Written and Spoken Words During Earth Month 2024

Speaking at Our Ocean

A few months ago, a colleague put me in contact with the editor of Smithsonian's Native American magazine.  She asked me to write something about my Chamorro culture and how that relates to ocean conservation and my career.

I wanted to tell the story about how everyday Indigenous lessons learned growing up on an island developed my sense of values and ethics.  My first draft was just over 1,000 words, then the editor had me fill in more of the story, growing it to 2,000 words.  Then she told me I had to slash it back down to 1,000.  The result was Dreaming of a Protected Ocean.  There's a longer version of this I'd like to write one day.

I also wrote an article for the annual Our Ocean conference taking place in Greece this year.  Now Is the Time to Secure President Biden's Ocean Leadership Legacy calls on the Biden administration to do the same things I also called on them to do in 2022 and 2023.

I will freely admit that the Our Ocean conference is my least favorite ocean conference.  The conference is incredibly important for building the global movement, getting the buy in at the highest level of governments, and opening up the pocketbooks of wealthy philanthropists.  By design, the conference is exclusive and hierarchical, building the prestige of the event and attracting big names from across the world.  And so by design, it is the antithesis of the ocean justice movement that has grown since the murder of George Floyd in 2020.  I find the whole affair scripted, insincere, and joyless.

So nobody was more surprised than me when I was invited to speak on the same plenary stage as John Kerry, National Geographic scientist Enric Sala, billionaire Dona Bertarelli, and high level government officials from Spain, France, and Papua New Guinea.  The title of our panel was Effective Management of Marine Protected Areas.  I answered the question, What Are We Not Talking About in Ocean Conservation?

In my talk I referenced It Will Take 880 Years to Achieve UN Ocean Goals.  I stumbled upon this stat while preparing my written remarks.  I noticed that the globe had only protected 0.1% of the ocean since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and drawing a trendline out based on that progress, it would take nearly a millennium to achieve our 2030 ocean targets.  I wrote this essay the Friday morning before the conference, and sent it to three editors in the afternoon.  It published on Monday morning.

A lot of my work right now is built around the need to go "Beyond 30x30," the idea that conservation area targets are not enough to achieve ocean protections.  Beyond acres protected, we also have to consider things such as access, equity & justice, and quality.  

The Biden administration committed to 30x30 early in the first term.  Many years of work and advocacy has gone into assessing "what counts," but it was always a foregone conclusion that the Biden administration was going to claim we've achieved this target on the ocean.  In How Much of the US Ocean Is Protected? It Depends Who You Ask, my colleagues and I explain that with the strongest definition of "protected," the US has reached 26%, but fishing aligned interests have advocated for 72%.  While NGOs and some scientists remain adamant that only the highest levels of protections should count, politically speaking, landing somewhere in the low 30s comes off as reasonable -- nevermind that 99.5% of the marine reserves are in the US Pacific Islands and that half the coverage lacks final management plans.

Lo and behold, the Biden administration did just that.  5 Early Takeaways from the Biden Administration's Conservation Atlas tries to unpack this announcement and the release of the long-awaited American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas.  We argue that there's reason to celebrate, more work needs to be done, and that nature's value is not measured in acres alone.

During Earth Week, NPR also rebroadcast an interview I gave way back in January.  Preserving Biodiversity Around the World talks about international efforts to protect threatened and endangered species.  I had a few people reach out to say I sounded great on NPR -- and at first I had no idea what they were talking about!

I also appeared on The Green 2.0 Movement podcast to talk about Ocean Justice in Action.

I also popped up in a pair of blogs whose writers cited things I've said or done.  WWF's Jeff Opperman credited me with inspiring his new album:

I stumbled across a “musical abstract,” a whimsical and delightful music video featuring Angelo Villagomez playing the ukulele and singing about his report on Marine Protected Areas. And I thought, “Our report — no, all reports — should have a musical abstract.”

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center director Anson "Tuck" Hines included me in his newsletter:

“We have to fix the ‘who’ of conservation. And when we bring more people in the room, it’s going to change the ‘how.’”

This January, I heard those words while at the Smithsonian and NOAA’s Summit on Ocean Biodiversity. A man named Angelo Villagomez had the floor, addressing a crowd of roughly a hundred scientists, policymakers, community leaders and entrepreneurs. A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Villagomez is also a member of the Chamorro people from the Mariana Islands.

I write all of these articles in the hopes that you'll read them, and I give these speeches because I hope that you'll listen to them.  I'm very lucky to have an employer who encourages me to write and who gives me the freedom to develop what I consider to be Indigenous approaches to ocean conservation.  I know that sometimes I make people uncomfortable and it's not meant to be criticism.  I always try to propose solutions if I criticize something, and recognize that I don't always get it right on the first try.  If you've read this far, thank you for paying attention to me.

And just to finish, I spent a lot of time with my friend Sheila Babauta this month, as we both participated in the America the Beautiful fly-in at the end of March and the Our Ocean conference in Greece.  We discussed writing something together about this shared experience, but we haven't put pen to paper yet.  Maybe we'll get to it in May.


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