Oceana’s first female board chair, Valarie Van Cleave, and her predecessor, Simon Sidamon-Eristoff, discuss their time on the board, their favorite campaign moments and why they fight for a thriving, abundant ocean.
Oceana: How did you get involved in Oceana?
Simon Sidamon-Eristoff: I was asked to be on the board of the American Oceans Campaign, which was founded by Ted Danson and Bob Sulnick because of a proposal to drill off the Santa Monica coastline. I joined that organization back in the mid-‘90s. When Oceana merged with American Oceans, I was one of three people, including Ted and Keith Addis, who joined the board with the merger.
Valarie Van Cleave: I got involved with Oceana when I was at a point in my life where I wanted to give back. I have a fundamental belief that a healthy planet is every generation’s rightful inheritance. And I thought: How can I give back with that that in mind? I looked at other nonprofits doing work in the environmental space, and it became really clear to me, really quickly that Oceana was a good fit for my time, talents and treasure. For me, I like Oceana’s practical business model. It’s goal-oriented, it’s science-based, and it’s focused on policy work. And the deeper I got into the organization the more impressed I was. I never looked back.
O: What are some of the most significant ways you’ve seen Oceana change over the years?
VVC: For me, it’s the substantial growth both in geographic reach — we’re doing good work in a lot more countries around the world — and how we’ve grown as far as the resources we have. Our annual operating budget has increased substantially, our staff has gotten bigger, and we’ve taken on additional campaigns in a bigger way. We’re maturing as an organization, and the collective knowledge that everybody is bringing to the table shows.
SSE: I would add to that the incredible generosity of a core group of funders, many of whom are represented on the board. But along with those people on the board there’s a bunch of funders who stepped up with multiyear commitments in the tens of millions of dollars. To me, it’s something I never would have expected. It’s a reflection of the importance of the issue.
O: Looking back, are there any moments or campaigns that stand out?
SSE: I remember we spent a day out in Punta de Choros, on the coast of Chile. We froze as we went out there on those little boats, and the dolphins were leaping alongside us, and we walked around on the island and talked to fishermen. When we came back we decided to pursue the proposed campaign, which was blocking the construction of a coal-fired power plant. Pulling the trigger on that was a pretty significant moment for me. It was risky — we didn’t know whether we would pull it off. And ultimately we did, and the Chilean office deserves all the credit for that.
VVC: For me it would be the seafood fraud campaign. I’m really excited that we’re taking what we’ve learned in the United States and looking at ways it can bring back abundance in other countries’ waters as well. The seafood fraud campaign led us to an overarching philosophy and approach to ocean conservation, and that’s the concept of transparency. The citizens of all these countries we’re working in, all around the world, have a right to a more transparent government.
O: Simon, any advice to Valarie as the new chair of the board?
SSE: We’re really blessed with a very skilled group of senior staff. We’re lucky in the sense that Oceana is not a difficult organization to be on the board of. We all get along really well; we all like each other.
VVC: Simon did hand me the reins of the organization in really good shape. I’m really honored to be following in his footsteps. I call it Simon’s four-year reign of Pax Oceana. The board is an extraordinary group of colleagues — they’re fully engaged, they’re informed and they’re enthusiastic.
O: Valarie, as chair, what are your plans for the years ahead?
VVC: Realistically, I’d like to stably keep growing. It’s my goal to keep reaching as far as we can with what we can do with our resources, to expand our resource base, and really try to expand our footprint. I’m glad that we figured out our niche in helping to solve the plague of ocean plastic pollution. I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
O: Any final messages?
SSE: I’ve been involved for so long, even before Oceana came into existence. I feel like when American Oceans Campaign and Ted Danson got started on this stuff, it was kind of a lonely battle. Pew Charitable Trusts had done a study that showed that only one-half of one percent of all the money that was going to environmental organizations was going to the oceans. I think it’s amazing — you kind of have to pinch yourself at times — to think how far the effort to heal the world’s oceans has come in a relatively short period of time. And I think a lot of that has to do with Oceana’s leadership.
VVC: It’s richly rewarding and it is a privilege to be a part of this effort. For me, Oceana personally offers me something vital and tangible, and that’s hope. I feel like I’m creating, no pun intended, waves of positive change that will hopefully keep reverberating long after I’m gone. And how many times in your life do you get a chance to do that?
Valarie Van Cleave’s business career encompasses work in mergers and acquisitions, sales and marketing and new business development. She has spearheaded successful fundraising efforts for political campaigns and conservation advocacy. She co-founded and co-chairs SeaChange, a recordbreaking benefit for Oceana that has been held annually since 2007. She has been on the Oceana board since 2008 and became board chair in December 2018.
Simon Sidamon-Eristoff leads the tax-exempt organizations group at Kalbian Hagerty LLP in Washington, DC. He has been on the Oceana board since 2002, when the American Oceans Campaign merged with Oceana, and was board chair from 2014 to 2018. He also chairs the boards of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and American Friends of Georgia. He has served as General Counsel for American Farmland Trust, and as a staff attorney for the Trust for Public Land and the Rails-toTrails Conservancy.