5 Steps for a Brighter Ocean Future

Looking out over Two Foot Bay, Barbuda. (Photo: Daryn Deluco)

Over the last decade I have had the opportunity to see ocean conservation from many angles. I’ve worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, in academia completing a Ph.D., at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for a foundation, and now I lead a non-profit. I’ve worked on policy in DC, on coral reef research in the Caribbean, with primary school students, fishing communities, economists, filmmakers, and heads of state.

Here are some of the lessons learned from my first decade in ocean conservation. We at the Waitt Institute apply these lessons every day for the Blue Halo Initiative, our work partnering with governments and communities as they envision, create, and implement sustainable ocean management.

  1. Build partnerships. Collaborate and support each other. Many of us already do — but if we’re going to save the ocean, we need to go beyond just non-profits collaborating with academia and policy-makers. We need to force cultural change on every front, from media, fashion, and the arts, to finance and industry.
  2. Think bigger. To get people engaged and excited (and attract funding), we need to be more audacious. What is the moon shot for ocean conservation? We need to think beyond protection of a single species or protected area, and toward comprehensive ocean zoning.
  3. Ditch the ego. I will admit, it took me little while to learn this lesson. In academia your career depends on getting public credit for the work you do. With Blue Halo Barbuda, providing support behind the scenes is what made the project successful — drafting documents, arranging catering, buying scotch tape and putting up signs for community meetings, and whatever else needs to be done. It’s not glamorous, but it works.
  4. Apply triage. We can’t save everything — there’s not enough money, or time, or magic. So we need to be thoughtful, and make choices, and focus our efforts. A science-based triage approach should be used to rank species and areas as (a) not at immediate risk, (b) in need of immediate attention, or (c) beyond help, and allocate resources accordingly.
  5. Shout about what’s working! Share your successes and those of others, on social media (#OceanOptimism!), in speeches and writing, in the classroom, at the dinner table, bar, and café. Most people don’t know that 2014 was full of BIG WINS for ocean conservation. We established marine reserves, passed legislation, published groudbreaking science, and more, as I summarized in “14 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2014.” That is the most shared article I’ve ever written, even compared to when Virgin Unite and Sir Richard Branson promoted a blog post I wrote about how parrotfish are flamboyant, sex-changing, algae-eating, sand-pooping coral reef heroes.

People are eager for good news. So let’s share the all good ocean news we’ve got, and create much more and bigger good ocean news, together, and with new collaborators. It’s time to get creative. We can use the ocean without using it up. It seems the tide is in our favor. We must not squander that.


This is an excerpt from my keynote address (video available here) at the Blue Vision Summit in May. Sincere thanks to conference host (and author! — check out his books) David Helvarg.

For more about the work of the Waitt Institute, follow @WaittInstitute on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.

Oh, and happy National Oceans Month!