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Q&A: A sea change in ocean stewardship

As the UN Ocean Conference unfolds in Lisbon this week, Hoffmann Fellow Alfredo Girón-Nava shares his thoughts on future ocean conservation and the next generation of leaders.
Alfredo in scuba gear

A clock is ticking: The world has less than ten years to achieve ocean-related targets as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ocean health lies at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal 14, or SDG 14, which aims to conserve and sustainably use the ocean. However, there’s a growing recognition among global policymakers that this vast ecosystem is inextricably tied to goals for food security, livelihoods, climate action, and human health and well-being.

The second United Nations Ocean Conference, co-hosted by the governments of Portugal and Kenya from June 27 – July 1 in Lisbon, provides a venue for countries to commit to the targets of SDG 14. This year’s conference will also determine the ambitions for the United Nations Ocean Decade (2021-2030), which seeks to accelerate ocean science solutions and align multiple perspectives, knowledge systems and intergenerational leadership in pursuit of sustainable development goals.

Achieving the ambitious goals of this conference—and this decade—will require bridging a generation of early career ocean professionals and the community of senior professionals currently at the helm of ocean sustainability decision-making. At the forefront of this generational shift is Alfredo Girón-Nava, an André Hoffmann Ocean Innovation Fellow at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum. Below, Girón-Nava discusses his hopes for the second United Nations Ocean Conference and how early career professionals will be instrumental in the success of sustaining the ocean.

Please share more about your area of expertise and what inspired you to get involved in building ocean solutions.

Girón-Nava: My area of expertise is using data and technology to find ocean solutions. For example, a recent focus of mine has been using satellite data of vessel activity to help seafood companies eliminate illegally caught fish from their supply chains. I’m inspired to do this work because I fell in love with the ocean at a young age. It was always this amazing, wild place that I got to visit every so often. Once I learned to scuba dive, I wanted to dedicate my career to it. After studying the ocean for a while, I finally realized the relationship and dependency between the fish and the fishers where I lived in Mexico. Before, I cared about fish and conservation. But then I began to ask, what about the people? When you realize how many communities depend on the ocean, it’s very energizing.

There is a common misconception that the ocean is vast and therefore an infinite resource. Why are dialogues like those happening at the second United Nations Ocean Conference so important?

Girón-Nava: I feel lucky that I became an ocean professional at a time when the academic and policy communities agree that ocean health is at risk and there is an urgent need to address it. Ocean professionals are already demonstrating the need for solutions through venues like the UN Ocean Conference and the UN Ocean Decade programs. Twenty years ago, this was not the case.

Dialogues at the UN Ocean Conference will help identify the most promising solutions, but just as important is the need to transparently share the process of realizing these solutions. First, we must ensure equitable and fair funding that respects local communities and governments. Second, we need to pinpoint and prioritize delivery mechanisms that enable that funding to be effective. Finally, we must be sincere about co-developing solutions with partners by asking in each context who we are collaborating with and what a productive collaboration looks like.

The first United Nations Ocean Conference alerted the world to the challenges facing the ocean. The second conference is a pivotal moment to commit to actions that will achieve SDG 14 and other Sustainable Development Goals. What are some commitments you hope will result from the conference?

Girón-Nava: Last week, the World Trade Organization concluded a decades-long negotiation to end subsidies that incentivize harmful fishing. I hope to see commitments that will illuminate how we implement this decision. Another thing that will be different than any other conference before is the role of early career professionals. We have a whole day of dedicated events, and for the first time, all panels must include an early career perspective. It shows that the ocean community is taking this intergenerational conversation very seriously.

The Ocean Decade will be a major theme in the conference and the subject of several important events, particularly its program that supports early career ocean professionals. How does this work fit into the broader conference agenda?

Girón-Nava: As part of my involvement in the Early Career Ocean Professionals (ECOP) Program, I’ll be participating in an Ocean Decade event to reflect on the process of including ECOPs in panel discussions about ocean conservation. It fits very well with the conference’s objective of looking for new perspectives and solutions. We’ve been doing ocean conservation for decades, but most decisions are made by people in a position of power, which is biased towards people who are mid- to late-career. When we think about a ten-year plan for the ocean, these decision-makers will probably be retired by the end of this decade. This means the people who are early in their career now will be leading a plan that someone else made. Even though we might not have the strategic vision that one gains from experience, we have fresh ideas, amazing mentors and a professional interest in shaping the future of the ocean.

What role will early career professionals play this decade? What challenges might they face and how can we better support them?

Girón-Nava: Early career ocean professionals include scientists, engineers, journalists, dive masters and a broad spectrum of people who depend professionally on the ocean in terms of their day-to-day activities. To better support this diverse group throughout the Ocean Decade, we reached out to ECOPs around the world to understand what their needs are. For example, in some regions, the need is for resources to travel to conferences. In others, it’s access to grants. Across the world, we’re finding that ECOPs will benefit from opportunities to observe and shape the strategic planning process firsthand, from gaining more responsibility, from mentorship that is meaningful and tailored towards professional development and from exposure—the opportunity to join panel conversations and make our voices heard.

Why is the ECOP Program important, both for early career professionals and the ocean conservation community writ large?

Girón-Nava: We have been trying the same ways for decades, and they clearly don’t work at the scale and pace we need. Ocean health continues to decline. Programs like ECOP enable closer collaborations much earlier in your career, and that has the potential to revolutionize how things happen. By bringing together teams across academia, industry, NGOs and others, people get to know each other sooner, work together more often, and understand each other professionally a little better. It plants seeds for something we can’t even envision yet, but one thing is certain: We know it’s different from what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.