A Guide to Environmental Non-Profits

How to distinguish groups doing good from ones that just sound good.

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With so many environmental groups sporting similar names and missions, what’s an interested citizen to do? How can anyone distinguish between the “Center for Whale Research” and the “Institute for Cetacean Research”? Between “Wildlife Trust” and “The Wildlife Trusts”? “The Ocean Conservancy” and “Conserve Our Ocean Legacy”?

You can—and must. The Center for Whale Research, for instance, monitors killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, but the Institute for Cetacean Research is a front group for Japanese whaling interests. Very different. Wildlife Trust is a group for empowering American scientists, while The Wildlife Trusts is a leading coalition of conservation activists in the United Kingdom. And, well, The Ocean Conservancy and Conserve Our Ocean Legacy are on the same side of the issue and both operate from Washington, D.C.

The list below summarizes the work of many groups that work for the ocean, as well as a handful of the organizations working against the ocean under misleading names and mission statements. (This survey is not exhaustive. For a more complete list of bona fide organizations, see here.)


Environmental Defense: Originally the Environmental Defense Fund, this group’s founders brought a lawsuit against the government to ban DDT—a novel concept at the time. Forty years later, the group has 400,000 members and leads a variety of environmental campaigns, including Oceans Alive, an all encompassing effort to maintain the health of the oceans. The campaign’s website explains which species of fish are high in contaminants and which are being farmed responsibly, and fights for more ecologically sound regulations on fishing, as well as protections to save reefs and lagoons around the world.

Sierra Club: The oldest and largest environmental group in America, the Sierra Club has 750,000 members. A subsidiary called the National Marine Wildlife and Habitat Committee tackles an ambitious agenda that includes: permanent protection for the environmentally-sensitive areas that are now covered by a moratorium on offshore oil development; sustainable fishery regulations; proper construction and implementation of the Marine Mammals Protection Act and Endangered Species Act; ending active sonar programs by the U.S. Navy that may endanger marine mammals and other ocean wildlife; and the monitoring of international agreements such as the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling.

Wildlife Conservation Society: This global organization seeks to save wild animals and wild spaces. Its Marine Conservation Program creates and provides crucial scientific information related to the maintenance, conservation, and recovery of marine wildlife populations and the habitats that support them. These efforts are undertaken by field scientists working in over twenty countries.

Greenpeace: Thirty years ago this organization sent inflatable dinghies into the high seas to stop Russian whaling ships, thereby ushering in the Save the Whales movement. In November of 2005, Greenpeace went at it again, trying to stop massive Japanese whaling boats with a much smaller ship and several inflatable rafts. In addition to anti-whaling efforts worldwide, Greenpeace works to preserve deep sea life and protect oceans from pollutions and oil spills.

Humane Society: Having recently celebrated its 50 year anniversary, the Humane Society can boast of being the largest animal protection organization in America. It works towards the protection of marine mammals from commercial fishing, boat collisions, entanglements in fishing gear, and beaching-related dangers, like sonar. It is leading the fight against the Canadian seal hunt, and its website offers a guide that dolphins and whales should swim free in the ocean, not entrapped in Sea Worlds and zoos.

World Wildlife Federation: The World Wildlife Fund offers a global program for saving the ocean and its inhabitants. The WWF works with the media and lobbies policymakers in dozens of countries, while advocating solutions on an array of areas, including coral reefs, sustainable fishing, no-take zones, and oil and gas exploration.

Defenders of Wildlife: Known primarily for its work defending endangered species and their habitats, Defenders of Wildlife drafted and helped enact laws protecting dolphins from tuna nets. The group helped convince the UN to ban high-seas, large-scale driftnet fishing to help save dolphins and other species. The organization also helps create marine sanctuaries, as seen during their campaign for the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1994.


The Ocean Conservancy: This group advocates healthy ocean ecosystems and opposes practices that threaten marine life. Through “research, education, and science-based advocacy,” the group empowers people to speak and act on behalf of the oceans. Its website features congressional action alerts, petitions, a quarterly magazine, and free e-cards.

Ocean Futures Society: This global organization was founded by Jean-Michel Cousteau, and emphasizes the exploration of the ocean, using videos and books to illustrate the importance of the ocean for the survival of all life on the planet. Its website allows interested parties to sign up for a cruise with Cousteau or for the “Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp.”

Marine Conservation Biology Institute: This group functions as something of an ocean think tank, bringing scientists together to examine marine conservation issues and sign public letters and statements. It also does policy research to “frame the marine conservation agenda” and produces publications to educate scientists, the public, and decision-makers.

Global Coral Reef Alliance: This group focuses on coral reef restoration, marine diseases, and other issues caused by global climate change, environmental stress, and pollution.

SeaWeb: This organization focuses on communications and marketing to protect the oceans. Among other objectives, it seeks to amplify the voices of ocean conservationists in the media, trains local scientists in the Asian Pacific on communication skills, and used to advocate for the ocean using 90-second radio spots. It brings together parties concerned about seafood—chefs, activists, and fisherman—at its Seafood Summit.


Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society: As the name would suggest, this group works for the conservation and welfare of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

American Cetacean Society: This organization protects whales, dolphins, porpoises, and their habitats by educating the public about the problems these animals face. It also provides teachers’ guides and fact sheets on marine mammals and allows interested parties to join the group’s whale watching trips to Baja.

Ocean Mammal Institute: OMI says it is “dedicated to awakening peoples’ minds and hearts to nature’s interconnected harmony.” The group provides in-depth research and carries audio files of whale songs on its website.

International Marine Mammal Project: The International Marine Mammal Project hits all of the major challenges facing marine mammals—eliminating threats to dolphins posed by the tuna fishing industry, keeping commercial whaling illegal around thew orld, and promoting sustainable fishing and the responsible travel through marine habitats.

Seaflow: This educational nonprofit organization fights sonar and other noise pollution that disrupts the ability of marine mammals to communicate and navigate. The group’s website tracks the continued use of sonar by the U.S. Navy in whale habitats.

Wildlife Trust: This group empowers local conservation scientists to protect nature, safeguard ecosystems, and defend marine mammal species from extinction.


Marine Fish Conservation Network: This coalition contains over 170 national and regional environmental organizations, commercial and recreational fishing groups, and aquariums. It is dedicated to conserving fish and to promoting the long-term sustainability of their populations, and its website keeps a running tab on fish-related legislation in Congress.

National Coalition for Marine Conservation: Supported by many of the same funders as the MFCN above, this group is “dedicated exclusively to conserving ocean fish, preventing overfishing, reducing fish bycatch, and protecting marine habitat.”


Earthjustice: This non-profit public interest law firm is dedicated to protecting oceans, land, and wildlife—”because the earth needs a good lawyer.” Its website has an explanation of major cases concerning the ocean that are currently underway.

Oceana: At work in North America, South America and Europe, Oceana is a group of “marine scientists, economists, lawyers and advocates” that work for policy changes to lessen cruise ship pollution, eliminate destructive fishing practices, reduce seafood contaminants, and prevent the collapse of fish and marine mammal populations. Ted Danson is a board member.

Conserve Our Ocean Legacy: Aimed at public education and raising awareness of the threats of over-fishing, bycatch, and habitat destruction, representatives of COOl went on a 3-month tour of 11 states, presenting a 45-minute slide show to “hundreds of groups ranging from students to divers to recreational fishermen.” The group’s website has videos on each of the challenges facing marine life, including one starring a comedian from Comedy Central.

Blue Ocean Institute: A group that “works to inspire a closer relationship with the sea through science, art, and literature.”

Bluewater Network: Known for their campaigns to stop environmental damage from cars and cruise ships, Bluewater Network also fights to protect public lands and to stop global warming.


Earth Policy Institute: The Earth Policy Institute publishes research that examines the feasibility of an environmentally sustainable economy and the means to get there. Its website carries video of public appearances by staffers, as well a schedule of future appearances.


Pew Institute for Ocean Science: The institute and its fellows conduct, sponsor, and promote scientific research aimed at protecting the world’s oceans and the species that inhabit them. Their regular rotation of projects includes a global assessment of shark populations and advising small African countries on sustainable fishing.

Ocean and Climate Change Institute: This organization works to identify the effects ocean circulation patterns have on global climate.

Ocean Life Institute: This group searches for ways to sustain healthy marine environments and explores how ocean life informs science on the origin and evolution of life on Earth.

Coastal Ocean Institute: This organization promotes scientific research into coastal waters and ecosystems. Last year, the Institute monitored the “red tide” phenomenon in the Northeast.


International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources: This group suggests pronouncing its name “if nar,” as though the word “conservation” weren’t even part of the name. It’s only fitting for an organization that serves as a front for anti-environmental interests. While the group’s website states its mission as “to communicate, educate, evaluate, and advocate for the environmentally sound, ethical, socially just, and sustainable use of Nature’s resources,” this actually translates into working to loosen environmental regulation, increase corporate profitability at the expense of the earth, and dishonestly attacking environmental groups and activists.

Sustainable Use Parliamentarians Union: A subsidiary of the IFCNR, this organization supposedly brings together elected officials and government appointees (“parliamentarians”) from around the globe together to discuss “the sustainable use of Earth’s natural and renewable resources.” In reality, SUPU’s two conferences—one in Japan and the other in New Zealand—proclaimed support for virtually any commercial fishing interest, most notably whaling. Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), was SUPU’s founding chairman, and read their resolution declaring that the international moratorium on whaling a violation of human rights into the Congressional Record.

The Institute of Cetacean Research: There are a couple ways to get around the international moratorium on whaling, and disguising your whale catch as “science” is one of them. Under this rationale, the Japanese were allowed to “take” 450 minke whales last year. This government-funded organization does not publish its findings in scientific journals, and most of its research does not pass muster with the International Whaling Commission, the regulator of whaling worldwide.

U.S. House Committee on Resources: Welcome to the environmental doublespeak capitol of the world. This committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, is supposed to look after energy, fish, wildlife, forests, and water. Its website prominently displays articles such as “ANWR – Putting it in Perspective,” “Drilling Won’t Harm the Environment,” and “Modernizing the Endangered Species Act.” It is also home to the Healthy Forest Act, which granted developers and logging companies more access into national forest. Chairman Pombo supports drilling for oil off-shore and in ANWR.


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