“The Importance of Ocean Hope”
May 2020

“It’s not a question of finding solutions, we have solutions. It’s a question of identifying the solutions we already have, replicating them, and scaling them up”.

The Honorable Dr. Jane Lubchenco was awarded the Tyler Prize in 2015 for her innovative research in ocean conservation and stewardship. Currently a Distinguished University Professor at Oregon State University, she is focused on creating and enforcing protected marine areas, managing fisheries, whilst ensuring effective science communication to politicians and policymakers around the world.

Nominated as part of President Obama’s “Science Dream Team,” and trained as a marine ecologist and environmental scientist, Lubchenco has extensive expertise in oceans, climate change, and interactions between the environment and human well-being.

Honorable Dr. Jane Lubchenco

Honorable Dr. Jane Lubchenco

How did receiving the Tyler Prize impact your work?

Winning the Tyler Prize brought wonderful visibility and momentum to the intersection that I work in, which is pretty much the ocean, climate, environment, and people. It’s really looking at the nexus between science and society. Since winning the prize, the ocean really has come on the global radar as an increasingly important topic, both in terms of solving the climate change problem, but also relative to food security and to economic development more broadly.

Why is the ocean so important to people?

There has been a wealth of activity around the ocean, and people are now more aware of how vital a healthy ocean is to the wellbeing of everyone on Earth. The ocean sustains us, feeds us, connects us; it’s our past and our future. Much of that has been out of sight, out of mind, but recently there has been increasing recognition of how important the ocean is to everyone’s future.

Make no mistake. The impacts of climate change on the ocean are well underway and getting worse. The ocean is currently higher, warmer, stormier, thicker, more acidic, and with less oxygen which means it’s also more disrupted and less predictable. Those changes create huge problems, both for the many critters in the ocean, but also for people. However, it’s important to note that it is not hopeless! The ocean is mitigating and adapting to climate change.

What will be the effect of creating and expanding marine protected areas?

Highly protected marine areas are one of the strongest tools that we have to enhance the resilience of ocean ecosystems. We know that if they’re large, well designed and enforced, highly protected areas can do more than provide safe havens for wildlife. They can also capture and store carbon, restore ecological balance, protect coastal areas from storm surge and coastal erosion, preserve the genetic diversity that is absolutely essential for adaptation, and help recover natural fisheries. So that’s a pretty impressive set of outcomes from one conservational effort.

All those fabulous benefits are possible, but currently, we’ve only protected 4% of the ocean, almost 5% now, compared to 15% of land sanctuaries. Moreover, only 2% of the ocean is highly protected. So my way of thinking is that we have a very powerful tool that’s just waiting to be deployed. A lot of countries are pushing hard to achieve their commitments of protecting 10% of the ocean by 2020, which is a great start.

We have a lot more work to do to achieve that, but to really harness the full power of protected areas I think we will need to highly protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. So a lot of what I have been working on has been to bring some clarity and transparency to the whole discussion about marine protected areas and work with communities around the world to make them happen. Engaging scientists, governments, NGOs, and users of the ocean to begin to talk about marine protection in a way that gets rid of some of the confusion about the amount of ocean that needs to be protected. Answering questions like, how much do we need? What do we call them? What can we expect from them?

So one portfolio of activities I’ve been working on since the Tyler Prize is to bring greater clarity and transparency to this topic of protected areas and testing.

How would protecting marine waters work with fisheries?

I’ve also been working on reforming fisheries in US waters. We’re getting federally managed fisheries in US waters and providing them with an understanding about how important fisheries are from both an economic development standpoint and a healthy ocean standpoint. We’ve seen a huge benefit by doing that, and there’s been increasing interest in other countries about learning from our example. Because fisheries provide livelihoods to 10% of the global population and over 20% of the protein for over 3 billion people, getting these reforms right is really important as at the very least it’s a food security problem.

But it’s a climate change problem as well. Recent analysis suggests that if we improve fishery management, we could actually offset any of the negative effects of climate change. So in addition to having all the benefits of more fish in the water, it could actually offset problems that have been caused climate change. Climate change is altering both the productivity of the ocean and the location of many stocks. A lot of fish are going either towards the Poles or they’re going deeper into the ocean. If fisheries could be reformed, they would actually help fix these current problems.

With fishery management, we can make fisheries more resilient to climate change. So that’s hugely exciting! Not surprisingly, the seafood industry is startled by the pending impacts of climate change and very worried about it. I’ve been advising a lot of different fisheries, some which have recently announced the formation of a group called SeaBOS, which stands for Seafood Businesses for Ocean Stewardship. The goal is to make seafood production more sustainable. We’re seeing an increasing recognition in fisheries that fishery management is an important issue, and that they need to be thinking about them more holistically.

How do you react when people feel helpless about climate change?

I try to use my time to try and give people hope. Which is not to undermine the urgency of the situation we’re in but to incentivize willingness to tackle some of these seemingly never ending problems. It’s important for people to know that, in fact, there are positive results from our actions.

What we need to do is understand that it’s happening, understand that there are good solutions, that there are good models. We can reform fisheries, we can have smart, sustainable agriculture, we can use marine protected areas, and, if we do these things, then we can all benefit from them. So it’s not impossible, but the clock is ticking. This is an incredibly urgent challenge.

But I am encouraged because people are beginning to pay more and more attention. Countries are looking to the ocean for poverty alleviation, food security, economic development, job creation, and new opportunities. Communities are saying, “our oceans are changing”. They want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We haven’t gotten as far as we need to go yet, but things are changing in a major way and that I think it’s very encouraging.

Why do you think it is important to communicate science?

I’ve long been interested in the connection between science, society, and the public understanding of and perceptions of science. I think 2016 was a wake-up call for many people around the world. Not just in the United States, but globally, because there was really the emergence of a strong sentiment of what has been labeled ‘post-truth’ – in fact, that was the 2016 Oxford English Dictionary word of the year.

It is a reflection of the fact that in many instances individual opinion seems to trump evidence-based science. The post-truth perspective really undermines the very essence, the very foundation of democracy. If people are not informed and don’t have a common understanding of what the problems are, it’s very difficult to deal with those problems.

I believe that scientists can and should be changing what they do, in part to address this post-truth situation. That means is coming out of our ivory towers, it means connecting science to people in ways that engage, explain and directly demonstrate the benefits.

Some kinds of science, environmental science in particular, have gotten a reputation for being all ‘doom and gloom’, and although there are some very urgent challenges, I believe that there are so many amazingly good things that are happening as well. We have an obligation to shine a spotlight on the things that are working, the things that we’re helping fix.

Having a more balanced message, having a language that is understandable, accessible and relevant to people’s lives, is why we need science communication. We need to provide opportunities for people to engage directly in science and the process of science.


May 2020


To read more on Dr. Lubchenco’s work: