Home Waters

How Paul G. Allen protects fragile ecosystems in his hometown and beyond.

Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Paul Allen grew up alongside the shores of the Puget Sound, where he developed a close relationship with the water and the local ecosystem it supports. He became an avid diver and has traveled the world exploring new areas and sea life. From diving in Antarctica to swimming alongside massive, gentle whale sharks, Paul's love of the sea has always been an integral part of his life. However, on his many dives and explorations, he discovered that in reefs across the globe, local ecosystems were being depleted. Not only were they no longer viable dive spots, they weren't sustaining undersea life, and their destruction was impacting local communities.

"In my lifetime, I've experienced firsthand the alarming changes to our oceans. From the air we breathe to the food we eat, ocean health is critical to human survival. As someone who grew up on the ocean and spent many years as an avid diver, my connection to and passion for the ocean is personal. Saving the ocean is the biggest opportunity to preserve life on Earth."
Paul G. Allen

An entrepreneur, philanthropist, technologist, sports team owner and pretty awesome guitarist, Paul is many things to his hometown of Seattle. He spent the last forty years building institutes to research brain science, cell science, and artificial intelligence; opened museums dedicated to pop culture, technology, and history; and revitalized the neighborhood of South Lake Union. His philanthropic initiatives stretch from the Pacific Northwest to Africa. All told, Paul's philanthropic contributions exceed $2 billion, and even before becoming a member of the Giving Pledge, Paul committed to giving away the majority of his fortune. 

Like most of Paul's initiatives, his integrated approach to ocean health begins its journey locally. By focusing some programs and initiatives that protect the Salish Sea (the combined waters of the Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia), Paul's home waters are transformed into a marine laboratory, and one that can serve as a model for tackling global ocean health issues.

Salish Sea as a Laboratory

Film: Hood Canal salmon, Transect Films.

Salmon populations in the Salish Sea have declined by 90% in the last 30 years, and salmon are the canaries in the coal mine for the health of Paul's home waters. Paul has taken a multifaceted approach to protecting salmon and their ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest; pulling the levers of research, policy change, and storytelling, and even extending his salmon-focused approach to real estate development. 

Paul G. Allen Philanthropies helps fund the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project whose comprehensive approach mirrors his other public-private partnerships tackling topics like poaching and world health. Led by Northwest organizations  Long Live The Kings and the  Pacific Salmon Foundation and engaging federal, state, tribal, first nation, academic, non-profit, and private entities, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project is a full court press approach to protecting local waters.

In addition to collaborative philanthropy, it is critical to catalyze a new generation of young, informed conservationists in the Puget Sound. The Survive the Sound project from Long Live The Kings follows tagged salmon on an interactive map as they complete their harrowing journey to the sea, and provides local teachers toolkits to introduce concepts of ocean health into science curriculum.

Film: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

Paul has taken a keen interest in new projects that pursue interesting approaches to long-term problems. He funds a unique investigation into seaweed cultivation as a potential strategy for mitigating ocean acidification. Researchers in the Hood Canal are creating underwater kelp farms and testing to see whether growing kelp can reduce CO2 levels in the Puget Sound. The power of kelp to protect inland marine waters is still unknown, but by empowering researchers to take risks and chase data-driven dreams, it is Paul's goal to continue to strive for innovation in how we confront the threat to our oceans.

A report published by the NOAA showed that runoff from urban roads in Seattle can kill an adult Coho salmon in less than three hours, and through his development company Vulcan Real Estate, Paul is able to integrate new green practices into his neighborhood development that work to reverse the environmental impact of urban centers.

In 2014 Vulcan Real Estate became the  first Salmon-Safe accredited developer in the world, and has since constructed eight Salmon-Safe certified projects; everything from commercial buildings to golf courses. Salmon-Safe certification means that Vulcan makes development decisions and based on site ecology, integrated habitats, stormwater management, habitat protection, water conservation, care for land, and integrating signage to build awareness about Salmon-Safe practices.

It is Paul's hope that more developers will consider their impact on the environment and become Salmon-Safe certified. In addition to Vulcan Real Estate's Salmon-Safe developments, PGA Philanthropies has committed $250 thousand to the Salmon-Safe Puget Sound Accelerator, which applies certification, developer incentives, and other market-based tools to inspire other landowners and developers to reduce water quality impacts across the Puget Sound. 

In the innovation district of South Lake Union, Vulcan partnered with the City of Seattle to build a large-scale, natural biofiltration system, called a swale, into the urban streetscape. Prior to the swale, stormwater flowing from the neighborhood up the hill collected silts, oils, metals and other pollutants and then dumped them out in Lake Union, which connects to the Puget Sound. The "Swale on Yale" and the additional swales that have followed will treat and remove half of the pollutants from an estimated 200 million gallons of water each year.

Paul, through Vulcan Real Estate, has invested $27 million into additional environmental remediation around their building sites, and the development company has completed or is pending LEED certification for 35 of their buildings. Through PGA Philanthropies he funds the Puget Sound Stormwater Strategic Plan with The Nature Conservancy, which dedicates time, energy and funding toward stormwater pollution prevention and remediation. With millions of pounds of chemical pollutants running into the Sound annually, a scalable approach to mitigating stormwater runoff across Seattle is critical to protecting our local waters where salmon make their homes. 

Collecting Big Data, Catching Bad Actors

Using data and technology to combat illegal fishing and conduct new research

In the Salish Sea and beyond, our oceans are facing health threats on a massive scale. Data that precipitates action is the best way to ensure that oceans and fisheries are able to thrive and survive. In 2010, 30 percent of the fish stocks reported by FAO were either over-exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion, and findings suggest that this is underestimated by up to 100 percent in many developing countries. The unsustainable practice of illegal fishing not only depletes global fish populations, it contributes to organized crime including  human-trafficking and slave labor.

Much like his approach in his home waters, Paul funds collaborative, global ocean projects focused on pulling the levers of data, technology and policy change to help enforcement officials stop illegal fishing and protect fish stocks.

We are taking to the sky to protect our seas.  Skylight, an illegal fishing intelligence and research solution developed by Paul's team at Vulcan, utilizes multiple data sources like satellite-based imagery and Automatic Information System (AIS) transmissions to track the movement of fishing vessels. Machine learning tells law enforcement officials which ships are zigging when they should be zagging and “going dark,” or turning off their AIS, to potentially hide illegal behavior. Skylight allows analysts to monitor and alert enforcement about indications of illegal vessel activity. This "eyes in the sky" approach has been piloted in Gabon and Palau, allowing their law enforcement to understand where and how to deploy their resources. 

Beyond satellites and sea patrols, the collection of data is one of the most critical aspects of ocean conservation -- and one that Paul is deeply invested in. He supported the  Sea Around Us program at the University of British Columbia, which helps provide the global data needed to improve fisheries policy and security. Much like what the  Great Elephant Census did for elephants, Sea Around Us offers open source data visualizations that can help lawmakers in countries around the world to make informed policy changes that will not only preserve their resources, but will strengthen their economies.

Far away from the waters of the Salish Sea,  underwater Seagliders are cruising below the West Antarctic ice shelves, gathering never-before-collected data which will help the world better understand the impact of climate change on ice shelves and improve modeling that could protect cities from pending sea level rise.

From the orbiting satellites to undersea drones, Paul's support for data-driven solutions allows everyone from climate modelers to coast guards to gather the information they need to protect our imperiled seas and coastal communities and economies.

Fins, Gills and Reefs

Combining research, data collection and technology to preserve biodiversity

Beyond the Salish Sea, our oceans are also in crisis. Illegal and irresponsible fishing practices aren’t just depleting fish stocks, they’re decimating shark and ray populations- two keystone species critical to ocean health. Sharks, rays, and other sea life are being fished to extinction, meanwhile their living neighborhoods, the coral reefs, are being destroyed.

Half of the world’s corals have died in the last 50 years, 20% of them died in the past year, and 90% of the world’s coral reefs are projected to die by 2050. Consensus among conservationists point to warming waters as the greatest threat to coral reefs, and by extension, to sharks and rays. Three of Paul’s projects take his passion for innovative, data-driven approaches and apply them to understanding and protecting marine biodiversity.

Global FinPrint is the largest survey of the world’s reef-associated sharks and rays ever attempted. Like many of Paul’s initiatives, it is a collaborative global effort to fill a critical information gap about the diminishing number of sharks and rays. Using baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveys at key reef ecosystems, the data collected and researched will help scientists understand the human impact on critical ecosystems dependent upon the presences of keystone predators. 

By examining the BRUV footage for “refuges,” “hotspots,” and “bright spots,” scientists for Global FinPrint are learning where the most threatened species of sharks are surviving, the impact of protected areas on sharks and rays, and the successes and failures of sustainable fishing practices, which will help researchers, NGOs, and policymakers create meaningful legislation to protect our increasingly imperiled reefs.

Paul also funds ambitious data and research projects in Hawaii and Australia that explore different ways to understand coral bleaching, and possibly slow or reverse the process. Much like his approach to research in the Salish Sea, this localized research in Hawai'i has the potential to be scaled at other reefs across the globe. A team from the Carnegie Institution of Washington is running a multi-spectral survey of corals in Kanoeohe Bay, Hawai'i; surveying corals and identifying pockets of corals that are heat-resistant. The unique data collected here helps to inform future transplant and reef creation projects, in addition to the start of what could become a coral atlas for the ecosystem.

Building upon the data collected by the multi-spectral survey, another project led by Dr. Ruth Gates is working in parallel to understand the genetic differences in the corals in the survey who appear to be resistant to climate change. The data collected from those surveys will go towards an innovative project to build more resilient reefs using selective breeding. The oceans keep getting warmer, and time is of the essence to collect this data from corals that are still alive, as massive bleaching events continue to occur in reefs in Hawaii and across the globe. 

The data is telling us that our ocean ecosystems are dying before our eyes, but sometimes it takes the power of photography and film to truly see the impact we are having on our oceans.

As you scroll below and watch the images change, you can see the the scope of coral bleaching in reefs across the globe.

In communities across the globe, people are working to protect their own home waters, and through his production company Vulcan Productions, Paul hopes to help capture those stories and share them with the world.

Whether supporting a mobile theater in  Raja Ampat, one of the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet, to spur local guardianship of their biodiversity, or  projecting endangered species on to the Empire State Building and St. Peter’s Basilica to impact a global audience, Paul wants to tell stories that inspire people to take action to protect our oceans.

Ocean Warriors and Racing Extinction are two documentaries telling global sagas about the perils our oceans face, as well as putting a face to the humans striving to protect them. More than a film, " Racing Extinction" is multi-platform awareness campaign helping audiences who were inspired by the film's depiction of the devastating toll humans have on the natural world, to take action in their everyday lives; changing behaviors, contacting legislators, and challenging the status quo. The film travels around the world looking at the impact humanity has had on fragile ecosystems, from massive illegal wildlife trade to the final trill of the last-of-its-species songbird.

In the Vulcan Productions documentary "Ocean Warriors", audiences are pulled to the front lines of the battle to save the world’s oceans. It exposes the connection between illegal fishing and the broader world of organized crime, and much like what Paul’s hopes for Skylight, the film demands that the bad actors participating in these activities are stopped and brought to justice.

The deep storytelling that documentary film invite audiences to experiences the beauty of our marine world up close, no matter how land-locked they may be, in order to see that that the world’s oceans are all of our home waters, and must be protected.

Our world's oceans are in trouble. They're growing warmer. They're becoming more acidic. Reefs and important ecosystems are dying. Corals are bleaching at an unprecedented rate. Over-fishing is depleting our seas; impacting humans and wildlife. Unless we change course, the marine ecosystems that 3.5 billion people rely on for their livelihoods could collapse.

Paul Allen is incubating solutions in his home waters on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, and adapting those approaches to far reaching shores. Starting in the Salish Sea and extending from the ice sheets of Antarctica to the reefs of Palau; through philanthropy, storytelling, research, mindful development, and good data, we can make an impact that will improve the health of our oceans for generations.