In November, Conservation X Labs, a technology firm focused on conservation’s grand challenges, in collaboration with SecondMuse and the World Wildlife Fund, hosted the inaugural Oceans Conservation ‘Big Think’ at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography.
At the ‘Big Think’, reporter Maya Trabulsi interviewed Carter Roberts, President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund. He says it’s important to bring together the private sector, civil society, academia, and government to find solutions concerning ocean conservation.
What are the most important challenges being addressed today, and what will it take to solve them?
The ones that strike me as being fundamental are the ones that combine the issue of food with the issue of the oceans and conservation, and that rely on both the private sector and governments to come together and create the enabling conditions to tip things in the right direction. That includes aquaculture, an increasing source of food in the world. It relies heavily on wild fisheries providing food through aquaculture — which is only getting bigger year, after year, after year. So, if we can get aquaculture right, through technology and governance, then it will go a long way toward lessening its footprint on the ocean.
The other one is transparency and traceability. The US and the EU have passed new regulations that will essentially take steps to close our market to fish that have been illegally caught. The question is how do you bring that to life? How do you track vessels, how do you track fishing? How do you know where each and every fish came from so we can all make decisions based on that? And that one, which brings together all the key players, is all about food, and believe me, when you look at the population growing to nine billion people in the context of a finite planet, the thing that is going to wreck our planet is the inefficient and unsustainable sourcing of food.
What technology is out there, or on the horizon, that will allow us to monitor where seafood comes from?
A number of NGOs, including WWF, have pioneered partnerships with the private sector to place transponders on boats and to be able to monitor how shipping vessels move around and how they behave. The ability to feed that information back to authorities gives us a window into who is catching what and where they are fishing.
WWF has worked with a number of industry leaders in the field of aquaculture to pioneer certification standards that look at inputs and outputs, and how the biggest companies in the world can make commitments to those standards. If we track those commitments we can see how the market is moving and, ideally, tip the markets toward sustainable production.
What would be the marker for success?
In the case of certification standards, it would be getting to 100 percent certified sources of farmed salmon or other aquaculture species.
Today, we’re not dreaming of partial solutions, we’re not dreaming of marginal progress; what we’re dreaming of are solutions that get to 100 percent of the problem. And even if we only get 60 percent of the way there, it will make a much bigger difference than nailing a five percent solution.
What is an example of a non-scientific proxy for ocean health?
I think all of our proxies should be science-based in order to have any kind of credibility. I think what we need are credible, science-based measures that aren’t too complicated, that are easily replicable, and that the world can use, much in the way that 160 countries came together on Sept. 25 and put into place these new sustainable development goals for the planet. When you look at the list of sustainable development goals, they’re each measurable, they each rely on global measures that are science-based, and when you look at the set of sustainable development goals, they reflect the degree to which we rely on a healthy planet. Half the goals are about the planet, because if we lose the planet, we’re sunk.
And the ocean, as the majority of the planet, has a huge role to play in whether or not our children and our grandchildren inherit a world that is livable, that can sustain their families – whether that means their jobs, the food they eat, or their ability to survive. That’s what this is all about. It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about securing the conditions under which we can thrive.
The Big Think is a high level meeting to re-imagine how to address the challenges threatening our oceans and the people who surround them, while meeting the demands of the next generation. This was the first step in a new initiative designed to generate novel innovations to address complex conservation challenges in the oceans through revolutionary advances rather than evolutionary ones. The Blue Economy Aquaculture Challenge that is led by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Conservation X Labs, and SecondMuse.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Photos by Alex Dehgan of Conservation X Labs.