Impact of Ideas TED Prize

Feeling blue about the state of the ocean? How a TED Prize wish helped one woman create a sea change

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Sylvia Earle hosted TED sessions focused on the health of the oceans aboard the Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

With the 2009 TED Prize, Sylvia Earle wished to raise awareness about the state of the ocean. And she has done just that. Above, Earle hosts TED sessions aboard the Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

“Thousands have lived without love; none without water,” said Sylvia Earle as she stood on the TED stage five years ago, accepting the 2009 TED Prize. Wearing a blue blazer and an aura of resolve, Earle quoted this verse from poet W.H. Auden as she laid out a bold wish for the world: that we all wise up to the gravity of human impact on our oceans and recognize that our well-being is dependent on the health of the ocean’s ecosystems.

“Fifty years ago, no one imagined that we could do anything to harm the ocean,” said Earle in her talk. “Now we know we are facing paradise lost.”

These startling words have made a deep impact. After all, they were spoken by a woman whose scientific endeavors and passionate advocacy have earned her an array of titles, from “Her Deepness” (as she’s been called by The New York Times and the New Yorker) to “Joan of Arc of the Ocean” (as she was recently dubbed by director James Cameron).

With the $100,000 she received through the TED Prize, Earle founded Mission Blue, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the state of the ocean and to creating protected marine areas, or “hope spots.” When the organization launched, only 15 hope spots existed; now there are 50. Back in 2009, less than 1% of the ocean was protected; now over 3% — about 3 million square miles — is under some kind of protection from industrial fishing, dumping and drilling. While this sea change has come from the collective effort of many organizations, activists and governments, Sylvia and Mission Blue have played a formidable role. “She’s the one that’s out in front, leading the charge in the fight,” says Cameron, who was inspired by Earle to make the documentary Deepsea Challenge 3D.

One of the core components of Earle’s TED Prize plan: the Mission Blue Voyage to the Galápagos Islands in April 2010. To share a week of TED Talks and workshops, about 100 people boarded the National Geographic Endeavor, including scientists, business leaders, philanthropists and entertainers including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ed Norton and Glenn Close, in addition to the heads of several large ocean-advocacy groups. The voyage was meant to build a shared space for deep collaboration, in between talks and dives into the gorgeous waters around the Galápagos. 

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” remembers Anna Verghese, Deputy Director of the TED Prize. “Being in the Galápagos Islands, surrounded by all this natural beauty — one minute you’d be rendered speechless by orca whales swimming alongside the boat, the next you’d be watching a TED Talk about the ways whales use sound to communicate. Moments later, you’d be in conversation with a group of philanthropists about what it would take to ensure their survival. No words can do justice to that kind of experience.” 

The National Geographic Endeavor hosted the Mission Blue Voyage int he Galapagos. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

The National Geographic Endeavor hosted the Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos, a trip that inspired many and created momentum for ocean conservation. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

During these five days at sea, a group of ocean initiatives were kickstarted, funded by close to $15 million in commitments from people and groups on board.

The Sargasso Sea Alliance, led by David Shaw and the late Richard Rockefeller, was launched on the Galápagos trip, bringing together scientists and conservationists passionate about protecting this vulnerable ecosystem that occupies nearly two-thirds of the North Atlantic Ocean. Earlier this year, thanks to the Alliance’s efforts, the governments of Bermuda, Monaco, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Azores signed the “Hamilton Declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea,” a statement indicating each country’s interest in this mission. In August, a milestone was reached with the launch of the Sargasso Sea Commission, which will keep the sea’s health under continual review. 

The Protection of the Arctic initiative has made major headway toward creating a necklace of marine sanctuaries around the Arctic Ocean that are protected from offshore oil development, bottom trawl fishing and other harmful industrial practices. Members of the group have worked to identify the most important ecological areas in the region, and to spread the word about the importance of protected areas in helping Arctic marine species survive — and in tempering the impacts of ocean warming, acidification and the loss of sea ice. 

Oceans 5, a group of philanthropists dedicated to protecting the world’s five oceans, came together following the voyage. The collaborative has focused on reining in overfishing and on improving seafood traceability in the United States. Their first big initiative was lobbying to protect the Ross Sea, a species-rich bay on the Pacific Ocean side of the Antarctic which is considered one of the most pristine ecosystems on earth. Efforts to create marine sanctuaries in the area have been blocked on previous occasions by China and Russia, over concerns about restrictions on fishing. But Oceans 5 hopes that, by working  closely with the Antarctic Ocean Alliance and with Mission Blue, that they can secure marine reserves in the Ross Sea, as well as in East Antarctica and along the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Pacific Oceanscape has brought together 23 island nations and territories to work together to protect a large swath of the Pacific. It was born thanks to members of Conservation International joining the Mission Blue Voyage. “Mission Blue provided wonderful momentum and inspiration for this broad-reaching collaboration,” says Greg Stone of Conservation International. Earlier this month, the organization launched the Pacific Ocean Alliance, which will support Oceanscape and allow for even better coordination of all parties involved. Pacific Oceanscape also led to the creation of the Phoenix Islands marine protected area, which is one of the largest in the world.

The Galápagos Islands themselves also benefited from the Mission Blue voyage. Thanks to funding obtained on the trip, the wildlife advocacy group WildAid was able to invest in high-power satellite, radar and video equipment to help authorities there detect and intercept illegal fishing vessels. The team has worked with the Galápagos National Park Service to maintain patrol vessels, establish a Ranger training program and provide legal support for the prosecution of illegal fishers. And yet, the sheer size of this marine reserve still poses a challenge. “As fish stocks decline, more vessels target the [reserve], requiring us to constantly fine-tune our strategy,” says Marcel Bigue of WildAid. “Initial investments have been successful in stopping the entrance of large commercial fishing vessels. However, we are essentially in a game of cat-and-mouse as smaller vessels without satellite transceivers covertly enter the reserve, use longlines, and return to the mother ship with the day’s catch.” WildAid hopes to find new tactics to prevent this. Meanwhile, another WildAid program got funding thanks to the Mission Blue voyage — the trip resulted in a $1 million investment in the group’s anti-shark-finning efforts. 

Sylvia Earle, with octopus. Photo: Courtesy of Mission Blue

Sylvia Earle, with one of the sea creatures she loves. Photo: Courtesy of Mission Blue

The voyage also catalyzed the creation of the Campaign to Halt Fishing Subsidies. Millions of people around the world depend on fishing for income, and many governments provide subsidies that actually promote overfishing. These overfishing subsidies are believed to total up to about $20 billion a year, which equals close to 25% of the world catch’s value. A number of Mission Blue Voyage attendees — including Earle and TED Curator Chris Anderson — signed a letter in 2010 calling on the G-20 nations to halt overfishing subsidies. “Nearly all of the world’s fisheries are in jeopardy from overfishing and could be beyond recovery within decades,” Anderson wrote in the letter. “We believe that the G-20 nations have a powerful opportunity this summer.”

Since then, much progress has been made. More government funds are being spent on improving fishery management, and less spent on overfishing subsidies. The World Trade Organization even considered establishing rules to limit fishing subsidies as part of its overall trade negotiation known as the Doha Round. Unfortunately, the Doha Round collapsed — but there is still good news. According to Andrew Sharpless of Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization that had representatives on the voyage, “Global fishing stocks are making recoveries in places that have established sensible fishery management policies.” These recoveries are evident in the U.S., the European Union and Chile, he says.

The Galápagos trip didn’t just spur ocean activists to new action — it also inspired a wellspring of ocean conservation from ordinary people like tech investor Gigi Brisson, a TEDster on the trip, who returned home and launched OceanElders — a powerhouse of ocean advocates that includes Ted Turner, Sir Richard Branson, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Her Majesty Queen Noor. She sought out global leaders who had a passion for the ocean and its wildlife. The organization has since provided support to Australia’s Marine Park Network, campaigned for Costa Rica’s ban on shark fin hunting and is actively working with influential politicians to protect the high seas and create marine sanctuaries.

Amy Novogratz, who was the director of the TED Prize in 2009, went on to run Aqua-Spark, a fund that invests in sustainable aquaculture businesses. “It’s hard to describe the transformative effect of being on a boat surrounded by the world’s foremost oceanographers, scientists, marine biologists, activists and artists,” says Novogratz. “Five years later, the majority of attendees are still dedicated to restoring and protecting the ocean … Sylvia sparked something immensely powerful with her wish.”

Filmmaker Fisher Stevens was another sparked by the Mission Blue Voyage. “After the Galápagos trip, I really didn’t want to leave Sylvia’s world,” he says. “So I didn’t.” He directed Mission Blue, a documentary about Earle that was released on Netflix last month.

Five years after her wish, Earle continues to have an impact on attitudes to the ocean through Mission Blue. The organization churns out news, updates and scientific data that is then amplified by its global coalition of partners. In 2009, Mission Blue was tiny — just three staff members and a four-person Board of Directors. Mission Blue’s staff has now more than doubled, and it now has 18 directors on its board. The organization’s web presence has also grown tremendously. It now gets nearly 60 million impressions per month, reaching an engaged audience around the world.

Sylvia Earle checks out a school of fish in the documentary Mission Blue. Photo: Courtesy of Mission Blue

Earle checks out a school of fish in the documentary “Mission Blue.” Photo: Courtesy of Mission Blue

Earle’s Mission Blue campaign has been critical to getting governments to change their thinking on oceans. And it’s a moment when governments seem willing to take action. Last month, President Obama created the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the central Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, a new international treaty to foster marine protected areas in the two-thirds of the ocean that extends beyond national boundaries is a hot topic, with support for launching negotiations next year. 

Earle continues to lead Mission Blue-run “Hope Spot” expeditions — short trips to places like Belize, Mexico and the Swan Islands that are designed to create awareness, foster partnerships and build public support for the creation of marine protected areas. The ocean advocacy agency Upwell reports that this term has shot up in the number of mentions it gets online in recent years. “We’re seeing the actual popularization of the subject,” says Mission Blue’s Deb Castellana. “People accept that it’s a solution.”

With climate change underway, extreme weather brewing and ocean wildlife going extinct at a far-too-fast rate, the challenge of saving our oceans feels daunting. Yet Earle continues to represent hope and optimism. Her unique ability to walk the line between environmentalists, governments and corporations — telling it like it is with a twinkle in her eye — helps her inspire.

Right now, says Earle, we are at a pivotal moment. “The next 10 years may be the most important,” she says. “Our oceans are at a tipping point, which means we still have a chance to tip things back in the right direction — if we act now.” Earle and Mission Blue have set out the ambitious goal of protecting at least 20% of the ocean by 2020.

Based on what they’ve seen in the past five years, the TED Prize team thinks it is possible. “Sylvia continues to be out there campaigning and fighting — challenging presidents, policy experts, CEOs, celebrities and all of us, really, to do more,” says Verghese. “The surge in ocean protection over the past five years is definite cause to celebrate. But the journey to realizing her ultimate wish continues.”

Read more about Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize wish »

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Rays of hope captured underwater during the Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Rays of hope captured underwater during the Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED