Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Andreas Merkl
In this ongoing series, I talk with thought leaders about ideas and trends in the environmental movement.
Next in the series is my conversation with Ocean Conservancy President and CEO Andreas Merkl.
Mark Tercek: Congratulations on your new role at the Ocean Conservancy. What are your initial impressions leading an environmental nonprofit? What surprised you?
Andreas Merkl: Thank you! There were not too many surprises, actually, since my previous job involved much consulting to environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs). In terms of my transition from the private sector, I actually think that the private and non-profit sectors have grown to greatly resemble each other in many ways. At least in the environmental field, the level of competition has increased greatly, the “clients” (i.e. Foundation and multi/bi-lateral donors) have become ever more specific and technically sophisticated in their program specifications, and the nature of the problems we have to address has certainly become vastly more complex. Today’s best ENGOs would succeed quite well as private sector consultancies, think tanks, international program managers, PR agencies, etc.
Ocean Conservancy is certainly no exception to this. I was delighted to find deep technical expertise, deeply engrained culture of service to the cause, each other, and donors, as well as a unique ability to sustain complex policy initiatives for the long term.
Mark Tercek: What are the biggest challenges facing the world’s fisheries?
Andreas Merkl: I would call out three challenges. First, and most systemically, the pace of change in the fundamental chemistry of the ocean is accelerating, with equally fundamental implications for fish stocks and fishermen – it’s hard to manage fisheries when the stocks are shifting in search of cooler waters.
Second, the problem of overfishing has definitely shifted to the developing world, with the overcapacity of the commercial fleets a prime culprit. Most of these fleets are overcapitalized, way too big, hard pressed to make profits, and sustained by subsidies of various kinds and lots of political patronage. Third, the artisanal/subsistence fisheries in the developing world have lost resource ownership – a Philippine fisherman loses the rewards of good resource stewardship to outsiders. Traditional fishery management systems addressed this commons issue effectively, and we need to bring them back.
Mark Tercek: Tell us more about how climate change exacerbates those challenges.
Andreas Merkl: Where do I start? Take away summer ice from northern oceans, and you get an entirely different ecosystem. Change ocean acidity by 25% (as we have since 1880), and you impose an entirely new metabolic tax on all shell-dependent organisms. Raise ocean temperature by a degree or more, and stocks start beginning to shift. Fisheries management has always had to deal with a fair amount of risk. Now we’re dealing with uncertainty. That’s a whole different ball game.
Mark Tercek: My book Nature’s Fortune argues for more investment in “green infrastructure.” What opportunities do you see for these investments in the marine space?
Andreas Merkl: Expanding on the theme of uncertainty, we need a significant investment in ocean observation systems – change is coming at us too fast to rely on old, static management measures.
The new approaches will need to be fast, risk based and will require lots of data.
First, we need marine spatial management systems that allow us to make good decision on the basics – where do we route ships, where do we put wind farms, etc. Second, we need to make fishing efforts far more transparent — transponders on every boat, and an open source platform that makes these data available for every watchdog organization on the planet. Third, it would be great to enable ports to give priority for boats and owners that play by the rules. The list goes on – basically, we need an information infrastructure that introduces some level of rationality to our ocean management.
Mark Tercek: You’ve had many interesting jobs in the past. What do you think nonprofit leaders do well and what kind of mistakes do they make?
Andreas Merkl: It’s too easy to resort to the standard critique of ENGO leaders not being “systemic enough.” Let’s face it – we’re up against trillions of dollars in global natural resource interests, we are out-spent, out-lawyered, out-PR’d by several orders of magnitude.
Given all that, we have had some significant successes – the world would look much different without us! But I do think we need to become more patient and technically proficient at working with the global institutions which, step by step, will make a major difference in the long run. Pick your acronym – WTO, IMO, CITES, RFMOs, FAO, Arctic Council – despite their often exasperating pace, they matter greatly in the long view. And I am sure that as an ex-Goldman Sachs guy, you will agree with me that we need to get much closer to the major economic decision makers in terms of demonstrating a compelling vision for their legacy on the planet.
Mark Tercek: What can environmentalists do to increase awareness of the ocean’s limited resources?
Andreas Merkl: Every second breath you take. A quarter of your protein (and much more than that if you are poor). The single largest carbon sink on the planet. The great purveyor of climate equalization. The cradle of life. The center of it all. And yet, if you listen to the debates on climate change, food security, poverty, the ocean hardly features. We need to put the ocean back into the center of the debate, where it belongs.
Mark Tercek: What environmentally-themed book has had the greatest impact on you?
Andreas Merkl: No contest: Moby Dick. In the end, it’s about our choices about how much suffering of others (man and beast) we accept for small improvements in our own fortunes. All the abstractions, all the ecosystem modeling, all the yield maths, at the end of the day come back to our treatment of our fellow animals. I am with Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, can be measured in its treatment of animals.”
Andreas Merkl is the President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, which educates and empowers citizens to take action on behalf of the ocean. From the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico to the halls of Congress, Andreas leads the organization’s efforts to tackle the ocean’s biggest challenges with science-based solutions.
With a background in environmental science, resource economics and business, Andreas is particularly interested in determining the ocean’s rightful role in answering the central question of our time: how to meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us.