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Encouraging Young People to Dive Into Ocean Conservation

After decades working to save dolphins and protect the oceans, two San Francisco Bay Area conservationists are mentoring the next generation

By Patricia Corrigan

That "Dolphin Safe" label on canned and packaged tuna in your pantry represents a decades-long fight. Collaborating with local communities to develop ocean management practices wasn't always an accepted practice, either. Environmental activists Stan Minasian and Birgit Winning helped change minds on these topics, and now they have expanded their respective conservation commitments to mentoring young people.

A diver underwater looking at coral reef. Next Avenue, environmentalists, conservation
A student monitors the condition of a coral reef off Ulithi  |  Credit: courtesy of Bluecology

"Youth are our future, and it's our responsibility to support them on their path to maintain a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and the planet," said Winning, founder and executive director of Bluecology, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization.

Minasian agrees. He helped build the coalition that pressed the three U.S. tuna canneries to stop accepting yellowfin tuna caught with fishing methods that resulted in the deaths of over eight million spinner dolphins. Now he's telling his story to inspire young people to get involved in environmental issues that interest them.

Winning, 73, and Minasian, 74, met about 40 years ago at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, part of the California Academy of Sciences. Winning, a biologist, was working there as a researcher when Minasian came in to discuss "The World's Whales: The Complete Illustrated Guide," which he was writing with whale biologist Kenneth Balcomb for the Smithsonian Institution.

"All along, I just didn't take 'no' for an answer."

The two, who share office space in the San Francisco Bay Area, have since collaborated on several of Minasian's documentary films, including "Where Have All the Dolphins Gone," which first aired on The Discovery Channel on Earth Day in 1990, and "The Free Willy Story: Keiko's Journey Home."

Currently they're working on the Safe Passage Project, which they hope results in a rope-less fishing system that will keep whales and sea turtles from becoming entangled in crab-fishing gear.

Preventing Incidental Dolphin Deaths

The work it took to get those "Dolphin Safe" labels on tuna — still considered one of the most significant animal welfare issues in the environmental movement — started small.

Sitting in a dentist's office in 1974, Minasian read a short piece in a news magazine about tuna fishing boats returning to port in San Diego with dead dolphins in the hold. Though his previous experience with dolphins was limited to observing some from a beach in Mexico, he set out to find out why the animals were dying and what could be done about it.

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Students taking part in a field service project in Ulithi  |  Credit: courtesy of Bluecology

"That little article focused my curiosity on the dolphins' deaths, and that changed my life," Minasian said. "I was barely out of high school, starting college and working for United Parcel Service. Then, with no credentials or prior experience, I started a nonprofit wildlife conservation group that eventually led to Congress passing the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act in the fall of 1990."

Minasian tells the full story in his recently completed memoir, "The Unintentional Activist: My Resolve to Save the Dolphins and Help Bring About Dolphin Safe Tuna." He wrote the book to inspire readers to pursue their conservation goals.

"All along, I just didn't take 'no' for an answer," he said. "Whenever someone said 'no,' I'd pick myself up and go around them, find another way to keep moving ahead. Over the years, I had unexpected successes and also failures. You can't be afraid to fail."

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Save the Dolphins, Minasian's organization, later was known as the Marine Mammal Fund and ultimately, the Animal Fund, as he took on causes involving other species. He recently produced a short film decrying the Asian dog meat industry and has donated his filmmaking skills to numerous conservation organizations as well.

Minasian also maintains Whaleopedia, an educational site based on his whale guide, which is out of print, and continues to speak out against keeping dolphins and whales in captivity.

Collaboration with like-minded individuals is key when your goal is to make change, Minasian said.

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A team measures the depth of a hawksbill turtle nest on Maui   |  Credit: courtesy of Bluecology

"Working to save the dolphins, I built alliances with other animal welfare groups, politicians, movie stars, academics and even people in the tuna fishing industry, to help them develop different fishing methods," he said. "The thrust of everything I do today is to get people involved. Global warming is impacting all aspects of the natural world, and young people, especially, need to help find solutions to the many problems our planet is facing. There are avenues you can take, avenues you don't even know exist — until you start."

Defining the Parameters of Ocean Conservation

During the 30 years Winning spent as president and executive director of Oceanic Society, she came to understand that local communities —  those most directly affected by ocean conservation policies — must have a say in the policy-making process and that locally driven decision-making is key to lasting habitat protection.

When she founded Bluecology in 2014, she determined that the nonprofit's goal would be "to realize enduring protection of ocean ecosystems for the wildlife and the communities who rely on them." Because the organization's secondary mission is to involve young people, Bluecology offers two hands-on field service programs for students, one on Maui and one on Ulithi, an atoll (coral reef) in Micronesia.

"In both, we provide a grounding place for students from which to move forward," Winning said. "Of course, we build in time for appreciation of the natural beauty of the areas and time for fun as well."

Working in close collaboration with their partner One People One Reef, Bluecology sends a small group of college students to Ulithi for about three weeks to learn about the critical role that traditional knowledge and practices play in modern coral reef management.

"The community on Ulithi is welcoming, and they shape the experience," Winning said. "Our participants sit in on meetings and hear different opinions and then, in collaboration with local students, community members and environmental researchers, they develop ocean conservation management plans. The students learn how to listen, how to organize and wield influence and how to have an impact in advocacy roles."

"We want to immerse promising future leaders in a program that makes a difference in conservation."

On Maui, the four-day youth program is under the auspices of Bluecology's partner Hawaii Wildlife Fund, headed by award-winning conservationist Hannah Bernard. High school students help restore sea turtle habitats and take part in beach clean-ups, and they are invited to work with Hawai'ian taro farmers.

"Students learn some of the traditions and also the challenges of managing resources," Winning said. "There's also an element of advocacy, including how to present what you've learned and how to collaborate with other groups toward a common conservation goal."

Two students who took part in Bluecology's past programs have chosen careers in the social sciences and environmental science, Winning said. "Plus, Ulithi youth who have completed the program are now training students who live on the outer islands," she noted.

To make the program available to more students, Bluecology is expanding their scholarship fund. "We want to immerse promising future leaders in a program that makes a difference in conservation," Winning said.

Also, in the hope of moving ocean conservation literacy forward for students and adults alike, Winning is writing a practical educational guide with Boyce Thorne Miller, an ocean policy expert based in Monterey, Calif.

"The guide will include general ecology principles and all the different ways the public can become involved," Winning said. "We want to share what we have learned."

Photograph of Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and a book author. She now enjoys a lively freelance career, writing for numerous print and on-line publications. Read more from Patricia at latetothehaight.blogspot.com. Read More
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