People all around the world feel a strong affinity for the ocean – and for good reasons. Not only does the ocean provide us with intrinsic beauty, but it also supplies fifty percent of the air we breathe and helps regulate our ecosystem. And across the globe, coastal communities rely on the ocean for food sources and ecotourism that support their local economy. In recent years, there’s been a growing movement to stand up for marine ecosystems and spread public awareness of threats like plastic pollution, noise pollution, offshore oil drilling, and ship strikes. As a way to support conservation and make change, communities have started implementing beach cleanups, choosing reusable items over plastic, and urging restaurants to say “no” to plastic straws.
In spirit of spreading awareness for marine conservation, World Wildlife Day 2019 celebrated the theme “Life below water: for people and planet”. This year, I had the opportunity to join my IFAW colleagues for World Wildlife Day at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. We kicked off the weekend with a high-level event led by CITES Secretary General Ivonne Higuero. Seated amongst me in the conference room were UN ambassadors, numerous wildlife organizations, and selected individuals who represented the youth’s voice.
This year stood out for IFAW because we joined United Nations Development Programme in hosting a marine-themed global youth art contest. Over the past three months, our inboxes were flooded with 300+ entries from young artists around the world. We saw beautiful paintings of octopuses, drawings of dolphins, and watercolor whales. Amidst the influx of art, one artist stood out: 17-year-old Valerie Dou. She joined us at the World Wildlife Day celebrations, where IFAW Vice President Kelvin Alie and UN Ocean Ambassador Cody Simpson presented her an award. Her artwork, titled “Ocean in 500 years”, depicts a vibrant sea turtle swimming alongside tropical fish in a pristine ocean ecosystem and reminds us to strive towards a sustainable future.
After the art contest announcements, we continued to hear from marine ambassadors and conservationists. Standing out amongst the extinguished panel of experts was legendary marine biologist and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Hearing her speak was incredible – her wisdom and lifelong passion for life under the sea was evident in every sentence she spoke. During her talk, Dr. Earle highlighted the importance of individual organisms in the ocean ecosystem. She urged us to recognize the sentience of species like octopus, lobster, and shrimp – to acknowledge their emotional capacity just as we do for mammals that live on land. In her closing statements, Dr. Earle exclaimed, “We are as dependent on the ocean as any fish, whale, or coral reef”. For the health of our planet, we must save our oceans and protect marine animals. There’s no other option.
The conference concluded with Jackson Hole WILD, UNDP, and the CITES Secretary announcing the winners of the Living Oceans Film Showcase. IFAW was lucky enough to be involved with two of the finalist films for the category “Ocean Issues and Solutions," Huntwatch and Sonic Sea. Based on our founding work, Huntwatch depicts the realities of Canada’s East Coast commercial seal hunt and advocates for an end to this inhumane and unscientific slaughter. Created by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Imaginary Forces in association with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Diamond Docs, Sonic Sea depicts the deadly threat of ocean noise against whales and other marine mammals. To my excitement, Sonic Sea was the winning film. Three years later, and the film continues to make an impact and spark change.
Throughout the celebrations, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly inspired by the conservationists surrounding me. Protecting wildlife and changing mindsets is no easy task – but together, we can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if you’re a film maker, artist, field expert, or local advocate. When it comes to conservation, there’s a place for you.