Meet the Experts: Jay Nelson, Director, Global Ocean Legacy

Jay Nelson joined the Pew Environment Group in 2006 as director of the Global Ocean Legacy project, which works to create large no-take marine reserves around the world.

What were some influences that caused you to develop a passion for protecting the environment?

I grew up in Montana, far from the ocean, but from my earliest memories I was interested in nature and living creatures. Our whole family went camping, and my dad and brother frequently spent free weekends fishing and hunting. I had snakes, turtles, frogs and a kangaroo rat and all manner of small pets. When I moved to Alaska in the 1970s, I lived near the ocean and began work as a biologist studying seabirds, whales and sea otters. It would be hard for anyone not to fall in love with the ocean after spending hours around those charismatic species.

What have been some of your greatest challenges?

I think most committed activists will tell you that our one great challenge is educating people to understand the challenges facing global ecosystems and engaging them to act. Without public support, we will end up where we are headed, and I think that could be catastrophic for the planet and ultimately for humanity. We are fortunate that there still are ocean ecosystems that are quite healthy. And because so many people live near the ocean, we have a head start in educating them about the importance of the sea.

What is it that you like about the work you do now?

I like the idea that some of the areas we are protecting in the ocean could remain protected for a very long time and could serve as essential refuges for important species, much as our big national land parks do today. We don't know where the future will take us, but we need to hold onto as much of the natural world as we can.

Tell us about the value of no-take marine reserves to marine ecosystems. Any other PEG work that is relevant outside of the Global Ocean Legacy campaign?  For example our marine sanctuary work or the Wild Australia program?

As Aldo Leopold said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” The goal of Global Ocean Legacy is to try and help save at least some of the parts. Large ocean species and those that migrate are highly vulnerable. By establishing very large marine reserves where these species are safe for all or a portion of their lives, we increase their likelihood of survival. The world would be much poorer without sea turtles, large species of fish like marlin, sharks and tuna, marine mammals and albatross. All of these species benefit from the protection of large marine reserves.