12 Significant Pew Successes of 2015

After the Fact Podcast Episode 6: Our Blue Planet–Protecting the Ocean

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The oceans provide food for billions of people, habitat for countless creatures, and climate control for the planet—which makes conserving the seas essential for us all. That means everyone got good news in 2015, when more ocean area was set aside for protection in a single year than ever before. Working with communities and governments around the world, Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project helped win designation of four new marine reserves that total 998,000 square miles (more than 2.5 million square kilometers).

Along with five other locations for which the project previously helped win protections, Global Ocean Legacy sites now account for about 80 percent of all fully protected waters in the ocean.

The newest reserves are in the United Kingdom’s Pitcairn Islands, New Zealand’s Kermadec Islands, Chile’s Easter Island, and Palau.

The reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, a British overseas territory in the South Pacific with 49 residents, was declared on March 18. It will be the world’s largest, covering 322,138 square miles (834,334 square kilometers), an area roughly 3½ times the size of the United Kingdom.

Pitcairn’s waters are home to more than 1,240 species of marine mammals, seabirds, and fish, along with the world’s deepest known living plant, a species of encrusting coralline algae found 1,253 feet (382 meters) below sea level. The reserve protects one of the two remaining raised coral atolls on the planet and a feature called 40-Mile Reef, the deepest and most well-developed coral reef in the world.

The Bertarelli Foundation also announced a commitment to support monitoring of the reserve by satellite to ensure enforcement of restrictions on fishing and other activities.

The Sept. 28 establishment of the 239,383-square- mile (620,000-square-kilometer) Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, 620 miles northeast of New Zealand’s North Island, followed five years of collaboration with representatives from the local iwi (Maori) people, scientists, artists, business and community leaders, the Royal New Zealand Navy, and nongovernmental organizations such as World Wildlife Fund-New Zealand and Forest & Bird.

The Global Ocean Legacy team organized the first Kermadec science symposium to highlight geodiversity and biodiversity in the region, and numerous expeditions with scientists, artists, and youth leaders. The new designation expands a smaller marine reserve established in 1990 and protects more than 50 underwater volcanoes that are part of the longest underwater volcanic arc in the world. The reserve covers a section of the Kermadec-Tonga Trench, the deepest ocean trench in the Southern Hemisphere and the second-deepest on Earth.

© Michael Melford/National Geographic

The waters surrounding Easter Island are now part of the world's third-largest fully protected area of ocean. Chile's government created the reserve in the South Pacific Ocean off the island, which is home to the giant iconic, centuries-old statues called moai.

On Easter Island, Pew staff and partners collaborated with the indigenous community, the Rapa Nui, which proposed the 243,630-square-mile (631,368-square- kilometer) park to safeguard the biodiversity of the island’s waters—home to 142 endemic species, 27 of which are threatened or endangered.

The Rapa Nui sought to protect their waters, particularly from large-scale commercial fishing by foreign-flagged vessels, but also wanted to continue their centuries-old subsistence fishing practices. So the reserve allows that fishing in an area extending 50 miles from the shoreline.

Because Easter Island is a territory of Chile, Pew staff also worked closely with government ministers in the country’s capital, Santiago, presenting scientific analyses of the social, economic, and environmental value of reserves. That effort in part prompted Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to announce the new reserve Oct. 5 at the Our Ocean conference in Valparaiso.  

In Palau, Pew and its partners worked with President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., who sought to keep 20 percent of the country’s waters open to local and small-scale commercial fishing to feed the domestic market.

Palau’s reserve, designated Oct. 28, includes a ban on fishing and all extractive activities in the other 80 percent—193,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) of the nation’s maritime territory—which means that Palau has more water set aside for full protection than any other nation in the world.

Often cited as an “underwater wonder of the world,” the Pacific waters surrounding Palau are home to more than 1,300 species of fish and 700 species of coral. Protecting that environment will also help maintain Palau’s status as a top dive destination: Scuba diving tourism generates $90 million annually for the country’s economy. 

The new designations increase the total amount of ocean protected to 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square kilometers). But that’s only 2 percent of the world’s waters. Scientists say keeping oceans healthy requires protecting at least 30 percent—so the project’s work isn’t finished. With its partners, Pew aims to help establish a total of 15 fully protected marine reserves, each at least 75,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers), by 2022.


Alabama, Nebraska, and Utah joined a growing effort to advance fiscally sound, research-based criminal sentencing and corrections policies, while South Dakota and West Virginia took significant steps to improve their juvenile justice systems.

Utah approved legislation that will prioritize prison beds for serious and violent offenders and strengthen sentencing alternatives and support for inmates re-entering society.

Alabama is projected to trim its prison population by more than 4,000 inmates over five years and improve public safety by investing in community programs for lower-level offenders.

South Dakota and West Virginia will use residential facilities for youth who are a public safety risk and reinvest the savings into programs proven to reduce recidivism.

In each state, leaders from all three branches of government and key stakeholders worked with Pew and its partners to analyze their data and develop customized policy strategies.


© Getty Images

Sharks swim in safer waters after Pew helped the Federated States of Micronesia and the Dutch islands of Bonaire and Saba create sanctuaries where these top predators are protected from the fishing that kills about 100 million of them around the world each year.


© Janelle Lugge/Shutterstock

The Mitchell Falls sit on Western Australia’s remote Mitchell Plateau, one of the last places on Earth where native wildlife has remained unchanged for almost 50,000 years. With Pew’s urging, the Western Australian government protected the region from mining, and it will become part of the new Kimberley National Park. 


© The Washington Post via Getty Images

More Mexican immigrants left the United States and returned home than migrated north between 2009 and 2014, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. 

The slowdown of Mexican immigrants likely stems from several factors: The economy’s slow recovery after the Great Recession may have made the U.S. less attractive to potential migrants and may have pushed out some Mexican immigrants as the job market deteriorated. The stricter enforcement of immigration laws may have contributed to fewer Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. Also, Mexican migrants expressed a desire to reunite with family.

While there are no official counts of how many Mexican immigrants enter and leave the U.S. each year, Pew’s estimates have become widely accepted among policymakers as an authoritative source.


In recognition of the growing risk of drug-resistant bacteria, McDonald’s said last year that it would stop buying chickens that were raised with antibiotics used in human medicine. Tyson Foods also said it would stop using human antibiotics in raising its flocks.

The two companies join such household names as Chick-fil-A and Perdue Farms in cutting back on or eliminating the use of antibiotics in their poultry.

For decades, antibiotics have been used in food animal production without veterinary oversight and to make animals grow faster. Under FDA guidance, drug companies are expected to remove growth promotion indications from product labels by year’s end.

Over time, bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. Overuse of these lifesaving drugs accelerates this process and can create superbugs. These superbugs are resistant to several types of antibiotics and sicken at least 2 million people each year in the United States, with as many as 23,000 people dying.

As part of efforts to promote public awareness of this threat and to encourage development of new antibiotics, Pew works with food companies to develop new policies. Last year marked significant progress—Wal-Mart also joined the effort, asking its poultry, meat, seafood, dairy, and egg suppliers to use antibiotics responsibly and report how they are using them.

U.S. Lands

President Theodore Roosevelt once observed that Americans “have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” Working with partners at the state and local level, Pew seeks to preserve this heritage by seeking protection of our nation’s threatened wildlands.

And 2015 saw notable successes with the creation of three new national monuments, establishment of a new wilderness area, and an increase in designated conservation protection areas.

National monuments:

  • Nevada’s Basin and Range, a 704,000-acre region of irreplaceable Native American rock art, wildlife habitat, and rare plants, was announced in July.
  • California’s Berryessa Snow Mountain, also announced in July, totals 330,780 acres of natural, historical, and cultural resources.
  • Colorado’s Browns Canyon, announced in February, is one of the country’s most popular destinations for rafting, kayaking, fishing, and wildlife-watching.

Protected wilderness:

  • Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds region, which encompasses over 275,000 acres of alpine ecosystem, was designated in August. It includes a large roadless core that supports rare flora and fauna and provides critical habitat for animals such as elk, moose, and bighorn sheep.

Land conservation:

  • In the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken by the U.S.  Bureau of Land Management, more than 35 million acres across 10 Western states will be managed to balance land conservation alongside energy development, protecting the greater sage-grouse, elk, mule deer, pronghorns, golden eagles, and hundreds of other species.


Four states—Alabama, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island—joined the Electronic Registration Information Center in 2015. Formed with Pew’s assistance, ERIC mines public records to help keep voter rolls accurate and up to date.

Middle Class

Most Americans used to be middle class. Not anymore. A Pew Research Center analysis, which received widespread attention last year, found that the middle class is now matched in numbers with the combined upper and lower economic tiers.

In at least one sense, the shift represents economic progress: While the share of U.S. adults living in both upper- and lower-income households rose alongside the declining share in the middle from 1971 to 2015, the analysis showed the share in the upper-income tier grew more.

Still, middle-income Americans have fallen further behind financially in the new century. Because of the housing market crisis and the Great Recession, their median wealth (their assets minus their debts) fell by 28 percent from 2001 to 2013. And in 2014, the median income of these households was 4 percent less than in 2000.

The study defined the American middle class as adults whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median, about $42,000 to $126,000 annually in 2014 dollars for a household of three.

While they made up half of the U.S. adult population last year, that was down from 61 percent in 1971.


© Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Americans are less religious, with those who believe in God, pray daily, or regularly attend services on the decline, according to last year’s groundbreaking study of more than 35,000 people by the Pew Research Center. Most of that decrease comes because of the “nones,” the growing minority of people, particularly in the millennial generation, who don’t identify with any particular religion. But that same study found that those who are members of religious denominations remain devout.

Pew identified new global trends as well. Over the next four decades, Christians will remain the world’s largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other religion. By 2050, the number of Muslims, like these in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, will equal the number of Christians worldwide.


© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Around the nation, community colleges are facing new pressure to produce graduates and skilled workers. The federal government has called for 30 percent more associate degree holders by 2020, with extensive research showing those credentials lead to better jobs and better lives, especially for low-income individuals.

So Pew examined the Community College of Philadelphia to gauge its effectiveness in helping Philadelphians attain higher education and marketable job skills. The analysis found that the school has had mixed success in recent years. It has been producing the highest number of graduates since its founding 50 years ago. But its students earned associate degrees—and bachelor’s degrees from other institutions—at rates that were about average or below average. And tuition for students like Fannetta Sanders (above), who was featured in the report, was far above the median price of similar schools and higher than every other community college in the Philadelphia region.

The college has undertaken improvement plans over the years, including those in areas in which it has lagged some other colleges, according to the report. Among the initiatives the school is now focusing on are hiring more advisers, lessening the choice of electives in its academic curricula, and making workforce development a top priority.

Dental Health

© Kodi Seaton/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Dental therapists are midlevel providers—similar to physician assistants on a medical team—who offer preventive and routine restorative care, such as filling cavities. They can help fill a need in places where there aren’t enough dentists, and they are authorized to practice in Maine, Minnesota, and, under tribal authority, in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, as well as in more than 50 countries around the globe.

In August, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, the U.S. accrediting body for academic dental programs, approved standards for dental therapy training programs. This move acknowledged the need and support for dental therapy in the U.S. and removed a major roadblock to the profession’s growth. More states are likely to authorize dental therapy because they will no longer have to create standards for training, schools will be more inclined to launch training programs, and students will be more likely to enter the field because their education will be recognized by more employers and they will be eligible for federal financial aid. The decision also bolsters Pew’s efforts to authorize dental therapists in more states to offer underserved Americans greater access to oral health care and to help make more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.