As Frozen Seas Thaw, Oak Foundation Looks North

So much of marine philanthropy hovers in the cruise-weather midsection of the planet, whether saving massive coral reefs or beleaguered species like sharks and rays. But as temperatures climb, there's a frigid ocean ecosystem facing frightening and uncertain environmental threats — the Northern Pacific and Arctic.

Oak Foundation has made this region one of its three geographic marine focuses, and has sent millions to organizations working to conserve the diverse and rapidly changing ecosystems in the waters surrounding Alaska, Canada and Siberian Russia. (See Oak Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation).

The large global funder began from the wealth of the Duty Free Shoppers business founded by Alan Parker, and now is based around the world with seven programs, including one with an environment focus that addresses climate change and marine conservation. The Marine program concentrates on three regions — Central America, Europe, and North Pacific/Arctic.

The seas and gulfs that connect the Pacific and Arctic oceans strike a unique balance between isolation and community, conservation and commerce. The millions of people in the region, indigenous and otherwise, depend heavily on the sea, with a huge commercial fishing economy familiar to any viewers of Deadliest Catch. But so much of the region is frozen and inhospitable. 

As the planet warms, all of that stands to change. Temperatures are changing rapidly, sea ice is disappearing, glaciers and permafrost are melting away. These radical changes (more drastic than other regions are seeing due to climate change) are affecting marine biology, and the region is under pressure to seize newly available resources, both increased fishing and oil and gas extraction. All of this leaves the marine ecosystems at great risk.

Oak's goal is to support "local and regional conservation efforts that promote healthy and resilient marine ecosystems for the benefit of future generations of Arctic residents." Much of that involves relying on the traditions and conservation practices that have been used throughout history, and curbing an explosion of industrial development. (Read foundation director Leonard Lacerda's IP profile). 

That includes preventing overfishing, as certain fish populations skyrocket in warmer temperatures, preventing industrialization, and improving governance and management of the seas.

Key recent grants include a half million to Pew Charitable Trusts in 2012 for its Oceans North Campaign, and $350,000 to the Bristol Bay Native Association, a consortium of native tribes in Alaska.

Science and conservation in this region will only continue to gain momentum, as the frozen seas to the north continue to thaw out, and we start to see entirely new ecological and political dynamics emerge.