Navigating ‘Our Ocean’: A Young Activist’s Journey from 2016-2024 and beyond

Sean Russell, Director of Youth Engagement of EarthEcho International (left), and Elizabeth Sherr smiling for a photo at the 2024 Our Ocean Conference

By Liz Sherr 

The first time I attended the Our Ocean Conference (OOC) was the second one in 2016 in Washington D.C. as a Youth Leadership Council (YLC) member of the non-profit EarthEcho International. Now, as an ocean conservationist and content creator, I attended the ninth OOC in Athens last month as an official Blogger capturing videos and interviews of speakers and other attendees to spread my learnings from the conference to wider audiences on social media. During my initial OOC, I remember feeling both excited and nervous as one of the only young attendees present, so I was excited in my second round to see a wave of over 100 youth attending from around the world in Athens! 

The Sustainable Ocean Alliance hosted the Our Ocean Youth Leadership Summit to empower young leaders to gain valuable experience and expand their network while EarthEcho International brought new YLC members as part of their Conference delegation, providing an opportunity to share their perspectives through a variety of speaking opportunities and meetings with government officials. I spoke at a RISE UP-organized event called “Ocean Allies: Shaping our Future Together” as a youth representative of EarthEcho among a diverse panel including the CEO of Fauna & Flora, Kristian Teleki, and (Hahn Goliath), a fisherman from a community-based fishing program called ABOLOBI in South Africa. There, I enforced the urgent need to provide more opportunities for youth in ocean action leadership and the importance of engaging them as part of the decision-making processes because they represent nearly half the global population. I provided examples of how youth have influenced their communities to support campaigns like 30×30 through EarthEcho’s programs as well as shared personal experiences using social media to inspire positive action and translate ocean news into digestible, impactful stories. 

Elizabeth Sherr representing EarthEcho International and speaking at the ‘Our Allies: Shaping Our Future Together’ panel at the 2024 Our Ocean Conference alongside Kristian Teleki, CEO of Fauna and Flora (right) and Rocky Sanchez Tirona, Managing Director of Fish Forever (left).

Inspiring leaders like Dr. Sylvia Earle and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at both the OOCs I attended and continue to enlist hope in our future, even after watching decades of anthropogenic destruction. Sylvia had one of my favorite quotes saying “it’s not radical, it’s the truth” when talking about the science-backed hard facts, such as how 90% of the sharks are gone. She encouraged us to continue telling these truths to give the ocean a voice, which is exactly what I do through short-form videos!

Since 2016, the OOC has also expanded on the ‘Areas of Action’, adding Sustainable Blue Economies and Maritime Security to the former list of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Climate Change, Marine Pollution, and Sustainable Fisheries. Some major announcements in Athens included that the Seychelles became the fourth country to ratify the High Seas Treaty, Oregon State University (OSU) scientists reported that 47% of all the MPAs have been created from commitments made at earlier OOCs, and Greece declared they will be the first EU country to ban bottom trawling in its protected waters by 2026. 

Sylvia Earle and Elizabeth Sherr at the 2024 Our Ocean Conference in Athens. 
 Alexandra Cousteau joins EarthEcho’s Youth Leadership Council members (Mehak Arora, Brigitta Gunawan, and Camila Rimoldi Ibanez) with Elizabeth Sherr and Sean Russell.

While 90 countries have currently signed the High Seas Treaty, which will create a pathway for establishing MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction, I recall sitting with other OOC Bloggers feeling disappointed that other countries did not follow the Seychelles when we need 60 countries to complete ratification. A fact I heard traveling around the Conference was that in order to achieve the 30×30, we need to protect an area the size of Taiwan every day. So while I’m impressed with the rise and impact of commitments from the OOCs, we are not progressing fast enough and high-level messaging continues to repeat itself “if we don’t act now.”

OSU researchers conclude that 4.1% of the ocean would be protected if all of the current protected area commitments were completed, including 1.2% categorized as either fully or highly protected. It’s imperative that current and new MPAs must not become “paper MPAs” and actually highly or fully protect marine resources through networks while holistically banning harmful fishing practices, such as industrial bottom trawling – which still takes place in about 90% of Europe’s MPAs, and incorporating Indigenous and traditional knowledge and leadership. We already have the innovation and motivation to monitor, surveil, and restore our ocean planet – we just need to scale.

While the 2024 OOC raised an estimated $11.3b in pledges for marine conservation through commitments made at the Conference, which is slightly over double that of 2016 ($5.24b), the amount of money pledged has dramatically decreased over the recent years in which $20b and $16b were pledged in the OOCs in 2023 and 2022 consecutively. Aside from re-escalating funding, we also need to better mobilize said funding to smaller nonprofits and community-programs to protect and restore our ocean, as access to these opportunities are limited. I believe part of taking risks for the ocean means allocating funding to smaller or newer organizations working on-the-ground to directly support conservation from the bottom-up – including for youth-led initiatives.

EarthEcho’s GenSea community get together at the 2024 Our Ocean Conference in Athens.

I hope future OOCs will have more youth attending and speaking in panels, more representation from Large Ocean States and community-programs, more diversity, and grants for storytellers like myself to support ocean advocacy beyond the Conference. I also think having a “speed-dating” event would be an opportunity for organizations, scientists and funders to collaborate on projects together outside of randomized conversations. Lastly, I loved how there was a 3-day Film Festival, though it was difficult to attend with events happening simultaneously, and one thing missing in the OOC is forming connections to the ocean or water of the countries we are visiting! There were opportunities to participate in beach and forest cleanups as well as visit a sea turtle rescue center the day before the OOC started, however these options were targeted to youth who may be arriving early for the Youth Reception. Scaling these activities to connect with the natural environment intergenerationally would help enforce meaningful networks and reminders of what we need to do to scale ocean-climate action.

As we move on from Our Ocean, we must continue to amplify our efforts by embracing diverse perspectives and uplifting the voices of youth in our shared mission to safeguard our oceans. It’s time to listen, learn, and take decisive action to protect, restore and equitably govern the ocean.


Elizabeth Sherr (Liz) is a marine scientist and content creator who uses her passion in storytelling to scale ocean education, action and impact on social media (@lizlivingblue). She holds a MSc. in Marine Environment Resources from universities in Spain, France and Belgium and a BSc. in Natural Resource Conservation with a minor in Extension Education from the University of Florida. 



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This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

Posted on Categories Blogs
Date Published: 7th May 2024