By Catherine Toth Fox
Ted and Judy Simon never thought they’d become clam farmers. The couple, both retired and living in Honolulu, had been making annual membership donations to The Nature Conservancy when they decided to significantly increase their giving and support projects where their money would make a greater impact.
In 2014, they contributed to the purchase of a 922-acre conservation easement along Saddle Road on Hawai‘i Island, a site that includes a 200-acre kīpuka with a disappearing stream and a forest full of diverse native plants, birds and insects.
“When I was working at the observatory on Mauna Kea, I must’ve driven past that kīpuka hundreds of times and never realized the significance of it,” says Ted, a retired research astronomer and University of Hawai‘i professor. “It’s really a unique parcel.”
That same year, they helped the Conservancy acquire an additional 3,721 acres to expand Waikamoi Preserve on Maui, making it the largest private nature preserve in the state.
But it was a snorkeling trip to the Republic of Palau in November 2015 that inspired the couple’s biggest commitment yet. While vacationing there, the Simons met with Conservancy staff to learn more about their conservation work.
“I was impressed with the Palauans’ attitude toward the ocean and how much they cared about it,” Judy says. “They really wanted to protect their resources.”
The Simons were looking for a “high-risk, high-reward project,” where, if it succeeded, it would have a huge impact. “If it failed, that’s fine. At least we tried,” Ted says.
Located 600 miles east of the Philippines, the Republic of Palau is an archipelago of 340 islands and one of the underwater wonders of the world. The Conservancy has been working there since 1990 to preserve the reefs and fisheries vital to the nation’s 20,000 people.
In particular, the 20-mile stretch of Palau’s Northern Reefs is one of the country’s largest and most productive fishing grounds, but it was being overfished.
One of the proposed projects for strengthening management was to provide fishermen with alternative livelihoods, including clam farming and deep-water fishing. This project piqued the interest of the Simons, who decided to give $50,000 in seed money to get it started.
“This sounded like the perfect sort of thing for us,” Ted says. “Our money would make a big difference.”
But the Simons didn’t just give money and walk away. They wanted to stay in touch with project managers in Palau and receive regular updates on the 10 new giant clam farms and fisherman they were supporting, and the gear and materials their money would purchase.
“We wanted them to know there’s somebody here who cares, who’s watching,” says Judy.
Steven Victor, a native Palauan who leads the Conservancy’s country program, is grateful for the support. “Ted and Judy understand the importance of creating opportunities for Palau fishermen,” he says. “They know that the fishing community plays an important role in the conservation and management of our coral reefs and fisheries.”
Ted and Judy have also included the Conservancy in their estate plans, which means they will be supporting conservation work for future generations, explains Sven Haarhoff, director of philanthropy for the Hawai‘i program.
“That’s a powerful gift,” he says. “Charitable giving from individuals is extremely important to The Nature Conservancy. Across the U.S., individuals account for almost 80 percent of all philanthropic donations annually. And since only 3 percent of all charitable gifts go to organizations supporting the environment and animals, we need more people like the Simons who want to fund conservation work today and after their lifetimes.”
The couple, avid snorkelers and underwater photographers, are already planning a return trip to Palau, excited to see the clam farms they are helping to build and the pristine reefs they hope to preserve.
“Of all the places we’ve been to snorkel, Palau is absolutely No. 1,” Judy says. “We just want to keep it that way.”