Ocean conservation leader and award recipient works for life above and below water

Farm and Food

Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš used to catch fish for a living. Now, she dedicates her life to saving them and the ocean they live in.

Though her career began in commercial fishing and aquaculture, Marce has always had the health of the Earth on her radar. She didn’t delve into the complexity of ocean issues in her youth and young adulthood, however she did her best on a day-to-day basis to recycle and not to pollute.

“I had never even thought about the possible extractive problems the ocean faced until I was working logistics at [that] job and I started to see overfishing and pollution firsthand,” said Marce. “This led me to learn more. In 2006, I read about a scientific paper that said the ocean would be empty of fish by 2048 due to overfishing. It really shocked me, and so began my personal commitment to be a part of our ocean-climate solution.”

During Marce’s first marine conservation job, she had a chance to participate in a large workgroup in southern California. As a public process, it was meant to engage as many people as possible, but she discovered there were no language access or justice efforts, and no active efforts to reach communities who spoke languages besides English.

“I knew my Spanish-speaking community and others like ours would be interested in this, but I saw little to no opportunities for their participation,” Marce said.

Marce took matters into her own hands and in 2011 she started California-based Azul, a grassroots organization working to conserve marine resources and to bring Latinx perspectives and participation to ocean conservation.

As the founder and executive director of Azul, Marce embraces opportunities to work directly with #LatinoMarinos, a movement of Latinx people, to protect the ocean and coast full-time alongside her team. And, she is a sought out thought leader for ocean justice.

Marce has given expert testimony to advance the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, as a witness for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources under Arizona Congressman Raul M. Grijalva’s leadership.

Azul has been instrumental in the banning of single use plastic bags in California, as an ocean justice movement leader—particularly on plastics as an environmental justice issue, teaming up with the United Nations Environment Programme on a report, Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastics Pollution. Released in 2021, it is a resource used at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee Plastic Treaty negotiations, and their work and leadership is seen, heard, and felt locally, nationally, and internationally. And, fielded and released last summer, Azul's Latinos and the Ocean poll by BSP Research is the first-of-its-kind poll confirming the Latino segment of the U.S. electorate is strongly committed to reducing harms to the ocean, seeking government intervention to protect the ocean, and support the prevention of plastic pollution, curbing illegal, and unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities.

Because of Marce's commitment and passion for ocean conservation, her leadership, and dedication to inspiring the protection of our ocean and coasts, she received the 2022 Environmental Leader Award. The awards are an independent project administratively supported by the Center for Rural Affairs and made possible by the Walton Family Foundation.

This award honors accomplished leaders in the field of environmental stewardship, and recognizes individuals with a proven track record and promise of future advancement in the field.

“We treasure the life-sustaining force of the ocean, as well as the physical and spiritual nourishment it provides us,” Marce said. “Azul is a ‘gente’ powered and led effort, focused first on celebrating our rich Latinx conservation traditions and connecting them to current solutions. Our endeavors are based in authentic engagement, community building, and collaboration.”

Twelve years after its founding, the Azul team is still growing and creating new spaces. The organization recently hosted Upwell, a consortium for racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse minds, alongside Urban Ocean Lab and the Center for American Progress—and partnered with select conservation organizations to bring its vision to life. And, Azul is the only U.S. organization focused solely on Latinx engagement and political powerbuilding for the ocean and coasts.

Marce says these efforts are vital.

“Joining forces with my community and communities like mine is where my cultural connections live, it's why Azul is intentional in our approach to grow our movement for ocean justice with culture and care because many Latinos were raised to care for our ‘Madre Tierra,’” she said.

That’s why Azul works at state, national, and international levels. 

“Communities are uniquely different, and differ in terms of cultures, locations, countries of origin, etc.—and we take care in our approach and partnerships to reflect those key differences,” Marce said. “In the U.S., from Newport, Rhode Island, to Los Angeles, California, we have rolled up our sleeves with intentionality.”

Marce’s moral compass and work points due north in pursuit of environmental justice, and, as such, she designed her company around that value since its beginning.

“Environmental justice is about communities speaking for themselves, using their own power to seek the solutions that best suit them—dismantling the white supremacist hierarchies of engagement and action,” she said. “Environmental justice seeks to remedy the gaps or voids that the mainstream environmental movement left.”

Azul continues to push forward through new projects and collaborations. In spring 2023, the launch of The Coastal Justice Lab, a partnership and program with Azul and the University of California, Irvine School of Law, began offering legal access and interdisciplinary research to coastal communities to “ensure that the work of federal, state, and local agencies, planning and regulatory proceedings, and compliance and enforcement initiatives advance principles of environmental justice and community involvement and ownership.”

The George Washington Journal of Energy and Environmental Law also recently published her co-authored article, Coastal Justice: Lessons from the Frontlines.

Along with support from her family and friends, as well as her Azul team, advocating for ocean conservation keeps Marce motivated, and she continues to lead on advocacy and policy projects specifically designed to move things in the right direction. She is grateful for the acknowledgement of her work as a recipient of the 2022 Environmental Leader Award.

“This work is about life—above and below water,” Marce said. “My motivation is rooted in righting environmental wrongs and bringing forth community solutions to make that a reality. I remain thankful for the acknowledgment and share this honor with those I join in this pursuit for ocean justice.”