Charting a new course for ocean conservation

November 29, 2021


Angelo Villagomez used to feel like a fish out of water. The biologist and environmental policy expert was so shy at the University of Richmond that he avoided doing presentations, even for 10 people.

His undergrad experiences helped him gain confidence and become a pioneering advocate for global marine conservation and social equity. Known as the godfather of the Mariana Trench for his work to preserve the iconic location, Villagomez is the senior officer of marine protection at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

“I always knew the only thing I could be was a scientist,” said Villagomez, who graduated from UR in 2000.

After his parents divorced in the 1980s, he spent time in Massachusetts and Saipan, a Pacific island with a population around 50,000 in the Northern Mariana Islands, which has been a U.S. commonwealth since 1978.

“My dad is a native Chamorro [the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands], my mom is from just outside of Boston,” he said. “I’ve got a foot in two different worlds.”

We need more protected areas — and we need better protected areas.
Angelo Villagomez

2000 University of Richmond graduate

At Richmond, a biology course with Peter Smallwood reeled him in. Then he took a course on tropical rainforest ecology his senior year. The class spent spring break week in Peru, where Villagomez learned firsthand about the human connection to conservation.

“You could become a scientist, you could go down to the rainforest, you could study beetles,” he said. “And then a multinational corporation could buy that land, chop down the rainforest, and your life’s work would be over.” This stark realization moved Villagomez toward professional advocacy.

College summers balancing two jobs in Florida — Disney character performer and restaurant waiter — shook off the shyness. He also knocked on doors for the League of Conservation Voters, speaking about water quality and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

After college, Villagomez returned to Saipan and helped start a local marine coalition. His efforts caught the attention of Pew, which had launched the Global Ocean Legacy project with several partners in 2006. They sought to create the first generation of great marine parks, and Marianas rose to the top of their list.

“The most intriguing thing about the Mariana Trench is not what we know, it’s what we don’t know,” Villagomez pointed out. “We’re talking about a place that is less explored than the surface of Mars.” Humans have collectively spent around three hours total at the bottom, he added.

Pew hired Villagomez to focus on environmental policy. And his advocacy succeeded. In January 2009, President George W. Bush designated the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. Villagomez attended the proclamation signing at the White House. Similar signatures contributed to ocean conservation growth over the next decade, but plans detailing exactly how the federal government would manage and protect several marine national monuments have stalled.

Villagomez remains undaunted. He and 1999 grad Ana Spalding, an assistant professor of marine and coastal policy at Oregon State University, collaborated on a marine protected areas guide published by Science that establishes shared vocabulary for scientists. He also helped set up the Blue Nature Alliance, a new global partnership to protect 18 million square kilometers in the next five years. The broader goal is conserving at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.

“None of this is easy,” he admitted. “We need more protected areas — and we need better protected areas.”

Shark conservation is another complex area where he’s made headway. About 100 million sharks are killed every year, either targeted specifically or caught with other fish. On land, Villagomez hashed out policies with regional fisheries management organizations. He worked in 24 countries to write and pass laws protecting sharks.

Underwater, he has encountered sharks while scuba diving, including a 15-foot tiger shark in Fiji. “There’s nothing that’s going to mess with a tiger shark,” he said. “They know it.”

Villagomez is currently part of the sea change happening in environmental conservation. Calls for equity and inclusion within philanthropies themselves are growing. Outside these institutions, he sees the need to do a better job understanding perspectives in local communities.

“This idea that we have to include people is becoming more important in the work that I do,” Villagomez said.