Can ocean conservation be financially sustainable?

Simon Cripps of the Wildlife Conservation Society argues for better ways to protect the seas

author icon By Ryan Swift | 4 February 2021

Local fishermen in Tanzania; Photo courtesy WCS

Sustainability has two meanings for Simon Cripps, the executive director for marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. The first is the need to be environmentally sustainable – catching less, burning less, throwing away less. The second is the need for conservation projects themselves to be sustainable. The question is: how do you make ocean conservation pay for itself?

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is one of the world’s biggest conservation organisations you’ve likely never heard of. Cripps says that WCS has a turnover of about US$300 million and a staff of 4000, working across 40 countries and with marine conservation programmes in 26 countries. WCS has ocean conservation programmes in sharks and rays; cetaceans, coral reefs, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and small-scale fishing.

Yet funding for ocean conservation remains the critical issue. “Private philanthropy is stepping up, but there’s not enough of it yet. Governments are putting in way too little,” Cripps says.

A 2016 report by Our Shared Seas, which monitors philanthropy towards marine conservation, estimated that US$620 million had been donated to ocean protection that year. Swiss banking giant UBS gave a limited assessment of global philanthropic spending in 2017 at over US$150 billion – the actual figure likely being much higher. Meanwhile, the overall ocean economy – including all the industries that use the ocean, from cruise ships to ports – is worth over US$1.8 trillion annually.

A 2016 report by Our Shared Seas … estimated that US$620 million had been donated to ocean protection that year … Meanwhile, the overall ocean economy – including all the industries that use the ocean, from cruise ships to ports – is worth over US$1.8 trillion annually

The money and resources that are being earned from the ocean by everyone from major corporations to subsistence fishermen is simply not going back in.

Fishing in Fiji; Photo courtesy Emily Darling and WCS

“Government and industry have just always assumed that (ocean) resources are free; like any business, you have to invest in your resources,” Cripps says. “Companies put money into R&D and new products, but ocean-based companies are not putting money into the marine environment.”

Marine protected areas, one of the key tools in preserving the oceans, require money for rangers to patrol and manage their sites, for example. Otherwise, they are just “paper parks”.

Making local fishermen the stewards of their own seas is not a new idea, of course. Cripps points to small-scale fishermen in the Pacific Islands who have been aware for millennia of the need for preserving fishing grounds. The problem, he says, is that we don’t have that kind of mindset yet, where the fishing industry would focus more on letting fish populations thrive rather than finding new ways to scour the sea.

That said, Cripps says it takes a long time to build the local trust required to make conservation programmes work. “There’s no parachuting in and telling people what to do.”

He notes that owners of fishing fleets need to know the value of investing in fish stocks, rather than new fishing boats, and be encouraged to think about conservation as a business proposition.

Cripps is hopeful that new investment by major philanthropists will help, citing Mike Bloomberg, who has put “considerable” money into coral reef conservation in Fiji, Indonesia and East Africa through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ marine conservation program, the Vibrant Oceans Initiative. WCS recently secured funding from the Oak Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to hire one of the world’s top experts on small-scale fisheries.

Cripps is hopeful that new investment by major philanthropists will help, citing Mike Bloomberg, who has put “considerable” money into coral reef conservation in Fiji, Indonesia and East Africa through Bloomberg Philanthropies

The aim is to help local fishermen keep more of the money they make from their catches and pay less to an army of middlemen, thus giving a stronger incentive for them to conserve their fishing grounds. “It is cutting edge conservation work,” Cripps says. He notes that as much as half of all fishing is still small scale, subsistence level work.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation was the world’s biggest funder of ocean conservation from 2010 to 2016, according to Our Shared Seas.

Making sure that ocean conservation projects fund themselves is key. Cripps says that major funding organisations are looking for ways to create self-sustaining programmes that require some initial funding and can then run on their own. Such ideas as private/public partnerships, Blue Bonds and Debt for Nature Swaps, in which conservation organisations help indebted coastal nations restructure their finances in exchange for more protection by those nations, offer new hope.

“I think it’s now all about the innovations that happen on the finance side,” Cripps says of the future of ocean funding. Cripps wants to establish ocean conservation programmes that fund themselves after initial start-up money, so that conservationists and philanthropists can move on to other issues and locations.

“Financing … needs to go into setting up more funding, otherwise we will be forever asking for money. We can’t run a planet like that.”

Public attention helps, and Cripps is happy to have it.

“I once moaned about the lack of attention on ocean conservation to (Sir) David Attenborough for 30 minutes” – Simon Cripps

Simon Cripps, executive director for marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society

“I once moaned about the lack of attention on ocean conservation to (Sir) David Attenborough for 30 minutes,” says Cripps, who praises the Blue Planet TV series, which later appeared on the BBC and raised awareness of the need for ocean protection.

But there’s no replacing the sight of a whale shark while scuba diving with the mere visual of a whale shark on TV. For that, Cripps is supportive of involving the yachting community in ocean conservation, noting that global yacht brand Sunseeker is located close to his office. Some of the world’s biggest private funders of ocean conservation work are also superyacht owners.

With some innovative solutions, ocean conservation may at last have its moment in the sun. But as overfishing continues and ocean species dwindle, time is rapidly running out.