Conservationist showcase: Emily Cunningham

March 2, 2022

If you've been following my blog, you may already be familiar with Emily's name from our recent Power Hour. But I’m excited to officially introduce Emily Cunningham in the latest Conservationist Showcase. Emily is a fantastic marine conservationist who is dedicated to helping councils, organisations and individuals play their part in ocean recovery. She was kind enough to share some wonderful insights so I hope you enjoy!

Can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I'm Emily. I lead the Local Government Association Coastal Special Interest Group (LGA Coastal SIG) and am a Trustee of the Marine Conservation Society.

What does LGA Coastal SIG do?

The LGA Coastal SIG is a membership group of 57 councils. Together, we cover 60% of England’s coastline and serve 16 million people. We work on coastal issues, including climate resilience, sustainable coastal economies and coastal water quality. Together with Cllr Dr Pamela Buchan, a Plymouth City Councillor and marine social scientist, and Nicola Bridge of the Ocean Conservation Trust, I am a co-author of the model Motion for the Ocean and work to support councils in helping them think ocean and play their part in ocean recovery.

Why do you care about the ocean?

I fell in love with the ocean on childhood holidays to the seaside, where we would stay with my Aunty and Uncle in North Wales. When I learned to dive – also in North Wales – I would cry in my mask with happiness at what I was seeing. The underwater world is magical, but over my lifetime I have seen the decline in ocean health with my own eyes. Our ocean is under greater pressure than ever before. I want to play my part in its recovery, which includes helping others – from Councillors to local communities – to play their part.

What inspired you to work in the conservation sector?

Whilst I was studying for my marine biology degree, I volunteered with North Wales Wildlife Trust; helping in the office as well as supporting them on surveys. I was so inspired by the people there and the work they were doing that I knew I wanted to work in UK marine conservation. Before that, my plan had been to go and work abroad as I hadn’t realised the threats to UK seas nor what we stood to lose. That experience changed my career path forever.

What's a typical day like for you?

Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of my time travelling to London to meet with policymakers, attend Parliamentary events and do media interviews. Nowadays, most of this is done virtually – which is one gift of the past 2 years! I work to strengthen national and local policy, so there are virtual meetings with MPs, Ministers and civil servants, meetings with Councillors and council officers from all around England’s coast. Plus meetings with others working on coastal issues. In between all of that, I manage the group of 57 councils, do media interviews and panel appearances and write briefings. At the moment, there’s lots of excitement around our model Motion for the Ocean too. And I am supporting councils from around England to embed ocean recovery into what they do.

I am also a Trustee of the Marine Conservation Society. This can see me attending a Board meeting, taking a Minister on a beach clean, meeting with staff in my role as Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Champion, or scrutinising the charity’s accounts or strategy.

How did you get into conservation?

Once I’d realised I wanted to work in UK conservation, I stepped up my volunteering alongside my studies. I did this to gain experience and understand how to secure a job. I was one of the first volunteer Sea Champions for the Marine Conservation Society, as well as volunteering as a Regional Coordinator for Sea Watch Foundation. But it was actually the experience from my part-time job as a Student Support Worker which got me my first graduate job at the Environment Agency! I started as a Team Assistant, doing admin work. Then I got a secondment to work in the Fisheries and Biodiversity Team.

My experience there and from a stint working on Ascension Island led to my dream job at a Wildlife Trust. I then had various marine conservation roles, including as a national marine policy officer working for the 46 Wildlife Trusts of the UK and one developing the UK’s first seascape-scale marine conservation and engagement scheme, the multi-million pound “SeaScapes”. In 2017, I went freelance and worked with lots of different NGOs before taking on my current role leading the LGA Coastal SIG. I am proud of my current work encouraging and enabling local authorities to step up and play their part in ocean recovery.

What's your favourite marine creature and why?

Portuguese Man O’War. It is just so wonderfully weird! A colony of animals with different functions that work together as one: a balloon-like float that enables it to drift vast distances across oceans and bright blue tentacles that can be 10 or more metres long and which paralyse and kill their prey. That and the fact that one of their main predators is a 3cm long sea slug called a blue dragon which swims in the open ocean and incorporates all the stinging cells it gets from eating the Portuguese Man O’War into its own skin as a defence tactic. You couldn’t make it up… That’s why I love the ocean. It’s beyond even the wildest imagination and the more I learn about it, the deeper I fall in love.

What's the weirdest or most surprising fact you can share about the ocean?

Lots of marine fish change sex during their lifetimes, including clownfish (male to female) and parrotfish (female to male). In clownfish society, there is just one sexually mature breeding pair. If something happens to the female, her male mate becomes female and the next biggest male in the group becomes her new partner. So, Finding Nemo isn’t quite biologically accurate…

Do you think communications is an important part of your conservation work?

Absolutely! Advocacy is the main part of my job and clear communications are at the heart of that.

What communications challenges do you face at your organisation?

Communicating complex coastal issues can be challenging. Plus, getting political attention and media coverage can be difficult particularly when competing with other more emotive issues. The key is pulling out the human story – why these things matter to people; i.e. what are the benefits or impacts of a given policy decision to real people living in coastal communities.

What are your hopes for the future of the ocean?

That we see an upswell of marine citizenship: of people playing their part in ocean recovery. That could be from politicians, people who live on the coast, business owners, industry leaders and even those that live inland. There is so much to gain if we take the necessary steps to begin ocean recovery. Our ocean will never look how it once did. However, we can work towards to a future where it is clean, full of wildlife, storing carbon and underpinning a sustainable blue economy which benefits local people.

What's the one thing you wish people knew about protecting the ocean?

That we all can play our part. You don’t have to be a marine biologist to help in ocean recovery. We can all help – no matter where we live. Many ocean lovers are taking steps to reduce their personal footprint, which is great. But we need more people to ask their elected representatives (e.g. Councillors and MPs) to play their part too. An easy way to do this is by asking your local Councillor to table a Motion for the Ocean. All the information you need is here.

What tips do you have for someone who wants to work in the conservation sector?

Conservation is competitive and it is important to make yourself stand out for the right reasons.

  • Volunteering is important when you first start out as it helps you understand what excites you, as well as helping you get experience for your CV.
  • Use social media well – get yourself on LinkedIn and make your personal Instagram and/or Facebook accounts private.
  • Get yourself a mentor – check out A Focus on Nature or approach someone whose work you respect and ask if they have capacity to mentor you.
  • If you see an issue affecting our ocean, tackle it – whether that’s on-the-ground action or joining/starting a campaign.
  • Use your voice – I made the mistake of thinking my voice didn’t carry weight until I had a degree… wrong! Your voice matters now, we need voices from all parts of society speaking up for our ocean. And remember that you don’t have to work in the conservation sector to make a difference for our planet! What could you do to make your own sector more sustainable and/or ocean-friendly? How can use your existing skills, network or influence to help conservation efforts? I hear of lots of people retraining as a biologist, but we need fundraisers, communications specialists, marketing mavens, finance experts, inspiring educators – could you bring those skills over into the conservation sector through a job change or perhaps donate some of your time pro-bono to help a local conservation charity?

What unanswered question do you still have about the ocean?

Where do all the orca disappear to when I raise my binoculars to scan the waves?

Anything you'd like to add?

Thank you so much for sharing my work. You can find out more about me at https://emilycunningham.co.uk. I love chatting with other sea fans, so please get in touch if you would like to discuss the Motion for the Ocean or anything else. There’s a contact form on my website.

Or, connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.

Ready to chat?

Hello!

Great to hear you're interested in working together - I'm always keen to hear about exciting new stories from marine conservationists, potential commissions from editors and suitable briefs from prospective clients.

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