Story | 11 Dec, 2017

Dan Laffoley : IUCN’s Neptune

Dan is a well respected leading global expert on ocean conservation. At IUCN, he is the Principal Advisor for Marine Science and Conservation with the Global Marine and Polar Programme, and has been the Marine Vice Chair for the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas for more than ten years. Read our interview with Dan about his road to marine conservation, his professional focus, and his vision and mission for the ocean.

Your career appears to always have been focused on marine science. How and why did you get involved in conservation, and more specifically marine conservation?

I grew up on a small island – just nine miles by five - called Jersey in the Channel Islands. It was one of those idyllic childhoods you read about in books where I was immersed in natural history studies. From my youngest days I was exploring rock pools, and when I snorkelled I was amazed by the diversity and abundance of life beneath the waves. Through that lens, and later scuba diving, I have seen ‘my’ ocean change before my very eyes. That perspective, and knowing all I do now, is what drives me forward to try and do something about it.  

The beautiful solitary sunset star coral, Isles of Scilly, UK. © Dan Laffoley       Photo: Dan Laffoley
Can you describe your academic and professional path?

Conventional except when you live in a place like Jersey, you leave home and the island to go to University in the UK. I went to Exeter University, where I gained my degree in ecology, learned to dive, and finished with a PhD in marine biology. I was then very fortunate to join the major Nature Conservancy Council survey of marine life around the UK. This let me scuba dive around the whole of the UK studying marine life. This experience in turn set me up for more global adventures.

In your opinion, where do we stand with regards to the coverage of protected ocean, and how do you see the future?

We have come a long way in a short time. When I took up the Marine Vice Chair role in the WCPA a decade ago we had just over one per cent of the global ocean protected. Today that stands at nearly seven per cent. We have many more IUCN members deeply involved in shaping our work than ever before. So, there is much to celebrate. But there are many challenges ahead, and probably quite a few we have yet to realize. Despite all I know I remain an optimist that my generation finally ‘gets it’ and knows what we should be doing. We must not let our children look back at us and ask, ‘why didn’t they act then?’.

What do you think your mission is and what do you feel are your biggest achievements so far?

I have dedicated my life to safeguarding the ocean. Quoting Carl Sagan viewing Earth from afar, he said “this is where we live, on that blue dot we call Earth”. “Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, and every human being that ever lived, lived out their life… [here]”. What could be more important than helping us preserve and cherish that blue dot we all call home, and that we all know is now in trouble?

I guess my biggest achievements have been working at the global strategic level to change how so many people see and understand the ocean. Examples include working with Sylvia Earle and a small group of fellow ocean experts to put an ocean ‘on’ Google Earth. Now billions of people making a map search can see the ocean, and this in turn inspire others such as ‘underwater’ Street View to make the digital ocean available to so many more.

Dan is a regular speaker on marine conservation matters       Photo: John Baxter

Another example is the work I started a decade ago on ocean carbon when I recognised the world was missing a trick by mainly focusing on carbon in terrestrial forests and peatlands. Not to forget the pioneering work I led with marine scientists showed that coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, saltmarshes and seagrass meadows are equally if not more important – and through that process ‘blue carbon’ was born. Or indeed the work I led to scale up marine World Heritage, or helping over 30 of our finest NGO partners to form the High Seas Alliance. The Alliance has been created to press the United Nations to introduce an effective conservation framework still lacking for half the planet – the place we call the High Seas - which is the majority of the ocean, lying offshore beyond the jurisdiction of any single country or state.

And finally, I've been working with world-leading scientists to communicate new research and discoveries, such as the report I co-edited last year on ocean warming - now amongst one of IUCN’s most downloaded reports of recent times. Throughout all this it continues to be a privilege to work with so many committed, well-informed people to make marine conservation really happen.

What are the key challenges you face in your work, and how can we overcome them?

For me many of the challenges are about how we recognise and respond to ‘change’. We are now faced with a seemingly ever-expanding range of challenges from fishing through to the recent and quite overwhelming problems of ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation. Add to that pollution and the countless millions of tons of microplastics we have put in the ocean and you will see the sheer scale of the challenges before us. We have the power to change all this, but to do so I believe that we, as conservationists, must become smarter, even more effective, and nimbler in tackling ocean conservation problems.

To speed things up we now need to build what I call ‘entrepreneurial ecosystems of innovation’ with the experts we have, creating such an approach by radically reducing management red tape and transaction costs, whilst giving greater trust and more measured risk-taking. If we don’t, I fear we simply won’t move with sufficient speed to get ahead of the curve of ocean degradation and destruction we are now witnessing. For those we rely on, from government agencies and organisations, we also need to work with them more closely to ensure the standards we know, need, and agree work in the ocean are implemented when measures such as MPAs are put in place. If experts now know what needs to be done, it is beholden on us to help others to do likewise.

And lastly: what is your message to the world?

If you like to live, and I do, then love our ocean. Learn to cherish it much more than we have done, as it is the one thing we all simply can’t live without.

You can follow Dan Laffoley’s ocean adventures and wildlife photography on Instagram or on his website where you can also access his publications.

Dan is also a keen wildlife photographer. Whimbrel, Chile       Photo: Dan Laffoley