Conservation showcase: Dawn Borg Costanzi

May 18, 2022

This month, I spoke to the wonderful Dawn Borg Costanzi to find out more about The Pew Charitable Trusts. Dawn has a rather impressive job title: "Senior Officer, Ending Illegal Fishing, International Fisheries"! We had an interesting chat about her work in the fisheries sector. I hope you enjoy it!

What does The Pew Charitable Trusts do?

The Pew Charitable Trusts, also known as Pew, is a global US-based NGO. Its mission is to solve today's most challenging problems and serve the public interest by improving public policies. In the US, The Pew Charitable Trusts is well-known and well-respected for its work towards good governance across various sectors. These include health, education, finance, prison reforms and protection of the environment. Internationally, The Pew Charitable Trusts focuses on environmental issues and has a very strong ocean conservation portfolio. This includes the International Fisheries project, which I work on.

Why do you care about the ocean?

I grew up on the small island of Malta, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Being by the sea has given me a sense of wellbeing all my life. Once I started travelling to different continents, and spent time snorkelling and diving, I came to appreciate ocean life much more. It fascinates me to know there is a world below the surface that we often do not get to see. The ocean brings so many peoples and cultures together!

What inspired you to work in the conservation sector?

Quite honestly, I was relatively unaware of the world of conservation until rather late in life. I never really planned to get into this line of work. I remember watching a Greenpeace whale protection campaign on the news when I was a young teen. The the campaigners’ passion and dedication was so impressive. However, my grandfather told me in no uncertain terms that it was not something I should even consider. I set that thought aside for a long while but continued to look for ways to make a difference, however small. So, I jumped at the opportunity to work towards fisheries management and sustainability, although it wasn’t something I aspired to initially. I’m very grateful that I got here eventually.

What's a typical day like for you?

With things as they are currently, my days are mainly desk-based. I dedicate a lot of my time to the future of our work. For example, preparing work plans, designing and commissioning research, evaluating proposals, managing contractors and preparing educational materials. There’s also the important element of building and maintaining relationships with external partners. These include the FAO, other UN agencies, other NGOs, regional groups from around the world and so on. I love to be in contact with all these different experts and initiatives and think about how we can collaborate and synergise our efforts.

Things were very different prior to the pandemic, though. I spent a lot of time travelling to meet different stakeholders in person. I attended and advocated at international meetings and negotiations, organised events and offered more direct technical support to national and regional authorities. I’m counting down the days to when we can get back to interacting more broadly with more diverse groups.

How did you get to where you are now?

It was a series of coincidences that brought me to work in fisheries policy.

I studied in Malta and completed a BSc in Information Technology. My focus was on computer science and artificial intelligence with a thesis on computational linguistics. I enjoyed it but it feels like a lifetime ago now! I then got a job with a Maltese software development company. One of our clients was the government’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. I was assigned to a project tracking fishing vessels and, later, to the re-development of the electronic register of Maltese fishing vessels.

Around the same time, the UN FAO was looking to develop a similar register for the whole of the Mediterranean. They asked for someone from our team to consult with them for a year and share our local experiences. Recognising the unique opportunity that was presenting itself, I pushed to be nominated. I was fortunate enough to be selected for that role and worked for the FAO for around six years in total. I started with software development but slowly shifted to policymaking, capacity development and all the things which really make me tick. And there I realised that this is what I really want to do.

What's your favourite marine creature and why?

It would have to be a turtle. I had a tortoise as a pet for over 30 years and I could spend hours watching the marine form underwater. Having said that, I'm so excited every time I come across an octopus when I’m snorkelling. I love to watch it change colour and disguise itself. Oh, and there is nothing quite like being approached by a pod of wild dolphins as you swim.

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

It was surprising to me to initially learn just how many people depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and food security and how many communities the ocean touches worldwide. Priority is often given to agriculture and other environmental concerns but there are tens of millions of people globally engaged in the primary sector of fisheries and aquaculture. Many women are involved in the fisheries value chain too. Sadly, despite this and the fact that fishing is considered one of the most dangerous occupations, fishers around the world are not afforded the same safety standards or labour protections that workers in other sectors can rely on.

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

Yes, I definitely think that communications is an important part of our work. We dedicate a fair amount of our resources to ensuring that findings of our research are shared and evidence is communicated, to develop original, balanced, and practicable insights for policymakers. This means their positions can be built on robust and dependable data and information. We also believe it’s important to analyse and communicate the benefits and impacts of the changes we’re campaigning for. This helps to obtain broader buy-in and provide the support that our collaborators might need to mitigate the initial negative impacts that will eventually lead to long-term gains.

What communications challenges do you face at your organisation?

I believe it’s always a challenge to reach the vast range of people that we need to engage in order to be successful. There are people with so many different backgrounds and situations. Each of them consume information in different ways and through different platforms. They might speak different languages. And they may start out for or against a particular issue. Because of this, our communications need to be adaptable but targeted. It’s sometimes hard to find the right balance.

What are your hopes for the future of the ocean?

I hope that people will appreciate the ocean more. For its environmental value as well as its contribution to food security and communities' subsistence. We need to get to the point of managing both conservation and sustainable use for the benefit of the planet and the peoples and communities that depend on it.

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

I wish people knew that the small things that everyone can do really make a difference. Whether it’s asking where your seafood was sourced, to show the supply chain that consumers care, or avoiding plastic pollution and being more environmentally aware, every little bit helps. I do believe this is something people are becoming more aware of. That said, habits are hard to break, and changes in behaviour take time and effort.

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

There are many paths that lead to conservation work and many different roles that play a part in protection the ocean and the environment. Be open to new experiences and opportunities. It might not immediately be clear how they relate to the sector you’re aspiring to. But look for a niche where you can make the most of your skills and experience to make a positive impact.

What unanswered question do you still have about the ocean?

I wonder how much the ocean can handle in terms of dealing with the consequences of climate change. We know the ocean absorbs large quantities of our emissions and is a huge contributor to climate change mitigation. However, that has come at a huge cost to ocean and coastal life and livelihoods. If we can stop, and reverse, our negative impacts on marine life, will the ocean surprise us by offering unexpected resilience?

Ready to chat?


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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