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Conservation policy must include more diverse voices
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Conservation policy must include more diverse voices

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Conservation

I like to say that I used to sell the fish, and now I save them. 

Growing up blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border and the Pacific Ocean, I ended up working for an international seafood company at the start of my career. But that job carried a front-row seat to the growing problem of overfishing: daily scrambles to come up with hundreds of tons of fresh sardines to feed a dwindling number of Bluefin tuna tends to make a person question business-as-usual.

Long months of research and soul searching brought me over to marine conservation. As a first-timer in the nonprofit sector, I stepped into a field where I was often the only person of color at the table — a systemic problem, as voices of color are key in the fight for a healthy ocean and equitable access. Yet, those key voices are often drowned out by other stakeholders. 

Last year when the California Senate took up Assembly Bill 3030 — a commitment by Californians to protect 30% land and ocean by the year 2030 — lobbyists for the commercial fishermen managed to torpedo the entire legislative effort. They claimed that they manage the ocean well enough and that more protection isn’t necessary. Their voices were shamefully amplified over all others who had struggled to be included in conversations around the legislation.  

The same complaints were used against a recent federal legislative effort that proposed we protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 as part of a comprehensive piece of legislation seeking to leverage the power of the ocean in the fight against climate change. 

Upon the introduction of the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, commercial fishermen claimed there was a lack of inclusivity in the drafting of the legislation, a complaint which is wholly ironic, since the commercial fishermen almost always get to be in the proverbial room where it happens. 

I know firsthand who is not represented in the rooms where ocean policy is made.

In 2008, I was appointed to a citizen advisory group convened to help map out underwater parks off the coast of Southern California as part of California’s Marine Life Protection Act. This group was meant to represent the region’s diverse population, but out of the 64 people in the room, I was the only Spanish-speaking stakeholder in a region where about 40% of people speak Spanish as their dominant language. 

I took it upon myself to translate the materials into Spanish. My work trying to bridge the gap between the environmental movement and Latinx community started there, but it quickly became evident that the issue was much bigger than simply needing to translate informational materials. 

I frequently saw what I now recognize as symptoms of inequality, privilege, and even racism. The silent complicity of so many people during my early years of working in marine conservation inspired me to start Azul, where we work directly with the Latinx community to have a voice in the conservation of our coasts and ocean. 

The sinking of California’s AB 3030 last year eventually gave way to Gov. Gavin Newsom issuing an executive order. I made sure that the Latinx community was represented in those discussions, amplifying the perspectives of predominantly frontline communities who are disproportionately impacted by unhealthy oceans. And it made a difference.

The executive order included a commitment to improve access to nature for all people in the state, with emphasis on increasing access for communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities — a step forward in the fight for equitable access to our ocean for all. 

As we move forward in a national effort to protect 30% of land and ocean by the year 2030, we need to change who has access and influence in the conversation. We need to do one better than just including all voices at the table: we need to follow the lead of frontline communities and communities of color.

The Napa River Bridge (now known as the George F. Butler Memorial Bridge) was built in 1977.

Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš is an environmental justice advocate and the founder and director of Azul, a Bay Area-based NGO that works with the Latinx community to protect coasts and the ocean. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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