Dear Friends of The Ocean Foundation,

I have just returned from a trip to the Social Ventures Network conference in Kennebunkport, Maine. More than 235 people from a number of different sectors— banking, tech, non-profit, venture capital, services, and trade — gathered to talk about how to take care of employees, protect the planet, make a profit and have fun while doing it all. As a newly accepted member of the group, I was there to see how The Ocean Foundation’s work to ensure longer-term sustainability and support for human and natural resources in coastal communities might fit in with the trend in “greener” business and development plans.

In March, we made a trip south to sunny Belize for the annual Marine Funders Meeting on Ambergris Caye. This annual week-long meeting is hosted by the Consultative Group for Biological Diversity and was co-founded by TOF founding chair, Wolcott Henry and is currently co-chaired by TOF board member, Angel Braestrup. The CGBD is a consortium that supports foundation activity in the field of biodiversity conservation, and serves as a networking hub for its members.

Given the critical state of the Mesoamerican Reef and five marine funders1 invested in the region, CGBD chose Belize as the 2006 site for its annual meeting to bring together marine funders from across the nation to discuss funder collaborations and the most pressing issues impacting our precious marine ecosystems. The Ocean Foundation provided the background materials for this meeting for the second consecutive year. Included in these materials was the April 2006 issue of Mother Jones magazine featuring the state of our oceans and a 500-page reader produced by The Ocean Foundation.

With a week to discuss everything under the sun of marine conservation, our days were packed with informative presentations and lively discussions on solutions and problems we, as the marine funding community, need to address. Co-chair Herbert M. Bedolfe (Marisla Foundation) opened the meeting on a positive note. As part of everyone’s introduction, each person in the room was asked to explain why they wake up in the morning and go to work. Answers varied from fond childhood memories of visiting the ocean to preserving a future for their children and grandchildren. Over the next three days, we tried to tackle the questions of ocean health, what issues need more support, and what progress is being made.

This year’s meeting provided updates on the four key issues from last year’s meeting: High Seas Governance, Fisheries/Fish Policy, Coral Reef Conservation, and Oceans and Climate Change. It ended with new reports on possible funder collaborations to support work on International Fisheries, the Coral Curio and Aquarium Trade, Marine Mammals, and Aquaculture. Of course, we also focused on the Mesoamerican reef and the challenges to ensuring that it continues to provide healthy habitat for the animals, plants, and human communities that depend on it. The full agenda from the meeting will be available on The Ocean Foundation website.
I had the opportunity to bring the group up to date on the enormous amount of new data and research that emerged on the impact of climate change on the oceans since the February 2005 marines meeting. We were also able to highlight the TOF-supported work in Alaska, where sea ice and polar ice caps are melting, causing sea level rise and critical habitat loss. It is increasingly clear that marine conservation funders need to collaborate to ensure that we support efforts to address the impact of climate change on ocean resources now.

Joining the CGBD Marine Funders each year are invited guest speakers from the marine community who deliver presentations and share their knowledge more informally. This year’s guest speakers included four of TOF’s stellar grantees: Chris Pesenti of Pro Peninsula, Chad Nelsen of the Surfrider Foundation, David Evers of the Biodiversity Research Institute, and John Wise of the Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health.

In separate presentations, Dr. Wise and Dr. Evers presented their results from laboratory analysis of whale samples collected by yet another TOF grantee, Ocean Alliance on its “Voyage of the Odyssey.” High levels of chromium and mercury are being found in whale tissue samples from oceans around the world. More work remains to analyze additional samples and research the possible sources of the contaminants, particularly the chromium which is most likely to have been an airborne toxin, and thus may have placed other air-breathing animals, including humans, at risk in the same region. And, we are pleased to report that new projects are now underway as a result of the meeting:

  • Testing Atlantic cod stocks for mercury and chromium
  • John Wise will be working with Pro Peninsula to develop sea turtle stem cell lines to compare and test wild sea turtles for chromium and other contaminants
  • Surfrider and Pro Peninsula may collaborate in Baja and have discussed utilizing each other’s models in other regions of the world
  • Mapping estuary health and pollution affecting the Mesoamerican reef
  • David Evers will be working on testing whale sharks and reef fish of the Mesoamerican reef for mercury as an incentive to stop overfishing of these stocks

The Mesoamerican reef crosses the borders of four countries, making enforcement of marine protected areas difficult for Belizeans who continually combat poachers from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Yet, with just 15% live coral coverage left within the Mesoamerican reef, protection and restoration efforts are essential. Threats to the reef systems include: warmer water bleaching the coral; increased marine-based tourism (particularly cruise ships and hotel development); hunting reef sharks essential to the reef ecosystem, and oil gas development, and poor waste management, particularly sewage.

One of the reasons Belize was chosen for our meeting is its reef resources and long- standing effort to protect them. Political will for protection has been stronger there because Belize’s economy has been dependent on ecotourism, especially on those who come to enjoy the reefs that make up part of the 700-mile Mesoamerican Reef tract. Yet, Belize and its natural resources are facing a turning point as Belize develops its energy resources (becoming a net exporter of oil earlier this year) and agribusiness reduces the economy’s dependence on ecotourism. While diversification of the economy is important, equally important is maintaining the resources that attract the visitors that fuel a still-dominant portion of the economy, especially in coastal areas. Thus, we heard from a number of individuals whose life work has been devoted to marine resource conservation in Belize and along the Mesoamerican Reef.

On the last day, it was funders only, and we spent the day listening to our colleagues propose opportunities for collaboration in support of good marine conservation projects.
In January, TOF had hosted a coral reef working group meeting on the impact of the coral curio and aquarium trade, which is the sale of live reef fish and curio pieces (e.g. coral jewelry, sea shells, dead sea horses and starfish). A summary of this meeting was presented by Dr. Barbara Best of USAID who emphasized that research is just beginning on the impact of the curio trade and there is a lack of legal advocacy regarding corals. In collaboration with other funders, The Ocean Foundation is expanding the research on the impact of coral curio trade on the reefs and communities that depend on them.

Herbert Bedolfe and I brought the group up to date on work being done to address the unseen elements threatening marine mammals. For example, human activities are causing acoustic disturbances, which in turn cause, injury and even death to whales and other marine mammals.

Angel Braestrup brought the group up to speed on recent developments in the work to address the impact of aquaculture on coastal waters and coastal communities. The increased demand for seafood and declining wild stocks has led aquaculture to be viewed as potential relief for wild stocks and a potential protein source for developing nations. Several funders are working to support collaborative efforts to promote strict environmental standards for any aquaculture facility, to work to limit the farming of carnivorous fish (farmed fish eating wild fish does not reduce pressure on wild stocks),and to otherwise make aquaculture live up to its promise as a sustainable source of protein.

Since its founding more than 10 years ago, the Marines Working Group has emphasized building a network of marine conservation funders that shares ideas, information, and perhaps most important, uses the power of funder collaboration to support grantee collaboration, communication, and partnership. Over time, there have been a host of formal and informal funder collaborations to support specific areas of marine conservation, often in response to legislative or regulatory concerns.

It is easy to listen to all the bad news at these meetings and wonder what there is left to do. Chicken Little seems to have a point. At the same time, the funders and presenters all believe that there is a lot that can be done. Growing scientific basis for the belief that healthy ecosystems respond and adapt better to both short-term (e.g. tsunamis or the 2005 hurricane season) and long-term (El Niño, climate change) impacts has helped focus our strategies. These might include efforts to protect marine resources locally, set a regional framework for ensuring coastal community health—on land and in the water, and broader policy goals (e.g. banning or limiting destructive fishing practices and addressing the sources of the heavy metals found in whales and other species). Accompanying these strategies is the ongoing need for effective communication and education programs at all levels and identifying and funding research to aid in the design of these goals.

We left Belize with both an expanded awareness of the challenges and an appreciation for the opportunities that lie ahead.

For the oceans,
Mark J. Spalding, President