Responsive Travel Blog

Elevate the Gulf: Interview with Mark Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation

On April 9, 2012, Elevate Destinations and The Ocean Foundation will bring a team of volunteers to the Gulf Coast to participate in a week long service trip to help revitalize an eco-system that was devastated by the BP oil spill. These travelers will take part in restoration of the oyster reef, seagrass bed and coastal marsh habitats while experiencing the culture and culinary arts of this unique destination!

Mark Spalding (photo courtesy of The Ocean Foundation) will be joining this team to participate first-hand in this incredible opportunity and partnership. Not only is Mark the president of The Ocean Foundation, but he is also a practicing lawyer and policy consultant. In the past he has worked with organizations like the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, the International Bering Sea Forum, the Council of the National Whale Conservation Fund, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the San Diego Foundation, the International Community Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Fundacion La Puerta, and a number of family foundations. Because of this work, Mark is seen as a major contributor to some f the most significant ocean conservation campaigns in recent years.

The Elevate Destinations team was lucky to catch up with Mark to get his thoughts on his work with The Ocean Foundation and the upcoming Elevate the Gulf trip. Below is a transcript of our interview. A big thank you to Mark for your time and your contribution to the oceans of the world! We cannot wait for April to get here!

How did you become involved with the Ocean Foundation?

Back when the Ocean Foundation was created, I was a professor in the International Relations program at UC San Diego, and like many faculty members, I took some consulting jobs on the side to pay the rent.  Many of those jobs involved international conservation objectives, in particular international ocean conservation and occasionally, international ocean conservation and philanthropy.  So some folks found me and asked if I would I help design the Ocean Foundation and I agreed to do so.  We built the whole thing around a set of models of community foundations, obviously in our case without a geographic set of boundaries and in our case with a very narrow subject matter.  Once I got done designing it, they offered me the opportunity to run it and eight years later, here I am!

With the oceans being a non-geographic area in terms of national ownership, what do you think is the biggest challenge that your foundation faces in terms of conservation?

I think the big thing that we face, that any of us in ocean conservation faces, is that no one lives in the ocean. At best our view of the ocean is very surface.  Sadly that means if you are out on a deck having drinks looking out over the ocean, it doesn’t look different if all the fish are gone and the sea grass is dead and all of the coral reefs are dead.  The water is still there, the color of the sunset is still the same, and the sounds of the waves are probably still the same.  It’s getting people more connected to the fact that a tremendous amount of protein comes from the ocean, half of our oxygen supply comes from the ocean, and a whole lot of other functions of the ocean protect us from extreme cold and extreme heat, sequestered carbon and all of those ecosystems services are irreplaceable and yet out of sight.  They just aren’t at the forefront of people’s minds.

What are some unexpected human actions that directly affect the health of our oceans?

Well the biggest threat to the ocean is climate change.  Therefore all of our use of vehicles and consumption that results from the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change, which in turn is changing the ocean’s chemistry, circulation patterns, and temperature.  So that’s the biggest thing that we all do.  In addition, we as people have done a pretty poor job of managing our fisheries so over-fishing of the ocean has been a severe human impact on the ocean.  Third is basic pollution, and while climate change is related to pollution as well, and the carbon going into the ocean is a pollutant per se, when we talk about pollution we are talking about plastics and oils and all that stuff in the ocean that just shouldn’t be there.  I’ll often say we really have two problems with the ocean.  We take too much out and put too much back in and all we have to do is stop taking too much good stuff out and stop putting too much bad stuff in.  It all boils down to that.

How does your work with the Ocean Foundation, and perhaps Elevate’s upcoming trip to the Gulf, attempt to combat these problems?

Fundamentally what we need to do is restore the resilience of the ocean.  We need to reverse the harm done to the ocean, which is basically our mission statement at the Ocean Foundation.  So looking at something like this trip, if we can replace oysters and have the reefs that they at one time occupied be rebuilt, all of those systems in front of and behind those reefs could recover.  Many of those systems recover quite naturally without us doing much else.  Thus we will have oysters as filter feeders, cleaning the water, and making it possible for other plants and animals to survive in these places.  We will have more marsh grasses growing which will take up carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it, which will be a good thing when dealing with climate change.  And we’ll have a healthier place.  We have had dramatic things that happened like the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, but you know, we have, for a long time, been damaging the Gulf with a little prick here, a little cut there: a relocation here, building a pier there.  The old saying, a death by a thousand cuts is really what we are seeing here and we have the opportunity now to react.  I think this is truly about the future and it gives us something to work on.  This gives us hope.  Therefore the restoration of the ocean’s capacity to do things for us, again, ecosystem services stuff, is something positive that we can be doing about our future and our children and grandchildren’s futures.

Because oceans are so seemingly disconnected from our daily lives, ocean conservation is the most difficult form of conservation for sustaining hope and I think that’s the most dangerous part about its long-term restoration.

Yes, I think that’s right.  There was this assumption on one hand that it was so big that the resources in it were so big that we could take anything we wanted.  And that it was so big that dumping oil in it here or there couldn’t do it any harm.  So there was this blithe assumption that it was so big and so powerful that we couldn’t do it any harm.  And ironically now, it flips, right?  The change that we have brought is so big and so powerful that it seems intimidating to try and do anything about it.  But we have to undo the harm the same way we did the harm, one little bit at a time.

How did you originally become involved with Elevate?

I actually went on a trip that was sponsored by a charter club, The Center for Responsible Tourism, and met the Executive Director of Elevate.  Dominique and I learned that we had a lot of interests in common and that we had a lot of opportunities for collaboration.  So we have been looking for those opportunities ever since and I am really excited that this came together!

What are you most looking forward to during your trip to the Gulf this year?

I am looking forward to being out of the office, being out of Washington D.C. and getting out into some of the places that we care about.  I am looking forward to seeing old friends and colleagues in the Gulf area that we work with or support, but I also am really excited because this is an opportunity for new friends to come along with us on a trip and see what a beautiful place this is.  To help us restore it and make it even more beautiful, as beautiful as it was before we messed it up.  We have to start somewhere working on restoration, we have to accomplish some things and if we don’t we are fundamentally failing ourselves going forward.  I am not ready to give up and I am not ready to feel overwhelmed.  Getting started on this now is the time to do it.

For more details on the trip and how to get involved please visit the Elevate Destinations website or contact Reserve your spot now as April is just around the corner!


Interview conducted by Emily Gershen.

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