Who Advocates for the Ocean?

Who advocates for the ocean?  I am always astonished by the fact that for an ecosystem with the size and implication, as vast and significant as the ocean there is a dearth of advocates at the level of scale and urgency required to make a difference in public awareness and action. There are, of course, several prominent non-governmental organizations, mostly conservation based, with ambitious and useful ocean advocacy programs: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy, Conservation International, Greenpeace, and others. There are some large quasi governmental organizations that are at the forefront of ocean programs and projects nationally and internationally: NOAA and the Ocean Leadership Council in the United States, the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the Global Environment Facility – organizations, primarily funded by national budgets, dues, or government contributions, that conduct research, educate the public, promote and advance policy discussion at all levels, and organize large demonstration projects as models for innovation and best practice. And finally, there are the individuals – scientists and journalists – who have focused their skills on broad-based communications formats: Sylvia Earle, for example, who has been an ardent and ubiquitous spokesperson for ocean issues for decades; Carl Safina and David Helvarg, authors of books and media about the oceans; and Jean Michelle Cousteau and other members of the Cousteau family who have pursued many different kinds of ocean initiatives, from large format films to targeted actions to promotion of sustainable products from the sea.

Here are two further examples of ocean advocates, not so well known, very different in structure and assets, and yet with comparable purpose. 

The first is the Pew Environmental Group Global Ocean Legacy project that “aims to establish a worldwide system of very large, highly protected marine reserves where fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited.”  The project works with local citizens, governments and scientists around the world to protect and conserve some of the Earth’s most important and unspoiled marine environments. Originally, the Pew Charitable Trust was a granting organization, providing funding to worthy applicants in various areas of interest. It has morphed into an “operating foundation,” organized into theme-based groups that identify needs, design programs, fund them from the Foundation’s significant asset base, and staff and operate the projects themselves. The Global Ocean Legacy has a staff of 15 and has created three major preserves--Papahanaumokuakea, 140,000 square miles in the northern Hawaiian Islands; the Chagos Archipelago, in the Indian Ocean, 210,000 square miles, including 55 islands and vast areas of coral reef; and the Mariana Trench Reserve, the world’s deepest canyon, 95,000 square miles along the east coast of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, the location of numerous underwater hydro-thermal vents and some of the oldest marine organisms on earth – and is working on several more around Easter Island, Bermuda, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, in the Coral Sea,  and the Kermedecs, remote islands and rocks off the Tonga and the North Island of New Zealand.  These are extraordinary places indeed, as pure and pristine and valuable as remain anywhere. Only an organization like Pew with the determination, focus, longevity, and available assets can manage the financial, social, and political circumstances encompassed by these challenges and stay the course to success.

Now let me introduce an entirely different advocate: Wallace J. Nichols, known as Jay, who as an individual voice is the energy, imagination, and activity behind Blue Mind, more an attitude than an organization, embodying the equation of science and culture, mind and heart, emotion and reason as a means to inspire and inform the public anytime, anywhere, at every level of sophistication and engagement. Jay has no office, no overhead, no staff except himself, engaged in a frantic exercise of daily communication through social media, classes and presentations, professional papers, conferences and workshops, articles and videos, Skype calls and Google chats. Jay may do a TED talk one day, visit an elementary school the next, and meet the next with graduate students in marine science or young adults seeking their way in the context of the ocean. Throughout it all is a stream of Facebook posts, Tweets, blog entries, and constant social encounter. Jay’s expenses are raised through an informal campaign whereby some 150 individuals contribute in any amount to support his work, contributions channeled through the Ocean Foundation for accountability and support.  Nichols has his PhD., has worked for several large conservation organizations and educational institutions, has conducted serious research on turtle migrations, and has abandoned that model with its inhibitions and mission statements and fickle funding for a campaign without affiliation, lean, clear, direct, of and with the people, acting with intentionality, reacting to opportunity, with the sole purpose of engaging individuals and groups of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of interest in a straightforward, personal message of and for the sea everywhere.

No judgments.  Every effort mentioned here is worthy and works and is necessary to get the message out, understood, and concrete by result to the largest possible audience. These voices, all this work, seem still not enough, but the achievements of these advocates, big and small, loud and soft, are undeniable. Find them, listen, support them, and join your advocacy with theirs. If you will, we just might together get this ocean job done.


Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.