The huge power in every woman and every little girl to transform ocean science and conservation

Kerstin Forsberg, the founder and Director of Planeta Océano discusses the importance of marine conservation illustrating our dependence on the ocean and how we can contribute to its sustainability. She started this non-profit organisation focused on empowering communities in marine conservation as she completed her undergraduate studies in biology. In 2018, she featured in TIME’s “Next Generation of Leaders” for her work in protecting giant manta rays in Peru and was among Fortune World’s 50 Greatest Leaders 2019. Kerstin Forsberg won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016 and other several international and local awards. More so, she is an Ashoka fellow and recognised as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Tell us about your work on ocean conservation; what it seeks to achieve and what inspired you to get involved?

My work in ocean conservation aims to showcase how everyone depends on the ocean and how we all need to conserve it. Every single person has a key role to play and we can all collaborate to move forward the ocean agenda.

I founded and direct the non-profit Planeta Océano based in Peru, which is focused on empowering coastal communities in marine conservation through research and citizen science, marine education and sustainable development efforts. We have a participatory and multidisciplinary approach to marine conservation. Projects include youth incubator programs that provide school students with the tools and skills to lead their own environmental efforts, working with citizen scientists and governmental authorities to protect endangered species such as giant manta rays or sawfish, and supporting fishermen and artisans to lead community-based ecotourism, among others. This approach connects and engages people; and supports both conservation and sustainable development.

I began Planeta Océano when I was 22 years old and was finishing my undergraduate Biology degree. I started a small grassroots project in northern Peru to research stranding and bycatch of endangered sea turtles. In one month, our project hosted over 100 local volunteers, including local youth and fishermen, and together we reported a mortality of over 260 sea turtles in the region over the course of a year, as well as showcased the importance of sea turtle conservation.

This initiative showed me first-hand how local people can make such an important difference, and how environmental impacts threaten local people’s livelihoods. I got inspired by the communities themselves, as well as by books such as Sylvia Earle’s ‘The World is Blue: How our Fate and the Ocean’s are One’. I saw how ocean issues were not being sufficiently taught in local schools, how citizens were not sufficiently recognized to support science-based management and how communities urged market-based solutions for sustainability. I embarked on a mission to change these situations and have been working on this ever since.

How is your work being affected by the COVID-19 outbreak? How do you maintain a balance between your career and your personal life?

Although my organization’s work and impact remain strong, it has certainly been affected by the outbreak, like many small non-profits across the globe.

Our flagship manta ray project, with fieldwork and data collection greatly supported and funded by international volunteers, was put on hold given travel and tourism restrictions. Suddenly, I began a continuous challenge to balance my daughter’s 1st grade home schooling with fundraising and budget constraints, team management at a distance, and continuing to implement impact without being able to go out to the field.

I continue to learn on how to best balance my career with my personal life, but the lockdown has certainly taught me to further value the simple things. I have always made sure to spend quality time with my daughter, and we enjoy exercising, playing, dancing together, and recently planting fruits and vegetables. She also participates whenever possible in my work, such as in workshops with kids. Homeschooling is a challenge, but I have cherished to watch her learn how to read and write; and we have been temporarily living with my parents, and their support has been huge. I also make sure I give myself the chance to keep aware of how I am doing, meditate, rest, have fun and regain energy.

Working under lock-down has been a challenge, but keeping busy, perseverant, optimistic, and constantly connected with colleagues from my country and across the world has also helped me overcome this.

Beyond challenges, I have been able to observe and experiment extraordinary resilience. Our international meetings turned into online conferences and my organization started tapping into technology platforms that we were not fully using before. For example, our fieldwork with fishermen turned into an online forum that expanded information exchange, with fishermen sharing sightings and releases of threatened species. We united 102 children voices from 44 countries around the globe for a World Ocean Day Video, where children call for a ‘new normal’ for our planet.

How do you think the work on ocean literacy you have been carrying out with IOC-UNESCO can help in solving global issues, in particular the current COVID-19 pandemic?

I have had the honor to collaborate with IOC-UNESCO in its Ocean Literacy programme throughout the past couple years, working with teachers from Latin America and the Caribbean, supporting the Ocean Literacy Strategy for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and more recently helping to develop online Ocean Literacy training courses to be launched during the Decade.

To achieve Sustainable Development and well-being across the globe, it is critical that everyone understands how we all depend on the ocean, our impact on the ocean and how we can contribute to its sustainability. The ocean is our planet’s life source and provides us with oxygen, climate regulation, food security, among others. Although many might still not be aware, the ocean is intrinsically tied to major global issues and as such, promoting Ocean Literacy is a major channel to solve these. For example, incorporating Ocean Literacy in schools can build quality education; sustainably managing the ocean can support nutrition and poverty reduction, to name a few.

In this context, IOC-UNESCO’s Ocean Literacy efforts are not only providing awareness to a global audience but also stimulating people to recognize their role and potential to contribute to ocean sustainability as part of a wider global agenda. The Ocean Literacy online trainings for example, to be promoted shortly, will be addressed to formal and non-formal educators, government officials, media and press and the general public, as these sectors - and many others - have a critical role to play. Enhancing awareness, knowledge and stewardship regarding ocean issues is particularly relevant given the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the critical need that we all ensure a sustainable blue-green recovery.

I am grateful that I have the chance of witnessing both the impact of Ocean Literacy at a local level, as well as collaborating with IOC-UNESCO as it develops these exciting initiatives for Ocean Literacy globally.

What would you like to say to young women who would like to start a career in ocean science and conservation? What challenges do you think a woman faces in this field of work?

I would like to tell every young woman and every little girl that you have a huge potential to contribute, enhance and even transform ocean science and conservation. As a girl who was passionate about animals and nature at an early age myself, and who then went to become a young biology student and a conservationist, I can testify that passion and perseverance are among the key drivers to start a career in this field. I am a firm believer that youth and children are not just the future, but rather the present, and they can contribute starting from now.

When I first began working in the field of conservation at age 22, I immediately encountered a male-dominated field as I interacted with fishermen, volunteers, or professionals in governmental institutions. On occasion, one could wrongly feel that because you were outnumbered or different both in terms of gender and age, you were not completely fitting in. On the contrary, it is that unique perspective that each of us brings to the table, which enriches the discussion and helps create better solutions.

Furthermore, as a single mother, I have seen how balancing personal and professional responsibilities and expectations creates challenges for all, but frequently more so for women. Reports have even shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this gender gap, for example by intensifying women’s unpaid care and domestic workloads.

As we move forward, it is important that we fully believe in ourselves, that we keep learning and strive to do the best we can, that we care for others and we create supportive environments to discuss and overcome these challenges.

What are your hopes for the future of ocean conservation? What other work or projects are you involved in?

My hope is that we ensure a healthy ocean that ensures conservation, sustains and unites communities across the world. I hope that every person can recognize how they can and should contribute to ocean conservation, and that this intensified engagement leads to a systemic change in the way our oceans are managed. By sparking collaboration across sectors, I also hope that this leads to further dialogue and enhanced citizenship in society.

For example, we have been able to connect schools with fishermen to enhance classroom learning; citizen scientists with government to advance legislation and management. These platforms allow everyone to acknowledge the roles we all have in ocean conservation. Local schoolgirls have helped report the first evidence of green turtle nesting in Peru, undergraduates have supported a proposal to protect critically endangered sawfish, volunteers have grown into conservation professionals, and young children have spread conservation messages in their community since they were 4 years old and for over 10 years.

We are also adapting to the pandemic. We had been engaging local fishermen in leading community-based giant manta ray ecotourism, thus helping to value this endangered species alive rather than harvested. Yet with the pandemic, we have been designing innovative online experiences in which anyone around the world can connect in real time with fishermen and learn about manta ray conservation and research. In this process, community members have been trained in public speaking and in some cases are even working with a computer for the first time. We look forward to launching and receiving our first online visitors in 2021. This process has also shown how this platform could be replicated to other areas, further benefitting the resilience and income of low-income communities depending on ecotourism.

Furthermore, we are scaling-up our ‘Connecting Schools’ initiative, which brings together youth from different localities through online technology and community action. Youth learn about the ocean and local environmental challenges. They are then guided to design and implement a youth-led initiative to contribute towards solutions, gaining experience in project development, critical thinking, and environmental leadership. Throughout this process, youth are paired with peers from another geographic locality. They learn from one another and provide feedback, develop fellowship, collaborations and a sense of global citizenship that is so critically needed for our shared ocean.