Meet the young ocean advocates aiming to change marine conservation for the better

Feeling excluded from traditional routes of marine protection, a new wave of young activists with an entrepreneurial spirit are going it alone and taking the future of the oceans into their own hands

“I never saw myself as a conservationist or an activist, or any of those things really,” confesses Lou Ruddell, founder of shark conservation group Fin Fighters. Despite her passion for sharks, she never wanted to emulate other conservation organisations. “It’s all about inspiring positivity and working with people in a way that is fun. And I think that’s where conservation has kind of been stalling for a really long time, because it’s not been about inspiring people to do something.”

Focused on collaboration, action-oriented and positive, Ruddell, 31, is characteristic of the new breed of young marine conservation activists who are breaking with tradition and pioneering fresh approaches to ocean protection.

The history of marine conservation is a relatively short one. While fisheries have been managed internationally for several centuries, the historical driver for this regulation was to sustain commercial fish stocks. If there were any benefits to wider ocean biodiversity, that was purely incidental.

Only in the 1970s, with the birth of the modern environmental movement, did marine conservation emerge as a discipline in its own right. This new branch of conservation science took a more holistic view of marine biodiversity, allowing room for interdisciplinary approaches to the multi-faceted problems affecting the oceans. But marine conservation has remained relatively unchanged since, with the majority of its practitioners still biological scientists and much of the funding still grant-based.

“My hope is for marine conservation to be part of our culture and for us to understand that everything is connected.”

Now, the tide is turning. The millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, have arrived, and they’re enthusiastic about changing the planet for the better. Strong traits in millennials have been shown to include independent-mindedness, innovative thinking, adaptability and being motivated by purpose. In the marine world, this is perhaps no better personified than by Boyan Slat, the 19-year-old Dutch student who invented The Ocean Cleanup, a device that extracts plastic pollution from the ocean. In 2014, Slat was crowned one of the Champions of the Earth, the UN’s highest environmental accolade.

But is the marine conservation world ready to embrace these young change-makers?

In early 2014, 21-year-old student Daniela Fernandez was asked to represent Georgetown University at a meeting of the UN, where she heard a speech about the state of the oceans. Alarmed not only by the severity of the crisis but also by her lack of awareness, Fernandez took a look at the rest of the audience. “As I looked around the room, I was one of the only students or young people. Which was a huge problem, because I felt like my generation was not getting this information [about the ocean]. The information, the facts, the statistics, were all being preached to the same group of people,” she says.

This experience prompted Fernandez to set up the Georgetown Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA). In April this year the group hosted a summit that attracted not only some very experienced high level speakers, but also over 1,000 young people from across the US. Many of the attendees have subsequently formed chapters of the SOA at their own universities. For Fernandez, this success was a validation of her concerns: “All along, it wasn’t because millennials weren’t interested in the problem, or that they don’t care, it’s because they don’t have the opportunity to be involved,” she says.

Mariasole Bianco, 30, is co-chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas Young Professionals Marine Taskforce. She believes that young people are often overlooked, which leads to them developing new approaches: “There is just one door closing after the other. But this also has a positive result, because from this frustration, and the fact that we can’t find a place in the conservation community, many people start their own organisations to make a difference in their communities.”

Skipper and ocean advocate Emily Penn, 28, agrees that this self-starter approach is vital, but that it “traditionally doesn’t necessarily exist in ocean conservation”. Despite a list of achievements that would put many older environmentalists to shame, she counts developing the conservation sailing organisation Pangea Explorations into a financially sustainable entity as probably the biggest accomplishment of her career.

As for what else separates millennials from previous generations, Penn cites access to technology and opportunity: “The world we live in now is so different from our parents’ generation and our ability to connect and communicate with one another, and the power that this gives us…is hugely significant,” she says.

Communication skills have been key to the success of non-profit campaigning organisation Save Philippine Seas, according to co-founder and ‘chief Mermaid’ Anna Oposa, 27. Trained as a musical theatre performer, she believes that her background has given her an advantage: “When you’re a scientist you’re taught to do things a certain way. But for me, I have been using my heart. I’m not scared to fail I guess, and I’m not scared of rejection,” she says.

In common with other young ocean activists, Oposa is motivated by a desire to see everyone engaged with marine conservation: “My hope is for marine conservation not to be extraordinary, and for it to be part of our culture, and for us to understand that everything is connected,” she says.

“Even if you live in the city, even if you live in a very urban jungle, it doesn’t mean that you’re not part of the sea.”

This spirit of collective endeavour is how many young people believe conservation groups should be working, as Ruddell explains: “The future of conservation is about smaller groups, working collectively and together. Because you’ve got more strength that way,” she says.

As for the future of the seas themselves, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the threats that our oceans are facing. But many young marine conservationists are optimistic about what they can achieve. For Penn, the huge challenges that her generation faces are also the source of her motivation.

“We’re so lucky,” she says. “We get to solve the biggest problem, we get to change the world. We get to make the biggest difference that our species has ever had the opportunity to make.”