10 things I’ve learnt about conservation optimism

Ocean Optimism, Step Up For The Sea
  1. ‘Conservation optimism is about planning for the future, not just holding the line’ – Elizabeth Bennett. Conservation optimists are focused on making positive change and taking real steps forward for recovery, turning passion into practice.
  1. It’s a powerful movement that’s growing fast, thanks to the drive of hundreds of motivated and inspirational conservationists.
  1. We need to widen who can call themselves a ‘conservationist’. As Heather Koldewey spoke about at the Summit, anyone can be a conservationist. You don’t have to have a science degree – this is for anyone from any discipline, with concern for our environment and the drive to work to protect it for future generations. No lab coat required.
  1. The passion showed by young people is the engine of the movement. School children’s voices have been seen to have strong weight in political decision-making, and the skills and optimism shown by young conservation professionals entering the field will help to drive the movement forward.
  1. There’s a real practical element to the movement. The ‘let’s focus on what works’ attitude is strong, with partnerships and strategy sharing at the heart of the movement.
  1. Conservation optimism isn’t a quick fix – it’s about laying strong foundations and setting up networks of people to support this movement, thereby establishing a new positive approach that will show results on the ground over time.
  1. We need to get cleverer with our communications. There are so many great things happening for the environment all over the world, but as conservationists we all need to do our bit to make sure the news leaves our bubble and reaches the public. This is how we can help encourage ocean-friendly public behaviour changes.
  1. Persistence is key, even if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Conservation optimists can be the drivers of positive attitudes, but even the most optimistic of us will have bad days. It’s about continuing with what we know works, and allowing all the little things to add up to positive change.
  1. There’s interest in setting up other Conservation Optimism Summits around the world. Africa and the Philippines were mentioned as places where future Summits would be well received, and holding these conferences would help to propel the development of the movement.
  1. We need to keep conservation optimism as something that is owned by everyone – it’s a movement, not an organisation or a business. It’s got potential to be taken forward by individuals, groups of people or wider networks who see ways to promote optimism around an issue or a place, and it’s the creativity of optimists who are going to make optimism one of the most powerful tools we’ve got.


Cover picture from Anna Oposa’s plenary talk


Reasons To Be Cheerful #10

Ocean Optimism

From vaquita rescues to dugong drones and plastic bag bans to hydrophones, a lot of good stuff happened for the sea in March 2017.

New study reveals success of Palau MPAs

 A new study has just been published showing that Marine Protected Areas in Palau are working really well and are effectively increasing fish stocks. This is exactly what is hoped for when a new MPA is designated. The study in Palau has found that there were more of the top predators in the protected areas than in the open areas, and that bigger protected areas allow for the recovery of a more individuals and habitats, which are often larger in size. There are also additional benefits to the fishing that takes place in the open areas right next to a No-Take MPA, because the fish don’t know where the boundaries are so they swim out of the area and can be caught nearby. So there are benefits to the marine environment, but also to the local fishing economy. This is a really positive study that shows the comparison between protected and unprotected areas, proving that protected areas really help fisheries recover. A healthy and diverse marine environment is more resilient to withstanding the impacts of climate change, so it’s clear that we need to designate and effectively manage more areas of the ocean.

 Kenya bans plastic bags

The Kenyan Government will be implementing a ban in the next six months on imported plastic bags for commercial and household packaging. Some of the major supermarket chains in Kenya have shared their support for the move, deeming it to be a great step forward in the mission to tackle the country’s plastic pollution problem. Recyclable plastic bags and paper or cardboard alternatives will be offered to ease the transition away from single-use plastic convenience bags. Kenya hopes to follow Rwanda in their successful clean-up mission, where they phased out single-use plastic bags nine years ago, leading to a significantly cleaner environment.

 Don’t Let Go

A balloon release at a party or event might seem like a great idea, but what goes up must come down. Balloons and sky lanterns are released regularly in their thousands, but then burst and fall to the ground or straight into the ocean. Even if they fall to land they can very easily be washed into watercourses after heavy rainfall, and end up at sea anyway. Seabirds and marine life confuse balloons for food and mistakenly eat them, causing some serious health issues. As they’re made of plastic they can take years to break down in the ocean. Sky lanterns also have a metal frame which causes further pollution problems and lasts a lot longer. What’s great, though, is that the impact of balloons and sky lanterns is being recognised and Scottish councils are starting to ban the release of helium balloons and sky lanterns on their land. Last month, Torfaen Council, Wales, also stepped forward to introduce a voluntary ban on sky lanterns, bringing Wales a step closer to a wide scale ban on sky lantern releases.

 Drones for dugongs

Dugongs are vulnerable to extinction, and they’re often killed by getting caught up in fishing nets. Their behaviour makes them seem super secretive: they’re slow moving, don’t splash around or jump out of the water and they normally swim at a depth of about 5 to 10m. Even though they have to surface to breathe, sightings are few and far between and so conservationists are often not sure how many there are left. But now the IUCN in Sri Lanka are stepping up their conservation game by integrating drones into their conservation and management strategies. The drones can film large areas of water from a height and search for evidence of dugongs surfacing to breathe. So this drone tech is going to be crucial in gathering data to monitor dugong numbers, track their movements and to help crack down on the fishing activity that is threatening the numbers of these gentle sea creatures.

Power to the Philippine fishermen

The Philippine Government, in conjunction with the NGO Rare, has announced that small-scale fishing communities will have more influence and control over the management of their fisheries and marine sanctuaries as part of the 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan. This is said to be a ‘pivotal point for fisheries management in the Philippines’, and it’s expected that involving the fishing communities more with the management of the coastal waters and resources will improve the sustainability of the marine environment. The plan aims to establish networks of Marine Protected Areas, and the local fishing community will be heavily involved in the protecting these areas, in return for preferential access to other managed-access fishing grounds outside the MPA. As one of the ‘top 10 fishing nations in the world’ with a strongly ocean-based economy, it’s super important that steps like this are taken to ensure that the marine environment is adequately protected, which will in turn support the national economy and ensure improved and sustained food security for Philippine coastal communities.

 Emergency measures funded to save the last 30 vaquitas

The vaquita population has hit an all-time low, but drastic measures have been organised to allow the last 30 individuals a chance to recover away from danger. The vaquita is a critically endangered porpoise that only lives in the Gulf of California, and it is extremely vulnerable to the totoaba fishing industry in the area which uses gillnets that these porpoises become tangled in. The severity of the situation has been recognised and an emergency action plan is being put in place to rescue and protect the remaining 30 vaquitas, to prevent them from harm. The remaining vaquitas will be taken to a temporary sanctuary area, where they will be safe from the gillnets that they so often get caught in. This temporary measure is being funded by the Mexican government’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, who have committed $3 million to kickstart the construction of a sea pen to house the vaquitas, but the project is also appealing for funding support from the public. Fingers crossed that rehoming the vaquitas, just for a while, will help their numbers recover and boost the resilience of this tiny porpoise to dangers they face everyday.

Hydrophones reveal evidence of rare whales

Hydrophones, acoustic recording devices that are anchored on moorings, were set up in Cook Strait, New Zealand, last summer by a team of marine ecologists from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research for New Zealand. The equipment was set up to listen out for whales that were passing through the area. The results are now being released and scientists think that it could be the first time that audio of the Gray’s and strap-toothed beaked whales have been recorded in New Zealand’s waters. Other whales have been identified too, including Antarctic blue whales and Antarctic minke whales. These audio recordings tell us more about which species pass through New Zealand’s waters, and this is really helpful from a conservation perspective because it means we are now learning so much more about which species we need to protect, and where they’ve been. This information needs to be incorporated into future policy and planning. Keep on singing, whales.




Art Meets Oceans – Benjamin Von Wong

Art Meets Oceans

First up in a new series of interviews with artists and photographers who are creatively raising awareness of marine plastic pollution is photographer Benjamin Von Wong. He’s created these striking photos to ignite conversation about ocean health using a mermaid and 10,000 plastic bottles.

‘I’m really inspired by people who are changing the world. People who are driving that conversation’


‘Plastic Beach’ – Von Wong. Source

Interview with Benjamin

What led you to want to create work from marine plastic?

‘I think I’ve always wanted to do projects that make the world a better place. I sort of stumbled in on waste plastic, because first I found a mermaid and then I decided that ocean plastics would be the appropriate theme for a mermaid in order to tell a good story. So I learned a lot about ocean plastics during and after the project, but not so much before that. I think the sequence of events was a little bit different.’

What message do you want to convey with your work?

‘I want people to understand that ocean plastics is a huge problem and to encourage them to act and not just turn their head the other way. It’s very easy to pretend to be ignorant or to just not want to care, because the world has a lot of problems and it makes life complicated. But I hope it gets people to care a little bit more and bring the issue of plastic pollution a little bit closer to the top of people’s minds.’


‘Plastic Drain’ – Von Wong. Source

‘It’s very easy to pretend to be ignorant or to just not want to care, because the world has a lot of problems and it makes life complicated’

What audience are you hoping to reach?

‘I’m hoping to reach a new audience. I feel that my work is slightly different in that it doesn’t preach to the choir. Young people can look at it, anyone can look at it, and get the message so it doesn’t have to be a group that’s particularly environmentally focused and I think that’s what’s unique about my work.’

What’s your inspiration? Are you inspired by any artists in particular?

‘I don’t really have any particular inspirations for my style of work, it’s just what I’ve been doing and developing over time. I’m really inspired by people who are changing the world. People who are driving that conversation. I admire people like Leonardo DiCaprio who’s taking acting into the conservation sphere. I admire people like Al Gore who’ve dedicated their life through presidency to raise awareness about climate change and the issues affecting our planet. I respect people like Elon Musk who are billionaires who are trying to make the world a better place. Those are the type of people I look up to.’


Von Wong – Source

 Has working with plastics made you change your style?

‘I don’t really think so. The big difference after this project is that I’ve been getting a lot of requests for art installations, which is kind of new.’

We need to reduce our plastic consumption. Do you have any suggestions for changes we can make to our daily lives?

‘I think it’s all about starting small. Just buying a water bottle, like a canteen, and committing to bring it everywhere and refill it is a very simple way. Not using plastic bags and saying no to straws before you’re given one is really the key to getting started. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it takes little steps and as people commit to something they become more and more committed over time.’


Von Wong – Source

I think it’s all about starting small. Just buying a water bottle, like a canteen, and committing to bring it everywhere and refill it is a very simple way’

Do you have future plans for more work with a marine conservation message?

‘I would sure hope so. Nothing is locked in stone yet so I don’t really want to promise anything, but yes I do hope to do more marine conservation projects.’

How can people find your work?


Blog: 450 years

Twitter: thevonwong

Instagram: vonwong

YouTube: The Von Wong

Reasons To Be Cheerful #9

Ocean Optimism

Featuring plastic, policy, coke bottles and tuna tins, here’s a quick rundown of some great stuff that happened for the sea in February.

UN launches ‘Clean Seas’ to combat global marine plastic pollution

An exciting new UN campaign has just launched to tackle marine plastic on a global scale. The UN ‘Clean Seas’ programme is encouraging governments, industries and consumers to step up and tackle marine plastic pollution. The campaign is focusing on getting governments on board with making ocean-friendly policy changes, getting industries to clean up or reduce their packaging production and tackling the throwaway society mindset we often have as consumers. Computer giant Dell is taking action under the ‘Clean Seas’ campaign. Starting in April 2017, they’re going to be incorporating ocean plastics in with other plastics to make packaging trays for their laptops. There are already 10 countries signed up to the Clean Seas campaign, and they’re making big changes to the way they do all things plastic. Indonesia has pledged up to $1 billion per year to drastically cut down on marine plastic pollution. They’re aiming for a massive 70% reduction in marine waste in 8 years – a super ambitious target but a great one to have.

Delhi bans single-use plastic

The National Green Tribunal of India has banned single-use plastics in Delhi. This is huge news because it’s thought that India is one of the biggest marine plastic polluters in the world, and so creating a ban on wasteful single-use plastic in the area will help to stem the pollution pile-up. Often plastic ends up in landfill and is burnt, giving off harmful gases, so the less plastic that is discarded in Delhi in the future, the fewer gases will be released into the atmosphere causing air pollution. Prevention is better than cure in the case of marine plastic, and this move to ban highly wasteful and environmentally-damaging single-use plastics will hopefully be a real step forward in the mission to curb marine plastic to combat marine and air pollution.

Coca-Cola show the oceans some love

There’s great news from the drinks industry this month as Coca-Cola have said that they now support the idea of a well-managed Deposit Return Scheme for their drinks bottles. As such a huge name in the drinks world, and therefore a huge producer of single-use plastic, this change of heart by the company has the potential to have a really positive impact on the oceans. Deposit Return Schemes work on the basis that you pay a bit more when you buy a plastic bottle, but then if you return it to a designated place then you get that money back.  It’s hoped that it’ll increase the amount of bottles that are recycled and so reduce the amount of bottles that are littered, often ending up at sea.

 Let’s talk tuna

The Co-op have changed up their tuna sourcing policies, by raising the level of certification that they require for their own-brand pole and line sourced tuna. Their own-brand tuna now must come from either a Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery (a well-managed and sustainable one), or a fishery that is part of a fisheries improvement project (FIP) (one that doesn’t quite meet the targets, but is well on the way). What’s particularly great is that the Co-op are using this opportunity to widen their sourcing policies to encourage suppliers of tinned tuna to up their sustainability. Co-op have said that they will stock Princes and John West tuna in their stores, two brands who are known for being some of the least sustainable tuna suppliers, but only if their tuna is sourced from fisheries improvement projects before the end of 2017. So they’re incentivising the brands to up their game and take steps to ensure that their tuna fisheries are sustainable, which is good for business but even better for the tuna.

 Waitrose is also imposing sustainability deadlines on their suppliers, and making tuna-friendly policy changes to make sure that only pole and line caught, or MSC certified tuna is given shelf space by the end of 2017.

Reasons To Be Cheerful #8

Ocean Optimism

In a month where we all need a bit of optimism, here’s a quick round up of some good stuff that’s happening for the sea.

Air China refuses to carry shark fin cargo

Air China has taken a bold step and banned cargoes of shark fins on its services which is a huge step forward in combatting the shark fin trade that is decimating shark populations and driving some species to endangered status. As much of the fin cargo is transported by sea, this decision will not single-handedly curb the shark fin trade, but it’s such great news because this decision by a big company to put ethics and environment over business shows a change in China’s attitude to the health of the oceans.

Super fragile deep-sea ecosystems defended from fishing gear

A new conservation measure has been approved by the European Parliament this month that will protect deep sea ecosystems in the North-East Atlantic from trawling. Deep-sea ecosystems are often overlooked and they are so fragile that any damage caused by fishing gear can take hundreds of years to recover. So banning trawling in these very deep areas (deeper than 800m) that are delicate and largely unknown is a positive for the North-East Atlantic marine environment. Deep-sea species like monkfish, orange roughy and ling will be protected from longlines, gillnets and bottom trawlers. These species are particularly at risk because they are slow growing, so continual fishing pressure doesn’t give stocks a chance to recover before the next catch. The UK’s largest fishing association is onside with these developments too, saying they approve and are pleased to be able to maintain deep-sea biodiversity through these new regulations.

Protection for Mid-Atlantic deep-sea canyon creatures

Deep-sea corals in the US waters of the Mid-Atlantic are now safe from damage by trawling. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is the first of eight of these US Councils to use the power that they have to be able to cordon off areas of the deep sea to damaging fishing gear. A new zone has just been designated, called the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep-Sea Coral Protection Area and it’s 40,000 square miles of safe space for deep sea corals. It includes lots of undersea canyons, particularly deep and narrow sections of seafloor that harbour very fragile and rare species. The regulations and boundaries of this new zone were carefully considered by the stakeholders, and big discussions were held regarding the boundaries of the zone. This is great news as it shows that legislative powers held by Fishery Management Councils are being put to good use, and now it’s time for the others to take steps to protect the deep-sea in their areas too.

Where the whale sharks are…

An exciting drone project has been developed to help fill in gaps in our knowledge about whale shark movements. Whale sharks are particularly difficult to track because they dive very deep and migrate vast distances. So the development of the ‘Wave Glider’, a wave-powered drone that listens for signals from whale sharks that are tagged with an acoustic tag and then communicates information about their location back to land, is great news. The study found whale sharks in places where they weren’t expected to be at that time of year, which shows that this tool will be able to teach us a lot about their movements. These drones can power themselves using solar power and can be left alone to do their thing for a year, making them a really important tool. They can gather more location data in real-time than a team of research vessel-based scientists, and the acoustic trackers can track the whale sharks when they dive deep, which is useful because satellite signals sometimes drop out when the animal dives below a certain depth. So hopefully in the coming years we’ll know more about what whale sharks do all year and where they go, and this will help us to protect them. If we know their breeding grounds and places where they regularly visit, then we can focus the designation of Marine Protected Areas on this places. More information = better planning = more effective protection = happier sharks.


Step up for the sea in 2017

Step Up For The Sea

We all know that ‘New Year’s resolutions’ don’t always last, so why not step up for the sea and think of these as lifestyle changes for the oceans instead. They’re just ideas and you don’t have to adopt them all, but remember that all the little things add up.

Tackle our plastic overload

  • Say no to straws.
  • Don’t buy plastic bags.
  • Go plastic free.

Awesome map of ways to cut down on plastic use in daily life. Source. 

Spread the word

  • Tell more people about ocean issues and start conversations. Talk to people, post photos, share stories and watch films.
  • Sign petitions for issues you care about, it really can help.

Distance yourself from the ugly side of the beauty industry

  • Check your skincare/beauty products for microbeads and stop using those that do. You can check here.
  • Switch from disposable face wipes to cotton flannels. Read why here.

Great illustration of the links between us and microplastics in the sea. Source – Beat the Microbead


Don’t fall for convenience

  • Don’t buy overpackaged stuff, especially food.
  • Bring your own takeaway cup to coffee shops, it’s cheaper too.
  • Don’t get takeaway lids.

Nope. Source

Change your diet for the sea

  • Choose sustainable fish. Get the Good Fish Guide app and always check that your choice is sustainable before you buy.
  • Eat less meat and fish.
  • Try out the veggie/vegan life.

The totally invaluable Good Fish Guide – download the app here

Reasons to be cheerful #7

Ocean Optimism

President Obama bans oil and gas drilling in Arctic, indefinitely

President Obama has permanently banned drilling for oil and gas in the majority of US Arctic waters, and is preventing future leasing.  Importantly, he has taken steps to prevent the undoing of this new ocean protection legacy that he will leave behind him in the new year. This designation is said to be permanent, so it won’t need reviewing every few years, and could be difficult to roll back by the next President due to the use of a law from 1953, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which means that this ban can be in operation indefinitely. What’s also great is that Canada has announced a similar ban in conjunction with this one. Prime Minister Trudeau has also banned the allocation of oil and gas drilling licences in Canadian Arctic waters, and this will be reviewed every 5 years. These announcements mean that fragile Arctic marine ecosystems and communities who live in these regions will be protected from the risk of damage by oil spills. Species in the Arctic often exist at the edge of their physical capabilities, which makes them really vulnerable to the impacts of human activities. Such a large scale ban in this area will offer protection to a large portion of fragile ecosystem, and the legal basis used by the Obama administration will hopefully prevent the undoing of this great step forward in the near future.


Supermarkets agree to ‘Switch The Stick’

Loads of leading UK supermarkets and health and beauty retailers have pledged to ‘switch the stick’ and stop selling cotton buds with plastic stems and switch to rolled paper stems instead. Thanks to a campaign by switchthestick.org, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Boots and Superdrug have all agreed that their own brand cotton buds will be plastic free by the end of 2017. This is brilliant news for the sea because plastic cotton bud stems are one of the major polluters of coastlines (23.7 of these plastic cotton buds were found on average every 100 METRES during the Great British Beach Clean 2016).  They’re often flushed down the loo and, as a result, can find their way into the oceans. Once they’re in the sea they are near impossible to remove, and become only more difficult over time as they break down into smaller plastic fragments and eventually microplastics that cause a whole load of other problems. So phasing out plastic from this very common product is a real step forward and will help to cut down on plastic sewage related debris in the oceans.


More than 5% of global ocean now protected

2016 was an exceptional year in terms of the designation of new Marine Protected Areas. At the beginning of the December, the percentage of the global ocean that is now designated as any form of MPA hit 5%. This is massive news, and shows a growing global commitment to the health of the oceans. It’s been calculated that 3.6 million square kilometres of ocean have been designated since April, which is pretty staggering, and means that finally the global percentages of protected waters are creeping up. Most of this was in the form of 5 Very Large Marine Protected Areas (VLMPAs).  It’s so great that the MPA coverage percentages are increasing, and at the rate that they are too, but it’s important to remember that designating them alone is not enough – they need to be effectively managed and monitored so that they actually do the job on the ground (water) that they were designated for. Drawing a line on a map won’t automatically mean that an area in real life suddenly becomes well managed and pressures on the marine environment are removed or balanced out. We need to have effective management plans in action for each of these areas to make sure that the impact of this wave of MPA designation that has happened in 2016 is maximised. These new designations form a basis that we can now work to protect effectively, and offer real positivity in marine conservation for the start of 2017.


 The MPA wave keeps on going

The fact that new MPA designations keep featuring in each of these monthly positive rundowns is reason to be cheerful in itself. Here are a few more designations that have been announced in December that are helping the global coverage percentage creep up:

  • Four new MPAs have been designated in Mexican waters – tripling the amount of existing areas and taking the total to 91 million hectares.
  • The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area protects 112,300 square kilometres of the Bering Sea, which is a hugely rich, complex and fragile marine environment. It’s depended upon by ‘40 tribes of coastal Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples’, and this designation will help protect these communities and ecosystems from encroachment by activities such oil and gas exploration and shipping, that combined with the impacts of climate change, are threatening livelihoods in the area.
  • There are now four new Marine Conservation Zones in Northern Ireland that will contribute to creating an ‘ecologically coherent network’ of these MCZs across the UK. These new designations will offer protection to fragile seagrass systems, sections of deep sea, a submerged coastline (which proves global sea level change), the ocean quahog (a kind of edible clam) and sea pens. Find out more about where they are


 Chasing down ghost nets to help threatened vaquita

A tiny population of very small porpoises, vaquita, in the Gulf of California are getting the help that they need. They’re threatened by ghost nets, that is, fishing nets that are dumped at sea or otherwise become detached from fishing vessels and continue to drift around, unmanned, catching anything in their path. They currently pose a large risk in the Gulf of California to vaquita, the ‘world’s most rare marine mammal’ as there are fewer than 60 individuals left and they all live in the same place. The good news is that the threat is decreasing because large areas of the Gulf of California are being trawled by Mexican authorities and scientists to remove as many of these nets as possible from the area. So far they have removed 103 nets, and have been using drones and navy ships to deter the illegal release of nets in the area.


Marine reserves help boost hawksbill sea turtle numbers

A healthy juvenile population of an endangered species of sea turtle has been discovered on Glover’s Reef Atoll in Belize which falls inside the Glovers Reef Marine Reserve. This is positive news for the highly endangered hawksbill sea turtles, as there is concern that their population size is falling, therefore discovering a group of young individuals offers hope for the future. This group of juveniles is likely to have appeared due to the protected waters status of the reef, which offers a safe space for species to develop away from human activity. Hopefully, this indicates that more effectively managed marine reserves will help the recovery of more species that are under pressure.