Holistic Ocean Conservation

October 3, 2014

Mark j Spalding Ocean FundationMark J Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation, offers an impassioned insight on how we can protect one of Earth’s most precious resources.



It’s hard to imagine anyone who has not been changed by an experience of the ocean.  Whether it is to walk by her side, swim in her cooling waters, or float on her surface, the vast expanse of our ocean is transformative.  We stand in awe of her majesty.

However, we know that the ocean needs our help. For far too long we have taken the ocean for granted, and expected magically that she would absorb, digest and correct all that we threw into her.  Declining fish populations, decimation of coral reefs, dead zones, increasing acidification, oil spills, toxic die-off, a gyre of garbage the size of Texas – are all problems created by man, and it is man who must change to protect the waters that support life on our planet.

There are no silver bullets, which is why we need innovative and holistic thinking to move the needle on coastal and ocean conservation. Covering nearly 70 per cent of the planet and home to thousands of species of plants and animals, the ocean certainly represents a huge management problem.

For some marine conservation funders, global scaling of marine protection often implies centralised, standardised process and organisation—one or few entities driving protections from the 30,000 foot level on down. Instead, we might want to talk about replication of successful marine protection tailored to the scope and need of particular conservation goals.  This is not a tension between scaling big and scaling well.  After all, ‘scale is the enemy of sustainability.’

Replicating or propagating success is a more effective way to describe the change that is needed.  The ‘scale’ of our protection of the ocean as a percentage needs to change.  So too does our ‘scale’ of philanthropic investment in marine conservation.  Increasing scale in those contexts makes more sense.

When we want more and better ocean protection, we need to get the language of our strategies right. The fundamental problem with the concept of going to scal, is that creating 100 marine protected areas seems better than establishing 10.  It just feels better to say the bigger number, and is deceptively simple to not do any further analysis.  But this number does not necessarily equate to quality of projects that we fund.

I think in our new reality that ‘effectiveness’ beats ‘big scale’. As we look ahead, we should remember to be very clear about what works and at what size or level—fixing problems is much more expensive and challenging than preventing them in the first place. We need to address each place, each community, each culture, and each marine conservation challenge as a unique opportunity, and tap the right team to address it.  There is no magic sauce, or silver bullet, that works every time

We need a nuanced and specific approach to local marine protection, fisheries management, food security and economic development.  And, by combining this approach with replication of success, we can get at the particular goals in which a country will be more willing to invest public funds and business resources for such actions.  And, when the scale of the place is large (eg. the Arctic or the high seas), there is still the opportunity to be nuanced and problem-specific in our response. ‘Think globally, act locally’ is something of a cliché and like all clichés has a powerful element of truth.

Common themes supported by tailored implementation have proven themselves over and again. Focusing at this scale allows us to identify and support innovation, success, and education of others.  If we carefully watch and understand what works, we are in a unique position as funders to help support the sharing of practices and actions that are successful.  Perhaps we can even reduce the risk of failure as a result of using replication. We know that not all success can be replicated.  What we can do is support the sharing of lessons learned and hope for propagation of good ideas.

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