As the visiting McCluskey Fellow in Conservation at the Yale School of the Environment, Alex Muñoz will spend the next year developing a roadmap to accelerate the pace of global ocean conservation and designing Yale’s first-ever course fully focused on ocean conservation.
About 400 miles off the coast of Chile sits the Archipiélago Juan Fernández, a sparsely inhabited series of islands that is home to a small community of fishers who catch lobsters in the waters around Juan Fernández and the neighboring Desventuradas Islands. They have been fishing sustainably for over 100 years and are very good at it — setting and self-enforcing rules respecting the size of the lobster and the season. In 2017, Chile’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz traveled to Juan Fernández to learn more about their long tradition of sustainable fishing and a proposal to establish a large marine reserve around the area. It was the first time a foreign minister had visited the islands. Later that same year, at the Our Ocean Conference, the government of Chile announced the creation of two new marine protected areas (MPAs), one around the Juan Fernández Archipelago and another in the area of Cape Horn that later became the Diego Ramirez marine park. (In 2018, Chile’s then-president Michelle Bachelet officially designated these areas marine parks, bringing Chile’s total protected marine area to almost one million square kilometers.)
One of the driving forces behind the creation of the marine reserves was Alex Muñoz (no relation), the current Dorothy S. McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation at the Yale School of the Environment.
The Juan Fernández Archipelago and Diego Ramirez marine park MPAs were the result of what Muñoz, the former senior director for Latin America of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, describes as a “synaptic” approach to ocean conservation. “The synapse is the analogy I came up with to show how we worked with all different actors so they can connect and communicate with one another,” he said. “This approach often leads to the best outcome from the conservation point of view, but it is also respectful of the rights and livelihoods of individuals and local (often Indigenous) communities.”
A human rights lawyer, not a scientist, by trade, Muñoz began working in ocean conservation two decades ago, initially at Oceana, and then at Pristine Seas, which is committed to seeing 30% of the ocean protected by 2030. Although it covers 70% of the planet, only about 8% of the ocean is protected. And increasing the number of MPAs, Muñoz stresses, is one of the best options to keep the ocean, with its climate change-combatting superpowers, alive. The ocean absorbs 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions and captures 90% of the excess heat generated by these emissions.
“There is no question that we have to cut our emissions by a lot and stop relying on fossil fuels,” he said, “But I think one of the most effective ways to fight climate change is to preserve our natural resources, and the ocean is our biggest carbon sink, bigger than rainforests.”
In collaboration with heads of state, local communities and other groups, Muñoz has been a driving force behind the creation of the seven largest fully protected marine reserves in Latin America, covering 1.3 million square kilometers of ocean, as well as several historic policy changes, including those making Chile the first country in the world to legally protect all of its seamounts from destructive fishing; reforming fisheries law to require science-based quotas and reduce incidental mortality of species; protecting vast areas of Patagonia from salmon farming; and banning shark finning in the country.
“Alex’s commitment to a synergistic approach to policymaking represents a good example of his innovative thinking,” said Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy. “I think his disciplinary foundation and work in human rights (Muñoz was the first Chilean to win a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, resulting in the Court’s first ruling on freedom of expression in the Americas) gives him special sensitivity to the need to take account of voices that might otherwise be left out of the policy process.”
Muñoz’s inclusive and multidisciplinary approach to conservation was also one of the reasons YSE Dean Indy Burke nominated him for the McCluskey Fellowship, a role that welcomes conservation practitioners to spend a semester (in Muñoz’s case two – spring and fall 2024) at YSE pursuing independent research, enhancing collaborations between YSE and environmental organizations, and expanding professional training opportunities for students. Previous Fellows have included Frances Beinecke ’71 BA, ’74 MFS, the former executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the late Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Alex’s strategic, thoughtful approach to conservation aligns well with YSE’s focus on crossdisciplinarity and systems thinking,” Burke said. “I know our students will benefit from his extraordinary success building consensus among people who have different priorities and perspectives.”
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While Muñoz has, in fact, seen a great deal of success using a synergistic approach to ocean conservation, it requires time and talent to forge connections and build support for large-scale conservation efforts. It took several years — and lots of talks and experiences — to build a relationship of trust with the Juan Fernández fishers, and even more time until all parties decided that protecting the area was the right thing to do.
“You never know which argument is going to be the one that wins people over. Sometimes it’s biodiversity, sometimes it’s the economic argument. It’s usually a combination of several, but it has to be an organic decision, you can’t force people into it,” he said.
Muñoz sees the McCluskey Fellowship as a remarkable opportunity to explore ways to accelerate the pace of ocean conservation, bringing in a new generation of environmental leaders. He plans to spend his time at YSE delving into how to replicate conservation successes in Chile and Latin America on a global scale and developing Yale’s first-ever course solely focused on ocean conservation, which he plans to introduce in the fall.
“If we’re to reach the goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, we need to create many many more synaptic connections,” he said. “I am excited to have this opportunity to work with people across the Yale community to find new ways to protect one of our most threatened but also one of our most valuable ecosystems.”