Over 71% of Earth is covered by water, and from colourful fish to water-filtering oysters, our rivers and ocean provide a home to a vast array of unique species. Healthy aquatic ecosystems are an essential part of supporting life on our planet through climate regulation, food provision and nutrient cycling.
Yet these aquatic habitats are also under threat as over-exploitation, climate change and pollution impact the future of these ecosystems, which we all rely on.
ZSL Senior Technical Specialist, Social Equity and Inclusion, Surshti Patel, is part of the team working across the world to protect people, ocean and marine wildlife.
She is also one of the National Geographic Society’s 2023 Wayfinder Award Recipients – a prestigious award which celebrates individuals who have proven themselves in inspiring others to learn about and protect the world’s wildlife. Surshti’s work focuses on community-based marine and freshwater conservation, ensuring that work to protect wildlife in our rivers and ocean include people as part of the solution.
Award-winning work in conservation
Since joining ZSL, Surshti has worked on projects both in the UK and internationally to ensure that conservation action leads to both human and environmental wellbeing. From helping establish community-led protected areas to understanding how poverty intersects with the plastic waste crisis, her work across the world helps ensure often excluded communities have a voice.
Surshti also supports Project SIARC’s work integrating the knowledge of fishers into conservation action around rare sharks, skates and rays in Wales, and our work in the UK Overseas Territories projects that look to tackle single-use plastic through socially feasible interventions. Her work on Net-Works (now Coast 4C) led to nearly 225,000 kg of plastic fishing nets - previously destined to be discarded into the ocean - beginning a new lease of life as recycled carpet tiles.
In response to receiving the award, Surshti said: “It has been such a journey over the last ten years to reach here, and I didn’t do it alone. I want to thank everyone who has nurtured and supported me. I’m so humbled to receive this recognition and be welcomed into National Geographics explorer community. It's great to join at a time where the vital importance of championing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is gaining more recognition, and there are meaningful opportunities to contribute to change. Change starts with introspection.”
“I believe that we can dismantle and re-build a sector where everyone, everywhere feels that they belong in nature conservation spaces from the outset – rather than being brought into a space that has already been shaped and moulded without them. As marine biologist Dr Asha de Vos says, we want to work with the biggest team in the world!”
Why is community-led marine conservation important?
Over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, and as a result, coastal communities are the most directly impacted by the declining state of marine ecosystems. Not only are the livelihoods of these communities intrinsically linked with the wellbeing of the ocean, but they have a unique insight into, understanding and experience of the ecosystems that they live alongside - yet despite this, they are also commonly overlooked when it comes to decision making.
Surshti’s work aims to tackle this issue. By working directly with communities, particularly underrepresented or excluded groups, both their knowledge and needs can become a central focus of conservation action – ensuring that all action will result in long-term, sustainable change that benefits both people and nature. For example, in Mozambique, unsustainable fishing practises threaten both ecosystems and food security – but by supporting the development of sustainable financing for sustainable livelihoods and the establishment of locally-managed marine areas, these pressures can be relieved from marine habitats while simultaneously protecting the wellbeing of local communities.
At ZSL we believe that nature can recover - ensuring that local people are a part of our work building a world where wildlife can thrive is an essential part of that process.
Climate change and human activity have pushed our precious planet to its limit, causing the devastating loss of so many habitats and species. From lab to field, hands on and behind the scenes, we’re leading the future of conservation, shaping agendas and influencing change to support better life, health and living for people and wildlife.