World Wildlife Fund Photo: Troy Mayne

Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is known for its iconic panda logo and work to protect the planet’s most endangered species, but its mission involves more than wildlife. Our oceans are in trouble. How is WWF working to protect them?

Steve Ertel: Our passion to protect the planet’s wildlife and wild places animates everything we do, and protecting our oceans is vital. Oceans cover 71 percent of our planet’s surface and support one billion people who rely on fish as an important part of their diet and livelihoods. From the polar regions to the warm waters of the tropics, our oceans are home to an incredible kaleidoscope of species. WWF works to safeguard healthy oceans around the world, the marine life that lives there, and the communities that depend on them.

A shining example is the Great Barrier Reef, home to nearly six thousand species, including marine turtles, dugongs, sharks, rays, and over four hundred types of coral. The reef is under serious threat from pollution, coral bleaching, and poor fishing practices. But thanks to a campaign with help from more than five hundred thousand WWF supporters from 177 countries, Australia promised in July of this year to prioritize the health of the reef over damaging activities like dumping dredge soil.

MP: WWF also engages with businesses, including many that source their products from the sea, to help them transform their supply chains into ones that embrace sustainability.

SE: Whether it’s communities, other NGOs, or major companies, we need to collaborate with others to tackle the biggest environmental threats facing our planet. Once you show people the connection between places like the Amazon or the coral reefs of the Pacific and the impacts that producing and consuming everyday products have on those places, people are compelled to act.

Last year, for example, we worked with Hyatt Hotels on a complete ban of shark fin soup from their restaurants worldwide, including all event and banquet bookings. Sharks are crucial for maintaining the health of marine ecosystems, but the demand for shark fin soup in Asia has led to a major decline in global shark populations. We’re also working with the hotel chain to help them responsibly source more than 50 percent of their global seafood by 2018.

Photo: Naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

MP: A large portion of the seafood we eat actually comes from illegal sources. How big of a problem is this?

SE: Illegal seafood has no place on our plates. Illegal fishing practices are threatening both the health of marine ecosystems and the global economy. A staggering 86 percent of fish species are currently at risk due to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and twenty-three billion dollars is lost annually.

If you care about this issue, you can help WWF make sure that the fish we all buy is caught responsibly. At the grocery store, buy fish with the MSC label. Go to WWF’s Action Center and lend your voice to our illegal fishing petition. Tell the National Ocean Council you want real, tangible solutions for the traceability of seafood in U.S. markets.

Photo: Staffan Widstrand / WWF

MP: Outside the oceans, other wildlife is falling victim to illegal practices as well. Could you explain the illegal wildlife trade and the impact it’s having on wildlife?

SE: Elephants, rhinos, and tigers are being wiped out in unprecedented numbers. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks. Most people don’t know this, but the United States is the second largest destination for illegal wildlife products. WWF is working to stop the killing, stop the trade, and stop the demand. This past year has yielded some promising wins—China, one of the world’s biggest buyers of ivory products, has agreed to shut down its ivory market, and the Obama administration has taken significant steps to stop illegal trafficking.

One of the most powerful ways to stop illegal wildlife trade is by educating consumers and helping them make the right choices about the things they buy. Whether it’s an antique shop selling ivory in Manhattan, a store in the Caribbean selling coral jewelry and tortoise shell accessories, or a high-end Russian market selling caviar, ask the right questions before making a purchase: What is this product made of? Where did this product come from? Does the country I’m visiting allow the sale and export of this product? Do I need permits or other documents from this country or the United States to bring this item home? The best piece of advice: if you’re in doubt, don’t buy it.

Photo: naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF

MP: Our wildlife and oceans appear to be up against insurmountable odds. What can people do if they’re looking for real ways to make a difference?

SE: Take action. Start with what’s really important to you and let your passion drive your involvement. Is it protecting our oceans, our forests, our climate, our wildlife, the way our food is produced, or making sure fresh water exists for everyone? WWF’s Action Center is updated continually with multiple petitions and pledges you can lend your voice to. There is power in collective action. WWF activists have successfully rallied for critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, motivated the President to crack down on illegal wildlife trade here in the U.S. and around the world, and stopped the destruction of forests with the evolution of FSC-certified paper and wood products.

Photo: Wim van Passel / WWF

“Most people don’t know this, but the United States is the second largest destination for illegal wildlife products. WWF is working to stop the killing, stop the trade, and stop the demand.”

MP: There’s so much to worry about when it comes to safeguarding our planet’s future, but it sounds like there’s also much to be hopeful for.

SE: Successful conservation—fueled by inspiration and determination—gives us immeasurable hope. We’ve seen it in places like Mozambique, where fishermen are catching bigger fish as a result of protected marine reserves. We’ve seen it in parts of Africa, where we’re using technology to protect wildlife and track the criminal poachers hunting them. We’ve seen it in places like Brazil and Nepal, where forests are growing once again and tiger populations are doubling. And we’ve seen it with our own Congress and administration, which recently closed our borders to illegal fishing. There are moments in conservation when extraordinary things happen, when people come together to achieve the unexpected. And that’s what keeps us all going.

Photo: naturepl.com / Ingo Arndt / WWF

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