Why I'm feeling ocean optimism this World Oceans Day

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Dr Matthew Gollock, ZSL's Marine and Freshwater Programme Manager

As someone who works in the field of marine conservation, the reality is that every day is World Oceans Day, and sometimes the day to day battle with emails and deadlines can mean you lose sight of the amazing things that are being done to protect the seas around us. 

So today is an excellent opportunity to allow ourselves some ocean optimism, and take stock of the achievements that ZSL, along with other organisations and communities round the world, have accomplished for marine species and habitats.

Larger. And larger still.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Chagos Marine Reserve; at 640,000 km2, the world’s largest marine reserve. It’s vital we keep pushing for large areas of the ocean to be fully protected from exploitation, such as fishing and mining. Large reserves such as these allow entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, to recover and function free from the pressures of mankind.

ZSL played a key role in advocating the creation of the reserve and I still remember the day the announcement was made (1 April 2010), with rumours flying around on email and phone between colleagues and a palpable sense of excitement and terror in the office. 


Once the news broke, I also remember hurriedly creating a power-point presentation on the London Underground to give at my friend’s party as I was arriving terribly late due to the celebrations running on. I’m not sure anyone was that thrilled about me giving a lecture at a party but they all still remember where Chagos is and how important it is.

Whale Shark
Whale shark in the waters of Chagos

Working with others on pioneering research expeditions, we’ve greatly increased our understanding of the biodiversity within the reserve and also how best to conserve it. The work of more than 80 people – including members of the UK-based Chagossian community - has covered numerous species of corals, turtles, seabirds, sharks and other fish as well as improving our knowledge of currents, temperature change, under-water geography and plankton movements in the region. Not only will these studies be beneficial for Chagos, it will help us to understand how best to establish even larger reserves.

And speaking of which, on March 18 2015, the UK government approved the designation of the Pitcairn Marine Reserve, which when implemented, will be the largest in the world at 830,000 km2

Pitcairn’s waters host some of the best preserved   marine   ecosystems   on   the   planet   and   are   of globally   significant   biological value, and this takes another step towards the 30% marine reserve coverage proposed by conservationists, scientists and policy makers at the World Parks Congress in 2014.

People power

While World Oceans Day often focuses on the habitats and species found within the marine environment, it’s important to remember how many of us rely on the seas for our livelihoods, our leisure and protection from the elements.  ZSL is helping to build community-based conservation initiatives and train an army of citizen scientists both here in the UK and overseas. We want to give people the chance to invest and conserve in the marine biodiversity on their doorsteps. For many years, communities along the Thames have been sending in their sightings of marine mammals to ZSL

We’ve also trained more than 350 people to monitor juvenile eel movement into the Thames which is really helping us to understand this Critically Endangered species

ZSL Citizen Scientists with eels on the River Brent in 2014
ZSL Citizen Scientists with eels on the River Brent in 2014

More recently, citizen scientists have been recruited to monitor the presence of the common smelt in the Thames.  And further afield, in the Canary Islands, ZSL is working with the sportfishing communities to design a best practice guide for catch and release fishing of angel sharks, another Critically Endangered species. Divers are also being asked to map their sightings of angel sharks using an online database.  This is similar to the iSeahorse app, also used by the global diving community to map seahorse populations.

Work in the Philippines 

We’ve been working in the Philippines for over 15 years and our work with communities has gone from strength to strength.  For example our mangrove rehabilitation work was initiated in 2007 and our aim was to increase coastal protection, food resources and broaden the number of livelihood options.  We focused on empowering local communities to protect remaining mangrove forests and training them how to rehabilitate lost forest sites. Within four years, close to 100,000 mangroves were planted, with the rehabilitation of 107.8 hectares of mangrove forest well underway.

Net-works project in action 

More recently we’ve been working with carpet tile manufacturer Interface, Inc on the Net-Works project. Together we’re addressing the growing problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the world’s poorest coastal communities. Net-Works is about mobilising fishing communities in developing countries to sell waste fishing nets into a global supply chain. Interface receives a fully recycled source of nylon for carpet tile production, and the local community receives an additional source of income and long-term incentives to protect their coastal waters. 

The future…

What strikes me writing this blog is the diversity of the work that our small team, with the help of some outstanding and committed volunteers, has managed to achieve in just 15 years. The scale of some of these projects is vast, but at the same time, they focus on the importance of conserving biodiversity at the local level – tapping into how the marine environment is essential for people’s livelihoods and well-being. 

These are two important themes which will continue to run through our marine conservation work. Don’t be afraid to think big, and with the support of passionate people like you behind us we can achieve great things.

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