Pew and the Packard Foundation: A Shared Approach to Ocean Conservation

  • March 20, 2017
  • by Demetra Aposporos

David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Cape Perpetua is the largest of five marine reserves along Oregon's craggy coast. (Macduff Everton)

For more than half a century, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has embraced a belief in the power of science to restore our planet’s health, with a primary focus on conservation and ecology. Packard opened the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984 and five years later launched the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which continues to be a global leader in ocean science and engineering—all with the intention of cultivating future generations of conservationists to protect the world’s oceans.

So when Packard learned in 2007 of Pew’s work to secure state protections for Oregon coastal waters, it joined in support. The Our Ocean project resulted in the 2012 designation of five marine reserves and protected areas along 250 miles of rugged Oregon coast that stretches from the city of Cannon Beach south to Port Orford. The safeguards were the first of their kind in the state and marked the beginning of more than a decade of collaborative work around marine conservation between the two organizations.

Pew’s Pacific ocean conservation project to secure protections for forage fish was next to gain Packard support. These small fish travel in dense, synchronized schools and are a vital component of the marine food web for larger animals, including fish, seabirds, and mammals.

Because forage fish are not exactly a household name—although some, like anchovies, may be familiar—part of the project’s work focused on a communications strategy to help people understand the importance of these little fish to supporting the health of the ocean as a whole. For example, without a steady diet of forage fish, animals such as sea lions can—and have—starved. Thus the campaign’s slogan, “Little fish, big deal,” was born.

The messaging invokes a forward-thinking approach known as ecosystem-based fisheries management, which brings a big-picture view of the ocean’s many moving parts—from groups of the smallest fish to changes in habitat and weather, the overfishing of target species, and the incidental capture or death of other animals (known as bycatch)—into conversations around fisheries management. In the context of forage fish, which are also harvested in large quantities to create feed for the aquaculture and livestock industries as well as for use in fertilizers and health supplements, ecosystem-based fisheries management affords a real-world view of all the forces affecting these fish. And it offers a better picture than looking at each species by itself, which has been the more traditional strategy in fisheries management.

The ecosystem approach—long advocated by Pew and Packard—is another sign of the strong shared approach the organizations have adopted and has helped to strengthen the scientific argument for the need to safeguard forage fish.

“Both of our organizations strongly believe in the power of science-based decision-making, and that has been really important within the management of the U.S.-based fisheries,” says Heather Ludemann, program officer for Packard’s U.S. ocean strategy initiative. “With Pew, two things I’m really impressed by are their ability to engage diverse allies like recreational fishermen, who are also interested in having prey available for bigger fish, and a real focus on science and being able to demonstrate that these forage species are important to wildlife and seabirds.”

Packard’s expertise contributed greatly to the project. “One of the unique qualities about Packard is that they understand the science and communities and people of the West Coast better than most and really dig into these conservation issues at a deep level,” says Paul Shively, Pew’s director of Pacific fish conservation work.

Last fall, thanks in part to the project’s efforts, several species of West Coast forage fish—including sand lance, smelt, silverside, saury, lanternfish, and some squid—gained protections in federal waters from Washington to California.

Today, Pew’s U.S. ocean conservation project, with support from Packard, is focused on the West Coast swordfish fishery, which has extremely high rates of bycatch owing to its reliance on drift gillnets—large nets with 14-inch mesh openings that can extend across a mile or more of ocean, dropping from some 30 feet below the surface to a depth of over 100 feet. Because they are deployed overnight, when many ocean species converge near the surface of the water, drift gillnets also indiscriminately trap significant amounts of other wildlife—including humpback and sperm whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, other billfish, and sea lions. By the time the nets are pulled up in the morning, the majority of animals tangled in them have been stuck for many hours, decreasing their ability to survive. Data show that on average the approximately 20 active drift gillnet vessels in the fishery are discarding about 65 percent of what they pull in. Consequently, the project is exploring a less destructive fishing method.

“Pew is helping to support scientific research to understand the feasibility of a new type of gear that would allow fishermen to shift away from harmful drift gillnets,” says Ludemann. That method, innovative technology called deep-set buoy gear, consists of hooks about 1,000 feet below the surface, an area of colder water where swordfish, but few other species, swim during the day. When swordfish bite the hooks, buoys at the surface alert fishing boats that they have a strike, allowing fishermen to swoop in, quickly retrieve the fish, and put them on ice, resulting in a fresher and higher-quality product.

As a bonus, deep-set buoy gear results in swordfish that are more valuable per pound—up to 2 ½ times more profitable. The system also means that species on the hooks not targeted by the fishermen can be removed before they die, virtually eliminating bycatch mortality.

The gear, which was developed by the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research, is being tested in the swordfish fishery. “We’ve been supporting their deep-set buoy research with combined resources from Pew and Packard, and it’s proving to be an extremely promising gear type with high success rates,” Shively says.

In California, where many consumers have for years been calling for a less destructive way of landing swordfish, more than 100 seafood industry executives—from chefs to restaurant owners and retailers—have signed a letter promoting the use of deep-set buoys. A poll commissioned by Pew last year found that 87 percent of Californians support using less harmful gear. The project’s goal is to see deep-set buoys approved by 2018 as an alternative fishing method by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which governs the West Coast swordfish fishery.

Like Pew, Packard’s dedication to ocean science runs deep. Two of David and Lucile Packard’s four children obtained degrees in marine biology. One of them, Julie Packard, is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s executive director and served on the Pew Oceans Commission, which in the early 2000s helped raise national awareness about the plight of the ocean. And the organizations are looking forward to future science-based collaborations.

Beyond marine conservation, Packard has also supported Pew’s work in other areas, including the Cultural Data Project, which helped arts organizations employ data to demonstrate the value they contribute to the community; Pew’s project that promoted the adoption of prekindergarten programs in states; and efforts to protect U.S. public lands.

“The Packard Foundation shares a real commitment to science-based projects that make a difference in the world,” says Susan Urahn, Pew’s executive vice president and chief program officer. “The success of our past work together has been gratifying, and we are honored to continue our strong relationship moving forward.”

And for her part, Carol S. Larson, Packard’s CEO and president, says: “Creating positive, lasting change is not easy—but it is possible. Working together with a diverse set of grantees and partners like Pew, guided by science and inspired by human ingenuity, we can ensure a better future for the ocean—where life recovers, biodiversity flourishes, and the ocean’s natural resilience continues to sustain life for generations to come.”

For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at