With Ocean Ecosystems Facing "Total Annihilation," Where Should Funders Be Focused?

When tracking oceans philanthropy, it’s easy to be blown away by the volume of private wealth at play coming from some of the largest foundations in the world. That’s especially the case when living donors like Mike Bloomberg, Paul Allen and newcomers like the Benioffs are routinely arriving to the cause. 

But at the same time, it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our oceans, encompassing many crises of varying degrees that span the majority of the planet’s surface. 

In response to the increasing number of funders involved, and the urgency of the threats, the Packard Foundation just released a report intended to serve as a guide to the major issues and trends. For Packard, three issues stand out in the report: Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU fishing); the implications of climate change; and the need to fill glaring gaps in our understanding of marine environmental issues. 


But Our Shared Seas covers several other issues and strategies, too, and Packard commissioned California Environmental Associates to create the report as an accessible entry point to the many corners of the field. It’s part of a recent push by the foundation to bring more transparency to ocean philanthropy, and to improve sharing of information between those involved, according to Meg Caldwell, deputy director of oceans for the foundation. 

“In the ocean community, we know there is no shortage of threats facing the marine environment, and given the urgency of the situation, we really wanted to provide an easy-to-use resource,” Caldwell told Inside Philanthropy. The report comes on the heels of another Packard-backed project, FundingTheOcean.org, an online resource with similar goals. 

“The basic idea behind the guide is to make better, faster, more informed decisions,” Caldwell said.

One portion of the guide outlines the current landscape of giving and notable trends in philanthropy and development aid. For example, between 2010 and 2015, philanthropy contributed about $1.9 billion to ocean issues, steadily climbing from $252 million in 2010 to almost $400 million in 2015.

“We view that as positive, and I think in the context of the report, it’s clear that we need all the help we can get,” said Matthew Elliott, principal from California Environmental Associates.

But most of the guide serves as a crash course in the most pressing, and depressing, problems in marine conservation. It offers collected and visualized data, as well as perspective pieces from experts, ranging from marine researchers to specialists with the World Bank. These interludes provide some of the highlights of the report, offering frank assessments of what’s ahead and what needs to be done. 

“In my opinion, this an ‘all hands on deck’ moment,” writes Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the Global Change Institute, who makes a passionate argument for private and public funders, NGOs, governments and scientists to take strong, collective action in the face of climate change. 

“Solving the problems that face coral reefs and many other essential ecosystems is entirely achievable, but we must approach the problem strategically, immediately, and at a global scale.… No doubt many will think this type of thinking is ambitious and unrealistic. But faced with the total annihilation of many of the world’s ocean ecosystems, do we have any choice?”

It should come as no surprise that one of the main topics highlighted is climate change. The report stresses the importance of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement several times, although the release was sadly, perfectly timed to the decision of the president to withdraw from it. 

Not mincing words, it states, “The fundamental chemistry of the ocean is changing at a rate that is unprecedented in human history.” That means ocean acidification, reduced oxygen levels and rapid loss of coral reefs and overall biodiversity. It also derails efforts to manage fisheries and conservation strategies.

“It raises the question of what is the role of oceans conservation, oceans philanthropy in engaging in that broader effort,” Elliott said.

It can be hard to tell where, exactly, ocean funding ends and climate funding begins, but it’s not a given that a marine conservation funder will also be engaged in climate change work. While the Packard and Oak foundations have both ocean and climate programs, other massive funders like the Walton Family Foundation rarely broach the latter.

Protecting fisheries, which has been a big draw for philanthropists, is another alarming issue highlighted in the report. Illegal fishing now accounts for as much as 53 percent of the reported catch. The guide points out that most fisheries are fully fished or overfished today, many to the point of collapse. We’ve written before that more funders are engaged in fisheries, and new technology and finance tools, as well as potential economic benefits, are attracting a lot of interest. 

Related: The Many Foundations and Billionaires Trying to Fix the World’s Fisheries

The third key takeaway Packard cites is the extent of what we don’t know about the science of marine issues, and the need to better integrate and coordinate our knowledge. Specifically, with so many interacting threats, we need to invest in research to improve our understanding of how they interact. 

“One area where I know we have fallen short is really understanding the synergistic impacts of multiple stressors, and how to unpack that, how to understand those impacts in combination,” Caldwell said. 

But again, there’s no shortage of guidance in "Our Shared Seas" on a wide variety of needs, from creating MPAs to curbing marine debris. Packard plans to update the report every couple of years, so it’s an analysis that we’ll certainly keep coming back to.