in the corridors of power. And how both of these extremes need each other, and feed off a collective wisdom.

  • How uplifting to see images of great underwater fields of staghorn coral, almost ready for “planting out” on the reefs of Florida and the Virgin Islands. This is experimental stuff, never been done before. Might not even work, but thank goodness there was someone there willing to roll up their sleeves and give it a try.
  • Or images of the hordes of volunteers in Alabama’s 100:1000 project laying out bags of oyster shells to create a fringe of reef just off that state’s rapidly eroding saltmarsh coast. This restoration stuff was madly experimental a few years ago, but hey, now it’s working. (And the whispering in the corridors told us that, not far from away from this new work, such reefs are turning erosion into deposition within just a few months of restoration — they may even be forging a method for adapting to sea-level rise!)
  • Walk outside through the sunny California campus to a session on Building the Green Economy and we can imagine ourselves in a totally different organization. Here there was a discussion as to how conservation, and the Conservancy, should engage in somewhat futuristic economics. How can we build more holistic accounting into future development, to give a proper value to nature and the present-day and future benefits nature provides us. Get this right and suddenly economists, banks, industry and insurance could become our greatest allies. Not blue-sky thinking, but a critical discussion from an organization that now walks totally comfortably in the world of national and international policy fora. Here is an organization that advises not one, but multiple governments.

The powers that be have time to listen to the Conservancy precisely because we do stuff rather than just talk. And while we continue to push approaches that have proven successful — such as marine protected areas — we’re also pushing the limits everywhere:

  • World leaders in developing coral reef resilience science.
  • The first organization to really recognize and begin to try and save shellfish reefs.
  • Buying fishing permits and boats and caring for the fishers.
  • Leasing marine space while investigating how to scale up and support such non-traditional marine conservation agreements.
  • Supporting the first continuous ocean acidification recorders in Palmyra.
  • Working quietly behind the scenes to support heads of state make unprecedented, bold moves towards marine conservation in Micronesia, the Caribbean and the Coral Triangle.
  • Goading, cajoling and maneuvering to establish global targets for international conventions.

Sometimes it’s appropriate just to feel proud of being in with this great gang of people. And after one exceptional and frankly very moving set of presentations on the Conservancy’s marine work across the planet, I leaned across to a neighbor who was not a Conservancy employee and asked her what she thought. She couldn’t answer. There were tears in her eyes.

(Image: Conservancy researcher recording data on coral on the east side of Palau. Image credit: Ian Shive.)

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