August 30, 2017

How to Kick-start Marine Conservation in China?

New snorkelers were able to observe fish and corals for the first time

By Dr. Gregor Hodgson, Executive Director, Reef Check Foundation

China's coastal provinces make up only 14% of the nation's land area, but are home to half the country's 1 billion people, and the site of two-thirds of national economic activity. Marine and coastal areas face mounting pressures and threats from pollution, climate change, overfishing, and poorly planned development. Over 50% of China's fisheries are overharvested and depleted. While Chinese people love to eat seafood, the public is largely unaware of the many serious problems threatening coastal and marine ecosystems. In most countries, the government is assisted in its work of monitoring and managing these ecosystems by non-profit organizations such as Reef Check. Reef Check began operating in Hainan, Guangxi and Guangdong, China in 2001, initially by training government staff and university researchers. But there are relatively few non-profits in China focused on marine environmental issues.

A group of foundations from China and the US joined forces to try to solve this problem using a unique approach that has not been attempted elsewhere. The original idea was conceived by Shawn Zhang, Executive Director of Paradise Foundation, based in Beijing. Shawn, a long-time scuba diver had seen the decline of the marine environment in China and elsewhere. He thought it might be possible to create a pipeline of young Chinese professionals who could apply business principles to solving environmental problems threatening ocean ecosystems.  These “Blue Pioneers” as he called them, could start their own companies or non-profits, or might later work in academia or government, but they would be focused on ocean and coastal conservation, pollution prevention and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture in China.

Discussing profits and organism sizes with vendors at a Shenzhen fish market

The Blue Pioneer Program (BPP) was launched in 2016 by Paradise Foundation, in partnership with Yintai Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. Paradise requested Reef Check's Dr. Gregor Hodgson, who had worked on and off in China since 1990, to assist as Marine Conservation Advisor. The proposed plan was to recruit students from the MBA and Masters in Social Enterprise programs at Beijing University's elite Guanghua Business School to take part in a specially designed training program that would include guest lectures, field training in marine issues and conservation, internships in China and the US, and ending in a competition for a $50,000 prize based on the best new business solution.

Two experts in “Impact Investment,” Dr. Yuwei Shi of Middlebury Institute of International Education and Dr. Monica Jain of Fish 2.0 kicked off the training last December with a crash course in “Impact Investment.” This type of investment refers to business ideas where the goal is primarily social/environmental rather than solely for profit.

In May 2017, Dr. Hodgson led a 6-day field course in Marine Conservation in Nan'ao Shenzhen designed to introduce the major ocean issues affecting China and the world. It included guest lectures by academics, government and marine NGO staff in collaboration with Shenzhen Ocean University, State Oceanic Administration and the I Love Ocean NGO, and Reef Check Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The advantage of Shenzhen is that almost every marine problem is easily observed within an area of about 5 square km – sewage, industrial, aquaculture pollution, commercial and artisanal capture fisheries, aquaculture of every type, and even a nuclear power plant. There are also Marine Protected Areas that include beaches, seagrass beds, mangrove forests and even coral reefs. The course was designed to include “immersion learning,” the process of teaching non-swimming students who have had little experience in the ocean to safely plunge into the ocean and directly experience the ecosystem through all senses.  Many of the students did not know how to swim, and none had been snorkeling before. They appreciated the opportunity to learn to swim, snorkel and to see marine life first hand. According to some students, this was a life-changing experience.

To build on this training in marine issues, the students were invited to attend a two-week study tour/course at Monterey Institute of International Studies where they learned more about marine management, were able to kayak with humpback whales and sea lions as well as to meet venture capitalists with an interest in social entrepreneurs and to compete in a mock prize competition. Some students are currently applying for internships in China and internationally with NGOs to gain more experience. The partners are looking forward to seeing which problems the students will choose to solve in China.

Planning meeting between Paradise Foundation and Shenzhen University for Marine Conservation Issues Course Team problem solving and presentations Beijing University Keith Kei of HK Baptist University and Majian of Paradise inspect a coral aquaculture facility run by Shenzhen University
Dr. Liao explains coral culture to BPP Marine Conservation Course students BPP Marine Conservation Course pool training What does a sea cucumber feel like?