A headshot of Emily Cunningham

Making Waves in UK Marine Conservation with Emily Cunningham

Emily Cunningham is a key figure in the field of UK marine conservation and works tirelessly as an advocate for healthier oceans. Her vision is for local politicians to recognise the key role they can play in the fight for ocean recovery, and for local communities to feel empowered to protect our seas.

In this interview, Emily talks about the importance of finding your niche, blazing your own trail and using your voice. She sets out the key steps she’s taken to achieve all that she has and talks us through her career highlights. For anyone looking to enter the world of marine conservation, this interview is a must-read.

Why did you choose a career in Marine Biology?

Emily Cunningham. Credit: Dr Daniel Moore.

It sounds cheesy but I fell in love with the sea on childhood holidays to the seaside. My Dad and I would explore rock pools and search the tideline for shells and seaglass, and it was from those experiences that my fascination with the sea grew.

From that point on I realised I wanted to be a Marine Biologist, so I worked really hard to get into Bangor University to study Marine Biology.

I volunteered for North Wales Wildlife Trust alongside my studies, and once I learned how much threat our UK seas were under, I realised I wanted to help protect them. It was like a lightbulb switched on and I knew I wanted to work in UK marine conservation.

What sort of work are you doing at the moment? And what does that involve?

At the moment I’m leading the Local Government Association Coastal Special Interest Group, which is a membership group that brings together 57 councils from all around England’s coast. We serve about 60% of England’s coastline and 16 million people, and we focus on tackling issues like climate resilience, sustainable coastal economies, and coastal pollution.

One of the things I’m working on is a campaign called Motion for the Ocean, which encourages councils to ‘think ocean’ and step up to play their part in ocean recovery.

On a daily basis my main activity is advocacy, which involves lots of meetings with people such as MPs, ministers, civil servants, councillors, council officers, and other people working on coastal issues. In between all that, I manage a small team that supports the 57 councils, doing everything we can to raise awareness of coastal issues and the policy changes we’d like to see.

I’m also a Trustee of the Marine Conservation Society, as well as the Board’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Champion. Being a Trustee is hugely varied, from shaping the charity’s strategy to meeting with the Secretary of State to advocate for a policy change we’d like to see.

Emily presenting at IMCC5 about SeaScapes. Credit: Dr Daniel Moore.

What is the best part of doing that sort of work?

The best part is knowing that I have changed the mindset of a politician or influenced a change in policy for the better. That’s when you know that the long hours and seemingly endless meetings are worth it.

And what’s the worst part?

So many meetings! Before the pandemic, I would travel to London fairly regularly, and we would have lots of Parliamentary events face to face. Nowadays, it’s pretty much all done over Teams and Zoom, and it’s sometimes more difficult to build those connections with policymakers.

What are your career highlights so far?

I’ve had some amazing experiences, but I’m most proud of two big conservation projects I’ve co-developed based in the North of England called ‘SeaScapes’ and ‘Our Dee Estuary’. For my work on these projects I was recognised as a ‘Global 30 under 30’ for environmental education by the North American Association for Environmental Education, which was awesome.

I’m also really proud of having been appointed to the Board of Marine Conservation Society in my 20s. I am the first person in my family to go to university or to become a Director of anything, so it was a big deal for me.

In my day job, I’m really proud of our Motion for the Ocean campaign, because getting councils to play their part in ocean conservation could bring huge benefits for our ocean and our coastal communities. So far, 9 councils have made Ocean Recovery Declarations using our model Motion for the Ocean, with more to follow. You can help, find out how here. 

What are the key steps you’ve taken to get you to where you are today?

A lot of it has been learning on the go. When I went to uni I didn’t have a clue how to build a career in marine conservation, but I volunteered widely during my degree, which built a solid foundation for me. I also left uni with paid work experience, gained from part-time work, which was crucial in landing me my first graduate job.

Becoming a Trustee was another key step, because it gave me solid leadership experience. I would very much encourage those wanting to go into conservation leadership to look into Trustee roles, regardless of where you’re at in your career. Check out the Young Trustees Movement if you’re under 30.

Keeping in touch with my own ambitions was also important. It’s very easy to be led sometimes, but you have to think about how to use your opportunities to get the right skills, experience, and contacts to reach your goals.

You have a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Vertebrate Zoology, and a Master’s in Marine Biology. Do you think that those qualifications are essential for a career in conservation, or are there other avenues into it?

Conservation is very competitive and so a degree is often seen as an essential qualification to gain employment. If you’re starting from a position where you don’t have a degree, I encourage people to do one because it’s an amazing learning and life experience. My mind was blown by new concepts and the interesting and inspiring people I met. I had the opportunity to study lots of different modules which exposed me to things that really helped me find my path.

But that’s not the only path into conservation and each and every one of us can bring our unique skills, perspective and lived experience to the table. We need people from all walks of life if we are to have any chance of tackling the ecological crisis we all face. You don’t need to be a biologist to work in conservation! The sector is waking up to this and relevant experience is increasingly being accepted in lieu of a degree.

Emily with Secretary of State, George Eustice. Credit: Anna Gelderd, Marine Conservation Society.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

There isn’t one set path in conservation, so you shouldn’t necessarily try and follow someone else’s footsteps.

People feel like there’s a certain mould they have to fit to be a conservationist, but actually, what we need is people who are different. Instead of trying to follow what others have done, my advice would be to think about how to find your niche, and how to make yourself stand out for the right reasons.

One good way of finding your niche is to volunteer because it can help you find out what excites you and where you thrive. Getting yourself a mentor is also a good idea – there are some formal schemes that people can check out, like A Focus on Nature, or you could directly approach someone whose work you respect.

Another piece of advice I would give to those wanting to work in conservation is this: if you see an issue affecting our planet, don’t assume that someone else is fixing it. Tackle it yourself instead. Put yourself forward by joining a campaign, or starting your own, and then shout about it. There’s nothing more attractive to an employer than someone who puts their money where their mouth is.

Lastly, if you’re passionate about conservation I would advise you to use your voice. I made the mistake when I first started out of thinking that my voice didn’t carry any weight because I hadn’t yet got a degree, or published a paper, or had much life experience, and that’s absolute rubbish. Your voice matters right now, whether you’re 10 years old or 70 years old.

You can find out more about Emily and the projects she’s involved in by visiting her website, or find her over on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

If this interview has inspired you to take the next step towards a career in marine conservation, follow these links:


Author profile | Jasmine Rees

Jasmine works in financial services and originally studied a degree in history. She first became interested in conservation after travelling to Australia and New Zealand, where she realised the landscapes and wildlife she encountered needed protecting. She enjoys writing, music and politics and hopes in the future to use her skills to further the cause of conservation. You can find out more about Jasmine on her LinkedIn page.


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