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Powerful Stories About Ocean Sustainability

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When a northern Puget Sound fish farm sustained damage last August, more than 250,000 farmed Atlantic salmon spilled into the Salish Sea.  Lummi fishermen rushed to the area with nets, desperate to capture the farmed salmon before they mixed with the area’s wild salmon, their most precious resource. 

The Lummi fishermen’s story is one of many featured on Ocean Link Northwest, a website that sheds light on humans’ dependence on the ocean. The site was developed by students in the Communication Leadership program (Comm Lead), a professional master’s program in the Department of Communication, in collaboration with the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program, an innovative, interdisciplinary ocean research group.

Colby K. Neal filming the shoreline from a boat.

Communication Leadership student Colby K. Neal feels that "...contributing to awareness efforts with an educational video helps play a role in the overall success of salmon in Washington." Media credit: Sammy Kung

“Ocean Link started with the immense challenge of engaging the public with the health of our oceans,” says Alex Stonehill, head of creative strategy for Comm Lead. “Alarming scientific research about environmental changes — and their human impacts — isn’t hitting home. A relatable story about how one person’s life has been affected by those kind of changes is more likely to inspire meaningful action than raw facts and statistics. Our partners at the Nereus Program believed that the ingenuity and storytelling expertise of Communication Leadership students could make a meaningful difference.”

The project began last summer, when students identified and contacted Puget Sound organizations with shared concerns about ocean health and sustainability. They then conducted market research — surveys and focus groups — to understand how best to engage the public on these issues. One important finding: people have difficulty visualizing the impact of human activity on our oceans.

“Several focus group attendees mentioned feeling disconnected from damage that may be occurring beneath the surface,” says Comm Lead student Emily Kastner. “It’s less accessible than seeing trash on a beach and understanding the importance of a clean-up initiative.”

Three students talk at a table.

Students attended faculty presentations on teamwork, client management, and other topics related to their Ocean Link Northwest work.  Media credit: Alex Stonehill

With that in mind, the students began working directly with partner organizations — from Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association to Washington Sea Grant to the Suquamish Tribe — to share their stories.

"Our approach to Ocean Link represents Comm Lead's overall philosophy of working with partner organizations, but with a topical focus on oceans. We match students with nonprofits who need support with communication or storytelling. In doing so, we provide students with a hands-on learning experience while supporting organizations in our community who need it most,” says Ocean Link project manager Molly Schachter, head of partnerships for Comm Lead.

To date, 49 students working in small teams have produced curriculum materials, marketing campaigns, videos, and other communications for 14 partner organizations.  “There’s so much great work on ocean sustainability happening in our region,” says Stonehill. “Our aim is to amplify that work and fill in the gaps.”

A relatable story about how one person’s life has been affected...is more likely to inspire meaningful action than raw facts and statistics.

One Comm Lead team is creating a documentary about a sustainable seafood cooperative in Belize, for an organization working toward responsible fishing practices. Another is producing educational videos for Washington’s state-mandated tribal history and traditions curriculum.  The videos explain ocean acidification’s effect on salmon, and the importance of culverts that salmon use to reach their spawning grounds.

“Culverts aren’t the most exciting thing to film,” admits Comm Lead student Colby K. Neal, who created the video about maintaining culverts to help salmon. “But once I found out how important culverts are to the salmon cycle, I felt contributing to awareness efforts with an educational video helps play a role in the overall success of salmon in Washington. The most satisfying part will be when school field trips lead to many more culverts repaired.”

Kate Hourihan with the Kelp Tasting Experience kit.

To encourage the consumption of farmed kelp, which will reduce ocean acidification when harvested, one team (including Kate Hourihan, right) developed a Kelp Tasting Experience kit.  Media credit: Jilly Lambert

Those videos and other Ocean Link projects are viewable on the Ocean Link Northwest website. A marketing guide will soon be added to help environmental organizations communicate their message more effectively. “The website is a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to know how best to communicate about humans’ relationship with the ocean,” says Schachter.

Some Ocean Link projects, like one to encourage people to eat farmed kelp, are outside-the-box —literally. Growing kelp can be beneficial for ocean health because it naturally absorbs carbon dioxide, the primary cause of ocean acidification. When farmed kelp is harvested, this captured carbon is permanently removed from the marine ecosystem. To encourage kelp consumption, Washington Sea Grant and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund enlisted Comm Lead students to promote kelp as a sustainable food source. The students dreamed up a transportable “Kelp Tasting Experience” kit that includes all the materials needed to create and serve a small sample of kelp pesto on toast, to demonstrate kelp’s culinary possibilities. Accompanying materials include a recipe card for kelp pesto, an educational brochure, and a link to more information on the Ocean Link Northwest website.

“Our goal was to make the environmental benefits of kelp aquaculture accessible to the broader general public,” explains team member Kate Hourihan, a kelp convert who says the plant can add a subtle richness to many dishes. “I’m looking forward to seeing kelp incorporated into a variety of foods in the future.”

Beyond gaining a new appreciation for kelp and culverts and wild salmon, students participating in Ocean Link Northwest have gained something else: valuable experience working with clients. For some, the client relationship has been the most challenging part of the experience—and where much of the learning has occurred.

“Unlike in a classroom setting, working for clients can be unpredictable,” Stonehill says. “Expectations can change, new obstacles emerge, and often the hardest part is actually defining the client’s need and the scope of the work precisely in the first place. Students learning to recognize their own expertise as communicators and trust their instincts is a key factor to their success. It’s been gratifying to see that transformation in so many students during the project.”

Most Ocean Link projects will be completed this academic year, though students will maintain the site for at least another year. Comm Lead believes this work not only benefits environmental organizations, but demonstrates the power of focused storytelling to shed light on any complex and pressing issue.

“Our hope,” says Schachter, “is that Ocean Link inspires other regions and other institutions to take on a similar model.”