A conversation with Oceana: huge opportunities to restore ocean abundance

It’s easy to be pessimistic when considering the problems plaguing our environment, and more specifically, our oceans. Plastic waste is invading habitats, threatening oceanic wildlife; pollution is turning parts of the world’s seas into lifeless landscapes; and overfishing and destructive fishing are depleting and destroying the ocean.

Amazingly enough, meeting with Oceana and talking to CEO Andy Sharpless can easily turn this pessimism around. He calls from Washington to join in on our conversation with Pascale Moehrle at Adessium’s office. “Ocean conservation is a much more practical matter than people think it is, and we can solve it more easily than people think. It is a problem occurring on a global scale, but can easily be broken down into smaller pieces that we can make real progress on, and this is a huge opportunity,” he says.


Even though Andy’s been with Oceana for seventeen years now, when he first started out, he didn’t know anything about sea life or oceanic diversity. “I was concerned like anybody else. I liked the sea, I liked going to the beach, I had happy memories of the ocean. And of course, what I read in the newspapers worried me, but I was not overly involved.”

What really made him fall in love with the oceans was the realization that the benefits of ocean conservation are much greater than people understand. Rebuilding ocean abundance helps feed people, protect biodiversity, fight pollution around the world, and even benefit people’s health. “And you can do all these things at the same time. Now there’s an opportunity!

”Our practical approach to a global problem is very exciting for me.”

The other person in this conversation, Pascale Moehrle, is the new kid on the block, despite her 30 years of experience in nature conservation at WWF. Just like Andy, she didn’t start out in oceanic work either. “At the time, I didn’t care much whether it involved land, oceans, bodies of freshwater or whatever; all I cared about was that we were trying to do something that could only be better for the planet and people. That was my driver.”

She finds the focused concern of Oceana very rewarding. “To be able to step out of that huge complexity and focus on one theme and only that one theme was very refreshing to me.” Pascale also appreciates Oceana’s accountability. “This applies internally and externally to our organization. We are constantly pushed to make sure that we are where we need to be with our campaigns. Our practical approach to a global problem is very exciting for me.”

High Risk, High Reward

The most rewarding experience, especially in the partnership with Adessium, has been setting up the Global Fishing Watch. This global fishing vessel tracking system has been made possible by the availability of data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and is used by more than a 100,000 vessels worldwide. By analyzing this data to identify behavior consistent with fishing, government agencies are held accountable for their fishery management practices.

This project is the result of a perfect confluence of technology and policy, which leads to much greater transparency on the activities of the world’s fishing industry.

People all over the world can access the information they need to put pressure on their governments to improve fisheries management and enforce fishing laws. This project is the result of a perfect confluence of technology and policy, which leads to much greater transparency on the activities of the world’s fishing industry. “If the history of the oceans is told one day, probably as soon as five or ten years from now, people will definitely be shocked that there was ever a world where big commercial vessels were able to fish in secret and were not held accountable in real time, weren’t transparent about their activities and the types of species they were fishing.”

For Oceana, this is the perfect illustration of what to look for if you want to effect social change: the moments when technological progress coincides with a political willingness to address social or environmental problems. Andy explains: “The idea that fishing should be made more transparent was a strong concept, but it required policy action. And policymakers would not make a move until they saw a proof of concept of how transparency could come about. Thanks to the use of transponders, satellite technology and computing power, we could deliver that proof.” This positive virtuous cycle between policy and technology then becomes generally transformative. “We already have 80,000 vessels tracked. We see countries taking action and policy space to follow.”

Another area of work that Adessium has funded was influencing the World Trade Organization’s stance on harmful fishery subsidies. When global fishery negotiations at the WTO broke down, this was viewed as a failed endeavor. However, it actually proved to not be a failure at all. It had an indirect result; apart from the WTO, there are now two other agreements in force. The twelve countries covered in these agreements fish about 35 percent of the world’s global catch and they are now subject to limits on their subsidies for their fishing industries. These treaties were made possible thanks to the solid foundation of the work being done with the WTO. As Andy puts it, “We were only able to achieve a victory on reducing harmful subsidies because of the campaign we ran with the WTO.” This is a good example of the ‘high risk, high reward’ programs that Oceana runs. In the end, it did lead to a high reward.

Plastic pollution

The next big challenge involved the plastic pollution in oceans. There are already thousands of groups fighting to solve this problem so how can Oceana make a fundamental difference? Andy: “Second only to the fossil fuel industry, plastics is the most powerfully destructive industry we have ever taken on. It is a fight against an industry that chooses to use plastic in a way it was not originally intended: to make single-use packages out of material that lasts forever, instead of using paper, glass, cardboards or textile. Plastic packaging is meant to be used once and then thrown away. This is a flawed design.

”Europeans flock to the Mediterranean on their summer vacation and don’t want to see the beaches littered with plastic waste.”

Plastic pollution has changed the public’s perception of the oceans in recent years. Pascale: “I see people connecting to the ocean because of the plastic problem. This is a real wake-up call for people; it affects everyone. I think this helped sound the alarm in a big way. Europeans flock to the Mediterranean on their summer vacation and don’t want to see the beaches littered with plastic waste.” This impacts tourism, so there’s an economic incentive to tackle this problem, which in turn influences policy. Oceana is working with Denmark and Spain to turn European directives on reducing plastic waste into national policy.

Donor relations

Andy and Pascale’s slowly growing involvement with oceanic work over the course of their careers is a reflection of Adessium’s own commitment. “We were a young foundation at the time,” says Rogier, “and when Oceana showed how practical solutions could work, it proved its expertise as an organization on the subject. For us, it was an easy way to get involved with the issue and follow your recommendations. You became a strategic partner.”

Andy appreciates Adessium’s commitment. “It was a marker, or proof, when Adessium expressed its interest in working with us. It meant that we weren’t deluding ourselves. Adessium had a smart directness: let’s get to the heart of the issues. We were able to have calm, friendly discussions about difficult topics. I guess your very open but straightforward, business-like nature is probably rooted in Dutchness.”

It was great to talk to Pascale and Andy about the importance of ocean conservation. Andy ends the call to start his working day, while for us it’s almost the end of ours. We compensate for our lack of an ocean by going to get some fresh air on the North Sea coast, braving the elements and the strong wind.

About this partner

Oceana is dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans on a global scale. Founded in 2001, it is the largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation. Offices around the world work together to set up strategic, directed campaigns to make our oceans more biodiverse and abundant.

Andy Sharpless has led Oceana Global since 2003 as its Chief Executive Officer. He calls from Washington to join our conversation here in the Netherlands. Pascale Moehrle is Executive Director and Vice President of Oceana Europe. She started at Oceana in 2019, after having worked for WWF for over 30 years.

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