Behind the Protection of Vast Swaths of Ocean, A Big Victory for Green Philanthropy

We've been writing a lot over the past year about the new money and energy pouring into marine conservation. The grave threats confronting the oceans concern all kinds of funders, including billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Paul Allen, Julian Robertson, James Simons, Hansjörg Wyss, and Ted Waitt and major foundations like Packard and Moore.


One marine funder that's on a particularly strong winning streak, lately, is the Pew Charitable Trusts. It’s been a good year for Pew. Already a leader in ocean advocacy, Pew and its partners have spearheaded programs that have helped double the amount of fully protected ocean across the globe. Among other things, they’ve had remarkable success getting local governments on board with the vision of establishing protected marine parks in critical coastal habitats.  

In March, the British government announced its intention to establish the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve in the South Pacific. Then, on Sept. 28, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced plans for a fully protected ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs. And just this month, both Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and the Pacific island nation of Palau pledged to adopt Pew-backed proposals to create fully protected marine reserves off their respective coastal territories.

For context, this means the world has now set aside more than 1 million square miles of highly protected ocean in 2015 alone, more than any other year before it.   

Pew’s interest in marine parks dates back years. Coming together with other philanthropic leaders over a mutual concern for the world’s oceans, Global Ocean Legacy was born. The partnership—which today includes Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Lyda Hill Foundation, Oak Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and the Waitt Foundation—was built on a vision to protect the world’s ocean for future generations by creating 15 protected marine parks by 2022. And whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working: To date, Global Ocean Legacy has secured government commitments to protect over 2.5 million square kilometers of ocean, protecting wildlife and critical habitats, while also preserving indigenous subsistence fishing practices.

If you’re wondering what Pew puts in to produce these kinds of results, the answer is a lot. Its marine program alone employs 150 staff and consultants—making it one of the largest dedicated ocean advocacy groups in the world. It's big on rigorous research and hands-on programming.

Take their recent win securing a marine park off Chile’s Easter Island. Pew’s work in the region started in 2012 when it partnered with the Swiss-based Bertarelli Foundation to support the local indigenous population, the Rapa Nui, in their bid to protect their coastal waters.

Support included resources to carry out the largest scientific assessment ever completed of the island’s marine environment, a full economic analysis of the impact of a marine park, and even education and training for the local population. Further sweeting the pot, in January, Pew launched a sophisticated satellite monitoring program and virtual watch room to monitor the surrounding waters for illicit fishing activity—an issue plaguing Chilean waters and a key selling point in its case for a protected marine park. From Pew:

At 631,368 square kilometers (243,630 square miles), the new marine park will be the third-largest fully protected area of ocean in the world… the park [wil] safeguard the biodiversity of the island’s waters, which are home to 142 endemic species, 27 of which are threatened or endangered. The park also will help the Rapa Nui continue centuries-old subsistence fishing practices within an area that extends 50 nautical miles from the shoreline.

That's big, and the expansion of marine parks is one of the biggest stories in conservation right now, albeit one that doesn't tend to get much attention. The key role of philanthropy in this trend is another example of the way that supercharged green funders are both spending bigger and growing more effective. 

While Pew may no longer operate as a foundation or traditional grantmaking entity, some money does go out the door to partner organizations, and it's an outfit that obviously has some very deep pockets. All of which is one more reason to keep an eye on this leader in ocean advocacy. 

Related: Pew Charitable Trusts: Grants for Marine and Rivers