a new partnership is looking to protect large swaths of ocean, with one project in remote archipelago Tristan da Cunha. maloff/shutterstock
a new partnership is looking to protect large swaths of ocean, with one project in remote archipelago Tristan da Cunha. maloff/shutterstock

A new alliance of nonprofits and funders that launched last week is aiming to protect 5% of the world’s oceans—an area larger than South America—over the next five years.

The effort is the latest international, multi-partner, funder-backed effort to address the threats facing oceans, which has been a growing focus of philanthropic dollars over the years, though given the ocean covers 71% of the earth, advocates say there’s plenty of room for more funding.

Called the Blue Nature Alliance, the initiative plans to work with local communities—particularly those that rely on their local waters for their jobs, even food—as well as governments and academia, to create new marine protected areas or improve the management of existing ones, with the goal of conserving a total of 18 million square kilometers of ocean.

“We are looking basically… to create more Barrier Reefs,” said Ashleigh McGovern, senior director of innovation and development at Conservation International and a member of the alliance team. “Or if you think about it on land, national reserves or national parks. These are parks in the sea.”

If successful, it would be a notable step toward the growing push to conserve 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. Today, less than 8% of the ocean is under some form of protection, according to the Marine Protection Atlas, with only 2.7% considered highly protected. Even the U.S., where President Biden recently committed to the “30 by 30” goal, falls just short, with only 26% of its seas fully protected.

To staff and lead the initiative, the alliance brings together the international nonprofit Conservation International and the Pew Charitable Trusts, an operating foundation. They are supported by two environmental funders, the Minderoo Foundation and the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation, and the Global Environment Facility, a financial fund originally created by the World Bank. All five contributed $25 million each toward the $125 million project and the hope is to raise more from local sources.

“The money we’re bringing is not nearly enough to protect these places for the long term, but we see it as catalyzing public investment,” said McGovern. “We expect there to be some sort of match or leveraged engagement in each situation.”

How local projects are being assembled

There is a painful history of international nonprofits and funders parachuting into communities with predetermined goals. The alliance aims to be more locally guided. McGovern says the alliance has no “silver bullet, cookie-cutter” approach. Outreach begins through the organizations’ existing relationships and widens as staff gather names and learn more local context.

The alliance hopes to ensure that not only is nature protected, but so are communities that rely on the surrounding ocean for their livelihoods and sustenance. The group has found that local wisdom can fill vital gaps where data is scarce, McGovern said. “We have to bring these two things together, the bottom-up and the top-down, in order for these places not only to be established, but to exist and achieve its outcomes,” she said.

Projects that would reach nearly a quarter of the alliance’s goal are already underway in three regions: Fiji’s Lau archipelago, Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, and Tristan da Cunha.

For instance, in the Lau archipelago, the most remote of Fiji’s island groups, the alliance aims to create an offshore conservation area of roughly 332,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of New Mexico, in part by helping to strengthen traditional management practices.

“The Blue Nature Alliance has provided the much-needed support to integrate scientific conservation efforts with our own, propelling us to the future as a more resilient community ready to face future challenges,” said Josefa Cinavilakeba in the announcement. Cinavilakeba is community and government relations director for the Pacific Blue Foundation and serves as Roko Sau, the title given to the chief of Totoya, an island in the archipelago.

In Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic island archipelago located several days boat journey from South Africa in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, the alliance helped arrange to set aside nearly 700,000 square kilometers of protected ocean, while reserving 10% of waters for the island’s lobster trade, which puts Marine Stewardship Council-certified lobsters on plates in high-end restaurants across Europe, McGovern said. The effort also set up an endowment to provide support for ongoing protection.

“I’m so grateful to the Blue Nature Alliance for supporting a long-term financial mechanism that will help us protect our island home and our waters for generations to come,” said James Glass, chief islander of Tristan da Cunha, in the announcement.

Additional projects are planned near Canada, Palau, Seychelles and the Western Indian Ocean. One long-term challenge will be protection of these vast zones from threats like pollution and illegal fishing, particularly for small governments.

“In the oceans, it can be very difficult,” M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, told CNN. But he said there are reasons for optimism. There are examples of satellite technology being used to catch tuna boats that are making big loops in the ocean. “You can track these things,” he said.

Partners’ past projects in ocean conservation

The alliance came about after a conversation between the CEOs of Conservation International and Pew Charitable Trusts, which, despite long track records in ocean conservation, had not seriously partnered before, McGovern told me. While their collaboration is new, the alliance builds on several prior collaborations and past funding among the other partners.

Conservation International, for instance, is such a frequent partner of the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation that the grantmaker has a section dedicated to their collaborations on its website. Rob Walton is the eldest son of Sam and Helen Walton, former chair of Walmart and an heir to the Walton fortune. Their projects have included working with USAID to improve yields for cocoa and coffee farmers and with Pacific Islanders to change the management and policy of the region’s fisheries. The nonprofit has also partnered with Arizona State University, which received a $27.5 million pledge from Rob and Melani Walton in 2014 to start a university sustainability center.

For Minderoo Foundation, which was founded by the billionaire Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, ocean conservation is one of 10 focus areas (another is the closely related cause of plastic waste). The foundation has worked to expand such efforts down under, even amid government rollbacks of protections, as we profiled in 2018.

Beyond funding the alliance, both foundations have a voice on the governing council, along with other core partners. Each brings their own expertise to bear, said McGovern. For instance, the alliance has leveraged Forrest’s network in the Western Indian Ocean to make connections. The Waltons, meanwhile, brought Barry Gold onto the council, a veteran of marine conservation philanthropy with past stints at the Walton Family Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

To raise its $25 million portion of the alliance’s budget, Conservation International turned to a handful of foundations working in ocean conservation, as well as some individual philanthropists. One institution was Tiffany & Co. Foundation, which has a long history of giving money for marine conservation, often in multi-partner alliances such as the 50 Reefs project.

Another supporter was the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which is the world’s second-largest marine funder, according to Our Shared Seas, a report funded by the Packard Foundation that provides one of the most comprehensive looks at ocean funding.

The alliance’s partners also include Vulcan, Inc.—the operation that oversees the business and philanthropy for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, for whom ocean health was a priority. One less familiar member is the Cleveland-based Murphy Family Foundation, which appears to be dipping its toes into this area for perhaps the first time.

Still just a drop in the ocean?

Oceans philanthropy has been growing over the past decade or so, and the alliance is the latest in a series of signs that this area of giving is not slowing down.

Last July, MacKenzie Scott’s first round of mega-gifts included $25 million to the Nature Conservancy that funded, in part, the organization’s Blue Bonds program. The project helps island nations refinance their debt to support new ocean conservation measures.

A couple months later, an international group including two foundations launched the Global Fund for Coral Reefs. It hopes to raise $500 million over 10 years in private investment to support projects that prevent damage to or help rejuvenate reefs. Conservational International is working closely with the effort, McGovern said.

The trend appears to stretch beyond these recent announcements. Ocean-related funding rose nearly 29% to $671 million between 2015 and 2016, the most recent dates for which data was available, according to Our Shared Seas. Conservation International is one of the top 20 recipients of marine philanthropy, according to the report.

New funders and ongoing commitments from major marine conservation funders have driven the overall increase in funding, the report says. McGovern said support for marine protected areas, which the report says are now the second-leading funding priority, has seen a particular rise since the early 2010s. Yet there is still plenty of ocean to go around.

“We’ve seen… what feels like an absolute explosion of investment in ocean conservation,” McGovern told me. “It’s still, with 361 million square kilometers of ocean, not a lot.”