Friday, November 30, 2012

COARE: successful regional ocean conservation group expanding nationally

Even a casual look at the ocean conservation community and one finds that there are hundreds of non-profit organizations, each addressing an issue or issues of concern and applying their best available resources to bring about solutions.

At least that's what you hope for.

COARE (The Center for Ocean Awareness, Research and Education) has in just a few years, gone from being a small regional non-profit in the San Francisco area to an organization that is being recognized nationally.  Under the direction of its founder and executive director, Christopher Chin, COARE has managed to rack up some impressive wins, particularly in its work nationally with politicians and policy makers regarding shark fin legislation.  It is an organization worth looking into when you consider those last minute, end-of-the-year donations.

I tend to put ocean conservation groups into three tiers.  The lower tier is made up of many of the smaller groups, formed by well-intentioned individuals who either lack the resources or the strategy to move themselves beyond the position of supporting troop morale.  Collectively, they can have an impact in keeping a movement fired up at the grass roots level but, for one reason or another, many can't make the transition into the mid-tier.

Mid-tier organizations have worked hard to get to a point where they now are working with the real forces of change: policy makers, government officials, and even cavorting with the "enemy" in the hopes of winning over those political and economic forces that would oppose them.  Mid-tier groups often have to work the hardest of all three tiers, as they try to expand under limited means and sometimes find themselves working alongside top tier groups; and those efforts can further tap their economic resources. 

Top tier groups are the ones with the greatest resources (financial or otherwise), the celebrities, and the clout to be heard.  Their results are very tangible and quantifiable - or they should be if they deserve our dollars in support.

Christopher Chin and his team have worked hard and taken COARE right into that mid-tier level.  It is a challenging place to be, wrestling with the mid-tier pressures of expansion: expanding the organization and expanding the economic base.  However, Christopher sees it as an exciting position to be in and is making plans to carry COARE well beyond a regional entity.

I had the opportunity to interview Christopher about the origins of COARE, what it has accomplished, and where it is going.  You can begin to appreciate the amount of work involved in propelling an ocean conservation group forward by what he has to say.

RTSea: As founder and executive director of COARE (The Center for Oceanic Awareness,
Research, and Education), what motivated you to take the step to start your own
organization? What did you see that you could provide that other organizations
perhaps couldn't?

Christopher Chin: This is a great question, Richard, and one that I think every organization should ask itself.

The initial inspiration for COARE occurred nearly eleven years ago while I was diving and filming in Fiji.  It's actually a story that I put in writing for the first time on our blog, and I encourage you to check it out for the full story.  To make a long story short, I had an epiphany after a meaningful and personal interaction with a bull shark.  Afterwards, when I got out of the water, I decided that I needed to do something to make a difference.

I began to collaborate with other conservation-minded folks to figure out how we could be most impactful.  After a great deal of brainstorming, data-collecting, and consideration, we realized several things.  First, the power of the individual and each individual's influence were both often underestimated.  We also realized that there were two major roadblocks to any given individual's involvement: knowledge or awareness, and belief that his or her actions will make a difference.

A person unaware of an issue or situation could not possibly be inspired to get involved - and of course, if that person believed that his or her involvement was only symbolic and would not have an impact, then that person would be less enthusiastic about being involved.

We saw that most other organizations catered to those already indoctrinated in the conservation world, and saw that there was a need to enlighten and inspire the average person, and then to show that person how easy it is to make a difference.  We like to joke that "awareness" is our middle name.

RT: COARE is based in San Francisco. Are the majority of your projects and
efforts focused regionally, in the San Francisco Bay or northern California area?

CC: COARE participates in many issues that are local to the greater San Francisco Bay Area and throughout California because it's relatively easy for us to do so.  We're volunteer run and operated, and most of our volunteer resources are concentrated in California.   However, ocean issues are of worldwide concern, and also a worldwide responsibility, so we are also very involved at the national and global levels.

RT: Regionally-speaking, what are some of the major marine issues and how are you
addressing those issues and the implications they represent for local residents?

CC: In the San Francisco Bay area, there is a natural tendency for people to take notice of the San Francisco Bay, local estuaries, and the state waters of the Pacific Ocean.  It's relatively easy for residents so close to waterways to see and understand the impacts they have on the marine environment.

A great example of how that translates into issues and action is our policy work around single-use plastic bags. 

As you may already know, the City of San Francisco was the first city in the United States to implement a ban on plastic bags.  Back in 2007, this was landmark legislation, and many cities and counties throughout the U.S. - and around the world - have since followed suit with their own bans.

We've learned quite a lot over the years, and have an improved approach to these issues.  We wanted to strengthen that original ban so that it would apply to a greater number of establishments, and so that it would address a number of previously exploited loopholes.  We worked with a number of other organizations to support an improved and expanded ordinance, and we're proud to say that the improved San Francisco ban, now one of the strongest in the nation, went into effect last month.

Industry-backed opposition often talks about how such policy will kill jobs, cause hardship, or will simply be ineffective.  At both the governmental level and on the ground, we strive to show people that these claims do not hold water.  Of course, now that these policies are in effect in various places, we can see the differences; we see less single-use waste, and people everywhere realize that it's really not an imposition to bring your own bag. 

We're based in Oakland, and we're naturally looking forward to the countywide ban going into effect next year.  Other cities and counties around the Bay Area and throughout California have similar bans, or are considering them, and we're looking forward to re-proposing and heralding a statewide measure.

RT: Many small or mid-size environmental groups will focus their resources on
grass roots initiatives. Do you focus on that target audience or do you also
work with government or regulatory agencies regarding policy making?

CC: One of COARE's principal tenets is that every single person has the power to effect change, and we wholeheartedly encourage that.  We work diligently on grassroots initiatives because we believe that conservation efforts must become more popular and ubiquitous, and that such a wave will have tremendous power to influence the way the world works.

As important as grassroots efforts are, we also firmly believe that it's necessary to build a sound framework to focus conservation efforts and provide direction for our leaders.  With that in mind, we also do a fair amount of work with governmental, regulatory, and legislative bodies to create, support, and promote sensible and effective policies.  In fact, we've become a recognized leader in environmental policy work, particularly with regard to shark conservation.

RT: Safe to say that most ocean conservation organizations have the best of
intentions and are quite adept in citing and detailing the various marine issues
we face. But my position has been that the organizations that deserve the
financial support of the general public (particularly in these challenging
economic times) are those who can provide definitive results, not just talk. So,
here's an open forum; what are some of COARE's quantitative and qualitative results?

CC: COARE has seen and shared in a number of amazing victories this past year.  In many of them, we played a notable role, but it's important to recognize that in some cases we were part of a broader team.  While our support and involvement in such efforts was integral, we were not alone in those achievements.

In some efforts, however, we stood apart, or took more of a leadership role - and we're extremely proud of our results.

Similar to last year's shark fin ban in California (in which we were intimately involved), we worked on a number of new statewide proposals this past year.  Of the all statewide bills, the only one that succeeded was the measure we sponsored and led; SB4119, which prohibits the sale, possession, and distribution of shark fins in the State of Illinois, saw tremendous success.
As we were wrapping things up with AB376 in California last year, a number of people asked me, "What's next?"  When I told them I had my sights on Illinois, many looked at me quizzically... what most people don't realize is that after California and New York, Illinois has the largest market for fins, and Chicago's Chinatown is the fourth largest in the United States.  What we're addressing here is the consumption side of the conservation equation, and the fin market is not about ports or fishing efforts or landings; it's about the demand.  Yes, Illinois was a big victory!

We attribute our success to several things.  For one, we had some key partners like The Humane Society (HSUS) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who helped with our lobbying efforts and legislative strategy.  We're eternally grateful for their support and for their faith in our leadership and enthusiasm.

We also started off with an extremely solid bill.  We crafted the language with comprehensive ideas and goals, and it was able to withstand the scrutiny of both chambers without any substantive changes.

Another key factor in our success, and a tremendous success in its own right, is that we won the support of the Chinese community in Chicago.  In the end, we had the restaurants on board as well as the Chinese press.  In fact, some of the most positive Chinese-language articles to date covering the shark fin issue were a direct result of our campaign.

While our Illinois campaign was the only statewide initiative to reach the finish line this year, I was honored to provide testimony for a number of other measures.  In fact, my appearance before legislative bodies has been extremely persuasive, and nearly every committee before which I've testified has voted unanimously in support.

If we can convince legislators who live about as far from the sea as one can get, (some of whom have never even seen the water) that sharks and the ocean matter to them and their constituents, we can do anything!

RT: A lot of my readers are shark advocates. Can you explain what the goals and
specific components are of your "Shark Safe" program?

CC: The Shark Safe Certification Program is designed to increase public awareness of the need for shark conservation and to reduce the sale, use, and trade of shark products like shark fins, shark cartilage, and shark liver oils.

Since sharks are universally recognizable, the shark-based logo draws attention and intrigue and immediately inspires interest.  People who aren't familiar with it are drawn to ask about it - allowing for teaching opportunities.  For consumers already familiar with the program and its aims, Shark Safe certification is designed to give discerning customers confidence that their choices help protect sharks, and thus the ocean.

While The Shark Safe Program might seem to be creature specific, the Program looks at ocean conservation in a comprehensive ecosystems manner.  The use of fishing gear and practices that result in shark bycatch generally tend to be wasteful, harmful to non-target species, or destructive to habitat.  Encouraging more sustainable and sound fishing practices is better not just  for sharks, but for the ocean as a whole.

RT: There might be a passionate, committed ocean conservationist reading this who
dreams of building the next Conservation International, Oceana, or WildAid. But
we must all walk before we can run. What advice would you give to anyone who is
considering starting an ocean conservation group?

CC: One of the recent trends in conservation that I find most encouraging is that of collaboration.  Many successful campaigns have seen the use of diverse coalitions to ignite broader public and legislative support for different policies and practices.  It is such collaboration that I believe is key to the success and viability of an organization and its programs.  We must realize our common goals and work around any differences to move forward.

If someone is interested in starting their own organization, it's likely for one of two reasons:  They believe that what they want to do is not already happening; or, that it's already happening, but they want to do it differently, or better.

If it's for the former reason, I'd encourage you to make sure that what you envision is really not already being undertaken.  If there are programs or organizations already working on the issue, I'd encourage you to join or support what's already in the works. Reinventing the wheel, or designing and building a new one from scratch, takes an enormous amount of time and effort - and those resources could potentially directly serve an effective program already in existence.

However, if you're sure that you can make a difference in a new and unique way, please follow your dream, your heart, and your passion, and you'll find that there is no greater reward than knowing that you are changing the world.

RT: Where do you see COARE heading in the next few years?

CC: It's encouraging to see COARE's growth over the years, and to see that we've been embraced and welcomed in the conservation community.  New organizations are often viewed with skepticism, and the "new kid on the block" is seldom taken very seriously. COARE has continuously and consistently made meaningful impacts - all while keeping the integrity of our mission and ideals in plain view - and people have taken notice.

COARE does a tremendous amount on a very slim budget.  What most people don't realize is that we're entirely volunteer led and run.  Not a single penny has gone to our management or administration since day one.  However, we are now at a point where our growth, both organizationally and in terms of impact, could leap forward exponentially with increased capacity.  We're ready to take on staff and expand our already stable and proven process.

If you already like who we are now, what we stand for, and what we do, you're going to love us as we continue to build and grow.

Source: COARE

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