Address Challenges by Thinking Differently

Outside the box is where Vulcan and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (PGAFF) do our best work. It’s where the answers to complex problems lie. It’s also a place that requires nimble thinking which, we’ve found, is key to achieving diverse solutions fueled by ongoing learning.

Chefs have the influence to educate our palates and our views. Through Smart Catch, they are becoming new environmental heroes, as they use their influence to lead industry efforts to maintain healthy, sustainable food sources both now and for future generations.
Susan Ungaro, former president, James Beard Foundation 

Smart Catch

  • Active: 2014-2016  
  • Funder: Vulcan
  • Program Area: Oceans 
Unsustainable fishing practices threaten the health and integrity of global marine ecosystems. At the same time, the seafood supply chain does not provide a way to trace fish as it travels from where it’s caught to the consumer’s plate. 

To change that, we first partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Its Seafood Watch program provides a reference guide that gives consumers useful information on various fish species they can use when buying at the retail level. 

But additional work was also needed when it came to restaurants, so we teamed with Smart Catch, a Seattle-based pilot project designed by chefs, for chefs. Its goal is to increase the amount of sustainable seafood being served on restaurant menus. It provides chefs with the resources and training needed to make smart seafood purchasing decisions — which has a positive impact on the seafood supply chain. By agreeing to specific criteria, including improving the percentage of sustainable seafood served (as validated through supplier invoices), participating chefs can market themselves as Smart Catch restaurants. Now, by supporting a Smart Catch chef, consumers can fuel positive changes in our oceans and improve food security.  
The program was an immediate success. During its first year of operation, 83 Seattle restaurants signed on as Smart Catch providers (that equated to 200,000 pounds of sustainable seafood sold every week) and each one of them met or exceeded their goal of providing 80% of seafood from sustainable sources. 

To scale this successful pilot to the national level, the program was transitioned to the James Beard Foundation as part of its Chef Action Network in 2017. Today more than 300 restaurants in 28 states and 13 leading seafood suppliers are part of Smart Catch, furthering our original goal of creating more informed consumers and encouraging sustainable fishing practices. 
Partners: Fish Choice, Flip Labs, James Beard Foundation 
Address Challenges by Thinking Differently

Coral Reef Research

  • Active: 2015-present
  • Funder: PGAFF 
  • Program Area: Oceans 

Recent reports have documented the startling decline of coral reefs across the globe due to a combination of climate change, and local stressors such as overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. Examples include one from the Royal Society in October 2020 and another in September 2020 by the Global Biodiversity Outlook (UN Environment, Convention of Biological Diversity). 

A diver swims over bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Courtesy Chris Jones

But as early as 2013, we decided to take action on the negative impact of the changing ocean environment and issued the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge. The program received 36 proposals from seven countries. One identified promising (but unproven and radical) research called “Human Assisted Evolution of Corals.” It was authored as a collaboration by Dr. Ruth Gates (Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology) and Dr. Madeleine van Oppen (Australian Institute of Marine Science). 

In 2015 we awarded a $4.3 million, 5-year grant to the Gates-vanOppen team that centered on key components: building a biological toolkit for coral resilience, promoting the value of assisted evolution in preserving and restoring reefs, and planning for scaled implementation. 

This project has transformed the concept of human intervention on coral reefs from a controversial, niche idea to a mainstream applied science and intervention path, viewed as a necessary component in the global coral reef conservation community. It has also profoundly improved our basic understanding of the biology of reef-building corals during a time of uncertainty and division within the coral reef community. 

The science of Assisted Evolution of Corals has been recognized as an important approach to coral reef restoration by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NASEM) and the Australian Federal Government Learn more about related efforts helping the Great Barrier Reef at 

Partners: Australian Institute of Marine Science, Hawaii Institution of Marine Biology 

Our proposal to manipulate the genetics and epigenetics of coral stock for reef restoration was often called ‘playing God’ and we were questioned about the ethics of it. For a major philanthropic organisation such as the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to significantly invest in this project demonstrated to the world Ruth and I weren’t so crazy after all. The research has spawned a movement across the country with now many scientists conducting active research on assisted evolution of corals. This is buying us more time for coral reefs until global warming is halted.

Madeleine van Oppen, Australian Institute of Marine Science

DNA doesn’t get fooled. It doesn't matter what kind of species, if it’s meat, or what kind of fin, DNA is DNA. It's a code.
Dr. Demian Chapman, DNA Toolkit Co-developer 

DNA Toolkit

  • Active: 2016-2019 
  • Funder: PGAFF  
  • Program Area: Oceans 
The shark fin trade is decimating some of the ocean’s most iconic species. Overfishing, fueled by high demand for shark fins, meat and other products, is pushing these animals to the brink of extinction. And it’s happening despite international protections that limit the trade of the most threatened species. 

Shark fins can be difficult to identify visually; many pass-through ports entirely undetected and uninspected. To combat this, PGAFF partnered with leading scientists to develop a DNA testing system aptly named the DNA Toolkit. This innovative technology uses a shark’s DNA to essentially create a barcode for each species. The resulting quick, reliable, and cost-effective tool gives customs authorities around the world two crucial enforcement tools they’ve never had before — the ability to identify illegal species on-site and the evidence needed to prosecute the crime.

This revolutionary technology is already paying off where it’s being used in airports and shipping ports. For example, in May 2020, Hong Kong officials intercepted shipping containers from Ecuador carrying 26 tons of dried fins from an estimated 38,500 threatened and protected silky and thresher sharks. This record-setting seizure prompted Ecuador to hire new inspection officers, ban the trade of more shark species, and invest in several new shark conservation projects.

While the DNA Toolkit was initially developed to stop the illegal shark trade, its capabilities have since expanded. The technology has also helped stop the illegal shipment of critically endangered European eels and is currently being adapted to help end the trade of exotic pets.

Partners: Bloom Association-Hong Kong, Florida International University, Stony Brook University