How robots, apps and 'invasive species' sushi can help the oceans

Ocean life image by Ethan Daniels via

Oceans are the source of 70 percent of the world's oxygen and the primary source of protein to over 2 billion people. Covering three-quarters of the earth's surface, this vast resource so vital to human life is imperiled. Biodiversity plays a major role in keeping marine ecosystems alive, but more than half of fish species are at risk of collapse as early as 2048. 

But the immediacy of the problem also presents some opportunities. With a little initiative, entrepreneurs and companies can bolster the efforts of advocates by introducing valuable social capital and tools into the equation.

Although research dollars pour into exploration -- in fact, several more billion to space exploration than ocean exploration -- ocean conservation remains underfunded. As much an art as a science, conservation demands creativity, technology and the abilities to commercialize ideas and engage others -- assets and tactics that lie within the domain of the social innovator.

My firm's foray into the ocean world began two years ago. After devoting our first six years to environmental sustainability, we saw a new opportunity in the unchartered waters of the sea. In becoming the first U.S. consultancy to align with the Plastic Disclosure Project, EarthPeople joined the Clinton Global Initiative and other NGOs in supporting a framework for companies to measure, manage and report their plastic footprint, thus tackling an important marine pollution issues.

Under the sea

But engaging widespread interest in ocean conservation calls for more than a top-down corporate approach. Social innovations in media, communication, eco-tourism and education also were covered in our panel this month at SXSW Eco 2013.

Charlotte Vick, the partnership director of Mission Blue who collaborates with Google and 350-plus global partners to build educational ocean and coastal content, encouraged social innovators to join global teams to "spread conservation information using free, open source tools like Google Earth, Maps and Hangouts."

Vick also shared how Mission Blue, a global initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, is using data-gathering robots and arrays, animation, apps and video games. Infinite Scuba, for example, is a reality-based video game that gives players a way to experience the thrill and serenity of scuba diving virtually.

Another is SkyTruth, a non-profit that uses remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, fishing and other human activities.

But social innovation involves more than apps. It also demands that we tell our stories.

"If we destroy the ocean, we destroy ourselves," said one indigenous man in a film clip Vick showed. That visceral connection with the sea is foreign to most of us. Social innovators can become conduits to the ocean by engaging in creative ways to build bridges.

Demonstrating the power of art to connect inlanders to the sea, Mark Hall of Sakana Films showed a clip from his award-winning documentary, "Sushi: The Global Catch." The film lends insight into the issues of overfishing, species depletion and the potential for trophic collapse caused by consumption. It also shows the potential for entrepreneurs to recast the narrative about what constitutes quality seafood.

Putting the ocean at the heart of business

Chef Bun Lai is one such innovator. His restaurant, Miya's Sushi in New Haven, Conn., combines disparate ingredients and novel preparation techniques "to symbolize a future where humans and all living and nonliving things can coexist harmoniously."

"Much of our menu includes invasive species, 'trash fish' and bycatch, many of which we catch ourselves on our 100 acres of certified shell-fishing grounds, 12 miles from the restaurant," said Bun Lai.

"We try to maintain our restaurant in an ecologically responsible manner," he said. "We do our best to not use ingredients that are overfished or that in their production have a destructive impact on the environment."

Hall also suggests Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program and app to help consumers make knowledgeable choices at the supermarket or sushi counter.

"Conserving the oceans really comes down to teaching our kids to care about it," said Mark McWilliams, diver and co-founder of Kiss The Ocean, an eco-tourism brand and developer of ocean-based educational and professional programs.

"When families use their vacation to interact with the ocean, it helps the next generation develop an appreciation for conservation," he said.

McWilliams also speaks to audiences where children, many from disadvantaged communities, still don't know how to swim. "Weaving marine education and experiences into K-12 curricula is critical," he said.

Advocacy still matters

Advocacy and volunteerism still represent important ways for companies to use their platform to incite action. My company first got involved in the ocean with a pro bono campaign for Shark Stewards, a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to conserving oceans through the protection of sharks. As a volunteer advocate, I ended up taking a leading role in a coalition spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States to pass a groundbreaking law to eliminate the shark fin trade in Texas.

Although our legislative push suffered a fatal blow at the last minute, the relationships I gained with 40 conservation organizations in my state -- as well as dozens of leading scientists and experts around the world -- constitute invaluable social capital, an asset my firm can leverage to help more clients in the future. Now that we've done the work to knit together this community, we will have a much stronger chance of getting this important legislation passed in the next session.

Issues such as pollution and overfishing are not about biology so much as behavioral, economic and cultural issues that call for systemic solutions. To solve the problem, we need all hands on deck. As with sustainable transformation on land, the transformation of our oceans from decline to resilience will involve people willing to take risks, fail and give back without always getting tangible benefits in return.

Fortunately, social innovators who carve out some time to explore opportunities in oceanic conservation will discover a treasure trove of tools, a dynamic community of passionate players and a new frontier in opportunities to make a difference.

Ocean life image by Ethan Daniels via