How much could $1 billion dollars do for the planet? Philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss intends to find out. In late October, he launched the Wyss Campaign for Nature with an opinion piece in the New York Times, pledging $1 billion from his foundation to help protect 30 percent of Earth by 2030.
Wyss, 83, is already a heavyweight in conservation. His Wyss Foundation has donated more than $450 million to enable local communities to protect wild places in the western United States and internationally since 1998. Much of it is now public land, managed in perpetuity by the U.S. Forest Service, parks departments and conservation groups.
The Wyss Foundation has supported Oceana since 2015, fueling Oceana’s expansion into Canada, Peru and Mexico to bring science-based fisheries management to some of the largest fishing nations in the world. “The oceans and continents are one,” Wyss commented in the announcement about his initial grant to Oceana. “For too long, we have turned our back on the world’s oceans, pushing fisheries—and the communities that depend on them—to the brink. The task of restoring the health of our oceans is immense, but with the right resources and locally-developed, science-based policies, we can bring life back to the oceans for the benefit of current and future generations.”
We wanted to, following Mr. Wyss’s remarkable commitment, share, once again, his conversation with us about his vision for ocean conservation after his first pledge to Oceana. This comes from a feature originally published in Oceana magazine in 2015.
Why is your foundation now supporting ocean conservation?
We all know that the oceans have been overfished and polluted. They have been damaged by oil spills, illegal dumping, and industrial activities across every ocean. I feel that the time has come to protect the oceans the same way we try to protect land throughout the world.
How are land and ocean conservation linked?
To conserve one, we must conserve the other. Rivers flow from mountain ranges, through flatlands, through prairies, into the oceans. In turn, oceans create clouds that the trade winds carry back to land, and they bring moisture, rainfall, and shade. So, the oceans and continents are one; not two different things. They are interlinked in many different ways.
Why did the foundation choose to partner with Oceana?
I have always been interested in all kinds of conservation. In the past, I have worked on cleaning up some rivers and lakes in Europe, but I never found the right partner to work with to help restore the oceans. We have seen proposals before, but they haven’t been large enough in vision to protect a part of the oceans. But, as we have followed Oceana’s work over the last few years, it became clear that they are making change on a broad scale, across oceans. After Andy Sharpless visited the Centennial Valley, a beautiful valley in Montana, and delivered a fantastic presentation on Oceana, it was clear to us that it was time for our organizations to work together.
Have you seen the natural world change in your lifetime?
When I grew up in Switzerland, you couldn’t swim in one of the greatest rivers in Europe, the Aare in Switzerland, which flows to the Rhine, because effluent from every town was dumped into these rivers and streams. People didn’t care. However, in the last 50 or 60 years, there has been a huge effort in Europe and the United States to clean up our rivers, lakes, and other waterways. So there has been an extremely positive change - and that has been the biggest transformation that I have seen. There has also been a good deal of destruction of land through the expansion of suburbs, mining, and other development. But, for the first time, I have noticed real efforts being made to protect large pieces of land, not only by us but by many other organizations in the world.
Can you tell us about your personal connection to the oceans?
Growing up with my family, our father always took us to the Mediterranean coast, when it was unspoiled, and we went to the small villages near Marseilles, France. We had a wonderful experience learning to swim and play in salt water. My next experience with the oceans was trying to deep-sea fish, but I got terribly seasick. The ocean was not kind to me, and I’ve never gone deep-sea fishing again. But since then, I’ve been back on many boats, including a few months ago in Greece, where I saw firsthand how fantastic the interaction between islands and the sea can be.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of the oceans?
I don’t know. Unless there is a joint effort by many more nations, and unless there are many more groups like Oceana starting to work on the oceans, I am not sure we will see huge improvements over the next 20 or 30 years. Because we all know that there are islands of plastic in the middle of the Pacific and the Atlantic. And unless a major effort is undertaken by shipping companies to clean up what they throw in the ocean, and unless we cut back on plastic waste everywhere, I am not sure the oceans will improve. But we certainly are going to try.
What makes you hopeful that the world’s fisheries can be restored?
We would not be supporting this project and Oceana unless I strongly believed that, in certain parts of the world, with cooperation of the nations that we work with, we can restore healthy fisheries. Absolutely. But we need the scientific background that Oceana provides and that others, like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, can provide to help us to establish sustainable catch levels.
If we do this, the world’s fisheries in certain areas will improve. If nations are allowed to fish with no sensible limits, then the world’s oceans and fisheries will ultimately be destroyed. When you find the right scientific partner, at least in that part of the world you can make positive changes. But it needs the rule of law. Without the rule of law and strong government enforcement to ensure that the laws are followed, nothing will happen.