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A New Wave Of Hope In Ocean Conservation

In a sea of negative ocean-related news— overfishing, species extinctions, pollution, rising temperatures and ocean acidification— it’s hard to think positively about the health of our global ocean ecosystems and begs the question: Is there anything good going on?

Research suggests that people care more about potential threats than the prospect of good outcomes which could be why ‘bad news’ appears in the media up to 17 times as often as ‘good news’. But how exactly are these “doom and gloom” reports impacting the way we see our planet? As one bad sign, an article published in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems found that 25 % of Australian children are “so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”

Whale Island and Nudi Rock, Indonesia

Enter Ocean Optimism.

A social media initiative called Ocean Optimism was created specifically in response to this outpouring of negative ocean-news. As defined by its website, Ocean Optimism is “a collaborative movement inspiring a global outpouring of marine conservation success stories” and aims to spread hope and solution-oriented information about ocean conservation. Since its launch in 2014, Ocean Optimism has become a social media phenomena with its hashtag (#OceanOptimism) reaching over 60 million Twitter users including The Huffington Post and the World Bank, and it was also featured in the Smithsonian Magazine. Dr. Elin Kelsey, one of the masterminds behind the movement writes, "I’ve been awash in uplifting news about the ocean lately. Each day, tweets from #OceanOptimism alert me to marine conservation successes happening all over the world.” 

The Ocean Optimism website features a wide variety of success stories including an article about the Ocean Health Index (OHI)’s own “ocean optimist” and lead scientist, Dr. Ben Halpern, on his reasons for maintaining hope. He points out that between 2008 and 2013, 13% of the ocean saw a decrease in human impact. “That’s nearly 50 million square kilometers where things are getting better,” says Halpern. “These places give us hope that with concerted action, we can improve the state of the ocean.”

Reasons for optimism aren't just in the oceans; in early October, the Zoological Society of London and Oxford University announced the very first Conservation Optimism Summit to be held in London in April 2017 that will bring together conservationists from all over the world to discuss how to spread hope across the whole spectrum of conservation.    

Ocean optimists

Every four years the IUCN World Conservation Congress brings together conservation leaders and professionals from all over the world to discuss and set the global conservation agenda for upcoming years. The 2016 Congress, held in Hawai’i, placed oceans, rightfully so, as one of the key topics. 

With more than 10,000 registered participants, the Congress provided a historic opportunity to gauge marine conservation professionals’ thoughts on the future of ocean health and conservation. OHI intern, Anna Kilponen, had the opportunity to individually interview participants to better understand their take on ocean optimism and find out what motivates them to continue to work for conservation in the face of the frequent drumbeat of negative news.

Oceans and Islands pavilion at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, Hawai'i

Here’s what they said

Most interviewees said their greatest motivation stems from the sheer number of people who care about the oceans and are working together towards common goals. “I’m inspired and motivated by how many people care about the environment,” said Atdhetare Ame from Students on Ice. “It makes you realize that you’re not alone doing this work —that we are all in this together.”

Interviewees further emphasized that it’s important to keep in mind that we do acknowledge ocean conservation “wins.” For instance, Dr. Winnie Lau, International Ocean Policy Officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts, highlighted the importance of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) that came into force on 5 June 2016, after a years-long diplomatic effort. This is a big milestone as this agreement is the first legally binding international treaty focusing specifically on combatting the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing through the implementation of port State measures.

Vivek Menon, Senior Advisor to President & CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Executive Director & CEO of Wildlife Trust India (WTI), introduced the Whale Shark Conservation Project in the Gujarat State of India. The successful campaign, initiated by the IFAW and WTI, and supported by local religious leader, the Gujarat Forest Department and Tata Chemicals Ltd, focused on tackling illegal hunting of whale sharks, and reducing the numbers of animals that are caught as by-catch in fishing nets. Locals now take pride in the existence of the world’s largest fish in their waters, and as of September 2016, 601 whale sharks had been released from the fishing nets.

Arguably one of the biggest “wins” we have seen recently happened during the Congress itself: On August 26th President Obama announced the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument that is currently the largest marine protected area in the world. And just a few short weeks later, more than 40 new or expanded marine protected areas were announced at the 3rd Our Ocean conference held September 15-16 in Washington, D.C., and more than US$5.24 billion was pledged for marine conservation.

Whale shark in Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia

oceans are not limitless, and humans have tremendous influence

One of the most encouraging aspects of ocean conservation that many interviewees pointed out is the increasing amount of information and awareness we have on our oceans. We can now get data from ocean buoys, drones and mooring systems, monitor fishing vessel movements in real time and tag and trace pelagic animals. And through social media all this information reaches more people than ever before. “At this point in time, we have enough global awareness to truly affect change," said Vienna Saccomanno, Communications Director & Conservation Projects Coordinator from the Marine Conservation Institute. ”We are now at the crossroads –exactly as this year’s IUCN congress theme says– and I really do think that this time, we are going to get it right.”

Thanks to researchers and improved technology we are now able to generate enormous amounts of data about our oceans. With this information in hand, frameworks like the OHI can give us a reason for hope and optimism by providing a detailed diagnosis of the state of ocean health and help us understand what is needed moving forward. The core message of the OHI is also full of optimism: what’s good for the ocean is good for people. 

"What keeps me going are the many ocean successes at all scales," says Dr. Johanna Polsenberg, Senior Director of the OHI. "I’m heartened to see communities all over the globe working to restore mangrove forests, establish protected areas, manage their fisheries, develop responsible ecotourism, clean beaches and protect coral reefs. Fifty years ago large whales were in danger of extinction, but today their populations are increasing worldwide thanks to international treaties and supportive actions by many nations and communities. Everything is possible if we work together."

Thank you to Lindsay Mosher, Steven Katona and Johanna Polsenberg for their helpful editorial comments.