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FEATURED PICTURE: The Marine Biology class at the College of the Atlantic—pictured here collecting sea stars during an intertidal field trip—voted Marine Conservation Institute as their top choice for a class donation to a marine conservation nonprofit.

Marine Conservation Institute is grateful to receive financial support from donors from all walks of life—from international foundations to our extraordinary Ocean Guardians—but earlier this winter, one donation in particular caught our eye: $106 dollars, donated on behalf of a biology class at the College of the Atlantic.

Who were these students, and what inspired their generous gift? We reached out to their marine biology professor, Dr. Chris Petersen, to learn more.

College of the Atlantic (COA) has been named the #1 Green College in the Princeton Review for five years in a row. The Marine Biology class, taught by Dr. Petersen, is an introductory course that covers biology, conservation, and policy. The class learns about the natural history and ecology of local species, focusing on the intertidal zone. They also spend time studying different marine habitats, with a main focus on threats to marine environments. Dr. Petersen treats marine biology as a multidisciplinary subject: the class often helps with local research projects, and also spends time on the shore journaling and developing art and writing techniques. Photos from last semester show students leaning raptly over long trays filled with tidepool discoveries from Maine’s rocky shoreline, their sleeves bunched up above their elbows and eyes scrunching with smiles above their masks as they pick up crabs to examine their undersides.

Students from Dr. Petersen’s marine biology class study crabs on an intertidal exploration.

Although college looked much different than usual this year due to the pandemic (the 19 students masked up to explore the coast together, and only saw one another’s faces during Zoom lectures), one thing stayed constant: at the end of every semester, Dr. Petersen always asks his students “If you had five years to devote to working to solve one threat, which one would it be?”

This year, the students’ main concerns revolved around overfishing, global climate change, and marine debris (trash in the ocean). In the last week of school, Dr. Petersen gave the students a list of national nonprofits that work to address these issues. He asked them if they had a mythical $100 dollars to give to a group, what group would they give it to, and why?  Dr. Petersen’s list included groups that do solely marine work, like Oceana and Ocean Conservancy, along with groups that work more generally on environmental issues, like World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, Earthjustice, and The Nature Conservancy. The class discussed these groups over Zoom, deliberating over their content, focus, web design, and whether they had links to corporations.

During these conversations, students could also suggest other groups to discuss. One student, Odin Gage, brought up Marine Conservation Institute. As Dr. Petersen tells it, here are Odin’s chief arguments for the strength of Marine Conservation Institute’s work:

1. Odin had done research on bottom trawling earlier in the term, and really liked Marine Conservation Institute’s work on trying to limit destructive fishing practices

2. He also brought up the organization’s work on MPAs and really liked that Marine Conservation Institute goes beyond just celebrating areas, but compiles data on the effects of MPAs.  He specifically mentioned the Marine Protection Atlas(The newest version of our MPAtlas is live now—be sure to check out all of its interactive features!)

3. He thought the organization’s website was good without being too flashy. (Thanks, Odin—we just redesigned our website this year and we’re excited for folks to explore it!)

4. He thought our encouragement of diversity and equity was important.

5. Marine Conservation Institute was the only group with a dog as a staff member. (Drop in on one of our virtual staff meetings, and you’ll likely get to meet the rest of the Marine Conservation Institute dog pack!)

College of the Atlantic marine biology students explore Maine’s rocky shoreline.

With Odin’s compelling nomination, when the time came to cast votes, Marine Conservation Institute made it to the top, in a three-way tie with Earthjustice and Conservation International. A final vote on the last day of class sealed the deal: Marine Conservation Institute came in first!

Dr. Petersen gave $100 of his own money to support the work that our organization does, and the class pooled their pocket change—nickels included!—to round the donation up to $106.

Since our founding in 1996, our organization has pursued marine conservation through the lens of science, advocating for real and lasting protections based on what research shows to be most effective. We’re excited that tomorrow’s environmental leaders from the College of the Atlantic see the merit in this work. The simplest solutions to many of the class’s concerns—from overfishing to climate change—can be achieved through well-managed and highly protected marine reserves, where overstressed wildlife can recover and adapt, and where blue carbon habitats can offer climate resilience. We’re grateful for the vote of confidence!

The up-and-coming environmental leaders in the College of the Atlantic marine biology class—pictured here in a Zoom class meeting—conducted a careful review of marine conservation nonprofits.