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October 6, 2021

An oral history of Oceana, as told by three of its founders

From left to right: Dr. Kristian Parker, Herbert "Beto" M. Bedolfe, III, and James Sandler
© Oceana


Oceana was established by a groundbreaking group of foundations – Oak Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Sandler Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and The Pew Charitable Trusts – at a time when practically no one was doing ocean conservation on a global scale. Twenty years later, Oceana is the largest international organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation, and several of its founders are still active board members. In celebration of Oceana’s anniversary, we caught up with three of Oceana’s founders to find out what drives their passion and why they keep showing up for our oceans, year after year:

Dr. Kristian Parker is a trustee of the Oak Foundation and oversees its environment program.

Herbert “Beto” M. Bedolfe, III is executive director of the Marisla Foundation.

James Sandler is in charge of the Sandler Foundation’s environmental giving.

On falling in love with the ocean

Kristian Parker: I don’t remember an exact moment when I fell in love with the oceans, but let’s just say I was lucky enough to spend time in special places growing up, including the Kona Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii. I spent a lot of time snorkeling, body surfing, and just hanging out at the beach. I was in that sea water so much that I was once asked if I bleached my hair!

When it came time to choose my subject for 10th grade, it seemed a natural fit to combine my love of the biological sciences with the oceans. But it wasn’t until graduate school that I became truly aware of the challenges the oceans are facing.

James Sandler: I developed a deeper connection with the ocean when I started scuba diving. The ability to dive below the surface and spend large amounts of time exploring a world that is so completely foreign to what we experience on land was captivating.

Here I was, swimming with so many beautiful and strange creatures and feeling completely safe. Where else can you find yourself surrounded by wildlife, sometimes creatures the size of a bus (in the case of whale sharks), and just float past, feeling connected and at peace?

Beto Bedolfe: I grew up in a beach town in Southern California and spent a lot of time in the ocean – mainly body surfing, swimming, and some surfing – so that connected me.

In the 1980s I became concerned, then horrified, when I learned that DDT had been dumped off the coast of Los Angeles/Palos Verdes in huge quantities from the 1950s-1970s. That has caused disastrous health and environmental problems for many decades and led to me becoming more active in ocean conservation.

On ocean conservation, then and now

Kristian Parker: When I started working in ocean conservation, it seemed to be a much-neglected field. When Pew came to me to propose the idea of Oceana in 1999, there was less than one-half of one percent of environmental funding going towards the oceans. The idea of conservation was decades old, but for some reason the oceans – aside from the fate of marine mammals, especially whales – was out of sight and out of mind.

Beto Bedolfe: Twenty years ago, there were few ocean conservation organizations in relation to groups working on terrestrial issues. It wasn’t that no one cared, but probably had a lot to do with how big the ocean is and how people thought it could never be ruined.

As the deep problems of overfishing, bycatch, ocean pollution, and underwater habitat destruction became better known, it was obvious that an organization like Oceana would be crucial to restoring ocean health and abundance. It was clear that the problems were tough and complex because they were local, regional, national, and international; this led to Oceana becoming active and effective in many parts of the world.

On Oceana’s secrets to success

James Sandler: There are two things that I believe were instrumental to Oceana’s growth and success. The first is that it was founded by a group of passionate funders who committed to provide three important elements: large, long-term, and flexible general support funding. This gave Oceana’s leadership the freedom to grow the organization and focus on the mission.

It also led to the second important element of Ocean’s success: great leadership. I believe Oceana was able to attract the best possible team by letting them know that they had the resources to create and execute on their strategy. They had the flexibility to grow the organization and create campaigns with few constraints. This culture led to one of the most effective environmental organizations out there. Fortunately, the leadership team and most of these funders are still involved with Oceana and have been able to attract new funders who also understand the power that flexible funding gives to an organization.

Beto Bedolfe: Oceana’s staff, board, and supporters are really the most tireless, generous, and wonderful people in the world. At a time when things are extremely difficult on many fronts – including ocean destruction, climate change, geopolitics, and now the pandemic – I am truly touched by people who do what they can to make the world a better place. And, of course, Oceana is supported by people around the world who understand the gravity of the situation and want to save and restore the ocean for lots of different reasons: beauty, tranquility, environmental sustainability, and even to slow climate change.

There is another reason behind Oceana growing in a good way: Leadership has been great at scanning the horizon for new threats to the oceans or new opportunities. Things have changed in 20 years, with ocean plastics being just one example, and Oceana has always picked up the challenge and been successful.

On making a lasting impact

James Sandler: Every time I attend a board meeting and hear the reports from country leaders, I am floored. Sometimes we hear from a country where the government is amenable to following science and creating regulations that help preserve and enhance their ocean resources. These reports are exciting because I can’t believe how much we are able to get done. Other times we hear from a country where the government is indifferent or hostile to our campaigns. The campaigns in these countries are hard-fought, and the victories can feel incredibly sweet.

I suppose I am just proud to be part of such an impactful organization that brings creativity, professionalism, and persistence to campaigning. Oceana takes chances and works on big problems that impact the quality of life for millions of people and, in some cases, has completely transformed the management practices of a country’s ocean resources upon which much of the country depends for food and livelihood.

Kristian Parker: The oceans remain a source of food for many people around the world. The idea that Oceana could champion ocean biodiversity and its role in feeding vulnerable populations is a powerful one. With climate change bearing down on us, we must see the oceans as a lifeline for those in need, not a source of luxury seafood. We must give precedence to sustainable small-scale fisheries over the destructive industrial players, especially if they are focused on mining the seas to supply fancy sushi restaurants.

It has been a tremendous joy to participate as an Oceana board member over the last 15 years. The decisions we made really mattered. Whether it was an on-the-spot decision to campaign against coal plants on the coast of Chile, or a referendum to ban offshore oil in Belize, to witness Oceana staff go from a board decision to significant victories is something to behold.

This story appears in the 20th Anniversary Issue (Fall 2021) of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.