More, Bigger, Better Marine Conservation

Photo by Andrew Seale/Marine Photobank.
Photo by Andrew Seale/Marine Photobank.

Recently one of my peers referred to doing more conservation as addressing the problem of how to take marine protection to scale.  Covering nearly 70% of the planet and home to thousands of species of plants and animals, the ocean certainly represents a huge management problem.

For some marine conservation funders, global scaling of marine protection often implies centralized, standardized process and organization. An alternate option is replication of successful marine protection tailored to the scope and need of particular conservation goals.  This is not a tension between scaling big and scaling well.  After all, “scale is the enemy of sustainability.”

Replicating or propagating success is a more effective way to describe the change that is needed.  But, we need to be much more careful about vocabulary when we talk about the application of protection measures themselves.  “Going to scale,” as some VCs and entrepreneurs are wont to say, is appropriate for mass production that generates greater consumer access by making products less expensive.  But even mass production to produce at scale often fails to take into consideration user differences and geographic differences – to produce a lowest common denominator “product” – one that doesn’t fit anyone well.

Less than two percent of the global ocean has some form of protection.  Clearly, the “scale” of our protection of the ocean as a percentage needs to change.  So too does our “scale” of philanthropic investment in marine conservation.  Increasing scale in those contexts makes more sense.   I realize this may seem like semantics, yet it is important to get our language right.  And, if we don’t get the vocabulary right, we risk losing focus of what actually succeeded and why.  The fundamental problem with the concept of going to scale, is that creating 100 marine protected areas seems better than establishing 10.  It just feels better to say the bigger number, and is deceptively simple to not do any further analysis.  But this number does not necessarily equate to quality of projects that are funded.

For another example, look what has happened to Territorial User Rights Fisheries in which community access “rights” (small r) allows for community self-governance.  Community-based management of a local resource (fish, forest, coral reef, or otherwise) meets local needs and helps promote more sustainable use of the resource. There is a collective sensibility that helps support success over time.  Such communal ownership and management too often is being mis-represented as a private property rights incentive success, when there is no private property involved.  Replication of such successful programs can indeed increase the percentage of well-managed coastal resources over time.  Replicating these localized structures of mutual need and respect means the right training and resources, and as important, the use of appropriate language—the collective, not the individual; public not private rights; and shared, mutual responsibility for stewardship.  But in the end, it is the “well-managed” part that is as important as the “percentage” set aside for management.

I think in our new reality that “effectiveness” beats out “big scale.”  We have already learned to our ocean’s cost that bringing commercial fishing to global scale resulted in overfishing, overconsumption, and depletion of the natural resource, as well as a clear disturbance of the ecological equilibrium.  As we look ahead, we should remember to be very clear about what works and at what size or level—fixing problems is much more expensive and challenging than preventing them in the first place. I fear that the desire to empower so many fisherman in order to bring “solutions” to scale will undermine actions that are successful at small local scale.  We can replicate those in great numbers without creating a lockstep, franchise-style system.  We need to address each place, each community, each culture, and each marine conservation challenge as a unique opportunity, and tap the right team to address it.  There is no silver bullet that works every time.

What were the essential elements of a successful marine conservation project, and can it be reconstructed and applied elsewhere with different personnel and under different circumstances? This can happen in two ways: ask the same grantee to succeed again in a new place; or through independent efforts by other actors to create similar programs.  We know that not all success can be replicated.  And, we know that just because we write a grant check we cannot dictate replication from the top down, or that it will be a success.  This is even less true for “going to scale.”  What we can do is support the sharing of lessons learned and hope for propagation of good ideas.

We need a nuanced and specific approach to local marine protection, fisheries management, food security and economic development.  By combining this approach with replication of success, we can get at the particular goals in which a country will be more willing to invest public funds and business resources for such actions.  And, when the scale of the place is large (e.g. the Arctic or the high seas), there is still the opportunity to be nuanced and problem-specific in our response.

Common themes supported by tailored implementation have proven themselves over and again.  Focusing at this scale allows us to identify and support innovation, success, and education of others.  If we carefully watch and understand what works, we are in a unique position as funders to help support the sharing of practices and actions that are successful.  Perhaps we can even reduce the risk of failure as a result of using replication.


  1. Carina Wyborn
    April 5, 2014, 10:52 am

    Hi Mark,

    This is a great piece, I think you’ve really covered some of the challenges associated with the question of up scaling. My PhD looked at this in the context of terrestrial connectivity conservation. I came to the conclusion that asking how to upscale is the wrong question, we really should be thinking about how to support many localized initiatives and the coordination between them.

    Here is a summary of some of thoughts on my blog:

    Scaling out and coordination present very different challenges for conservation and beg a different role from NGOs and government. Thinking about it in this way hopefully leads to an approach that supports local decision-making, but with appropriate coordination mechanism can also realsie the desired conservation outcomes.

  2. Mark J. Spalding
    on the way to Salem
    March 26, 2014, 3:47 pm

    Peter, Andrew and Edward,
    Thanks for your kind words about the blog above.

    Edward, to your point about Hardin and the Commons: We need to rely on the triumph of the commons, rather than Hardin’s “simple and highly effective metaphor” myth of a tragedy. [Hawkshaw et. al. “The Tragedy of the “Tragedy of the Commons”: Why Coining Too Good a Phrase Can Be Dangerous” Sustainability 2012, 4, 3141-3150; and Angus “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons” Monthly Review Magazine 2008.

    When true property rights cannot really be established—as in the case of wild fish—then we cannot expect fishers and seafood merchants to behave like owners. We believe it makes far more sense to replicate proven community self-governance practices to meet the need of managing the rising human pressures on marine systems that could continue our overexploitation of the ocean’s resources. The ocean is the perfect example of where universal goods can be exhausted even if we are operating with some rules of usage, whether those are laws, or informed community self-governance (which we often see in coastal communities). The ocean area beyond national jurisdiction does not lend itself to such community self-governance, thus the institution of coercive laws best solves the threat of overexploitation. This will require increased enforcement and monitoring. And, without this monitoring and enforcement the temptation to exceed quotas, high grade and discard by-catch will result in overfishing, loss of economic rents or even exploitation to the point of commercial or biological extinction.

    All the best,

  3. Edward Ovsenik
    United States
    March 25, 2014, 12:05 pm

    I am concerned about the use of local community resource management structures. Look to the essays of Garret Harden on “The Commons” . Can we effectively and efficiently regulate use of the Oceans (a global commons) when human nature is to “take” a little more than the next person to make oneself better? If the oceans off a small island can support 100 people, and each of the 100 people on that island is allotted 1% of the resource, can we truly believe that no one person will take more than his or her 1%?

  4. Peter Neill
    March 24, 2014, 1:35 pm

    Thanks to Mark Spalding of The Ocean Foundation for this contribution to the “up-scaled” conversation ocean advocates should be having. More conservation may mean replication of successful models; networks of protected areas for example, sharing and amplifying best practice, management efficiencies, arguing for a whole greater than the sum of parts. But this is just the beginning of an amplified, more creative dialogue in which we extrapolate underlying values and invent ways to apply them in other ocean contexts — mega-cities and the urban ocean to cite a most compelling challenge. The World Ocean Observatory (W2O) monitors these issues and exchanges every day and often laments the conventionality and narrowness of the conversation. Perhaps we can move now toward not just scaled up in-hand successes, but also toward the other priorities and solutions required to sustain the world ocean on which we all depend.

  5. Andrew Lewin
    March 24, 2014, 1:05 pm

    Thanks for such an insightful article Mark! It’s great to hear perspectives of marine conservation from someone who is experienced and has enabled the funding of many successful marine conservation projects.

    I like the idea of focusing on small community-managed areas that address specific local problems rather than using the cookie cutter style that is so often proposed in ocean management and business.