Written by Claire Wrathall.
For the past seven years, BOAT International has hosted the annual Ocean Awards with Blue Marine Foundation. It’s been an opportunity to discover, acknowledge and learn from those who are making extraordinary efforts to save our seas. Here we reveal this year’s well-deserved winners.
Mario Gómez | Beta Diversidad and CODEMAR, Mexico
This award recognises an outstanding career that has made a demonstrable difference to the knowledge of the world’s oceans and what needs to be done to improve and conserve their health.
Why has he been honoured?
“Mario Gómez is a lifelong explorer who has been a leading advocate for marine conservation in Mexico for decades,” says Maximiliano Bello, an expert on ocean policy who has advised Mission Blue, The Pew Charitable Trusts and Oceana, among many non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
What has been his signal achievement?
“The establishment of Mexico’s first marine protected area (MPA), the Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park, was in large part due to Gómez’s committed work with the government and people of Mexico,” says Bello. “He was instrumental in creating the legal and financial structures to ensure its long-term management and implementation.” As Gómez himself put it, “It was a new way of doing conservation in Mexico.”
And why is this important?
It was the first MPA in Mexico, protecting 148,087 square kilometres of the Pacific south of the Baja California peninsula from all forms of fishing, making it the largest MPA in North America. National Geographic has called the islands “the Galápagos of Mexico”, and the marine ecologist Enric Sala has dubbed it the “sharkiest” place in North America, as well as “one of the wildest in the world”.
But that was only the start. “Following the declaration of Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park,” says Bello, “Mexico came to achieve the protection of five per cent of its marine territory, taking the country one step closer towards the global target to protect 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030.”
What else has he achieved?
Gómez has founded two NGOs, Beta Diversidad, which works to protect flora and fauna in marine ecosystems, and the Coalition for the Defence of the Seas of Mexico (Codemar) to focus on the sea itself. In addition, he launched the conservation magazine Equilibrio and has worked on several films, most recently Sharks of the Sea of Cortés: A Lost Treasure? with Sylvia Earle. He regularly appears on television and radio and has done much to raise awareness of marine conservation issues in Mexico and beyond.
In collaboration with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, Gómez and Beta Diversidad are working with local communities, fishermen’s groups and other NGOs and scientists to advocate for the establishment of an MPA that spans the Sea of Cortez and extends into the Pacific.
Local Hero Award
Nusi Mursiati | Forkani, Indonesia
One of very few women working in marine conservation in Sulawesi Province in Indonesia, and a talented communicator, Nusi Mursiati works for the community-based environmental organisation Forkani, which aims to bring sustainability to the octopus fisheries. Among her achievements of last year was the temporary closure of four octopus fisheries in the Wakatobi archipelago, an initiative that not only enabled the collection of valuable data but also has resulted in larger, more profitable and, crucially, more sustainable catches.
How do you set about closing a fishery?
“Communication is crucial. You need to create a good level of understanding between the fishers, the village government and the local leaders,” says Mursiati. “Once the community has decided to monitor the fishery, we take daily measurements including the sex and weight of each octopus. The data is then analysed and presented back to the community every three months during the feedback sessions. They then need to decide for themselves that something needs to be done, such as managing their fishery with a closure. They create the rules. They monitor it themselves. And after three months, the fishery reopens.”
What happens next?
“After the first closure everyone was surprised by how much bigger the octopuses were. That increased what they sold for, which brought more income into the community.”
But it’s about more than income, surely?
“Of course. It’s also about teaching communities to take responsibility for their environment. The first thing I tell the community when I present the research is: “This is your data. These are your octopuses.” That way, they really begin to develop ownership of the information they collect.”
And it’s also about building confidence?
“Yes. I have seen a real empowerment among people who previously felt disenfranchised and who can now take the initiative and engage with local government over management. We hope in future people will sit down together and discuss what to do about resources. This is just the beginning.”
You were only the second woman to be employed by Forkani. Has involving more women in the collection and analysis of data made a difference?
“Absolutely! Women are the agents of change. Not only do they record the catch data, they are educating the entire community about why it is so important to manage the octopus fisheries sustainably, for their children and grandchildren. Never say that a woman cannot do something because she is a woman. Women can do anything they are passionate about, just the same as men. We need more ideas, more perspectives. We need more women to get involved!”
This award recognises a new technology, product, service or process that seeks to remedy a problem affecting the health of the oceans and stands to have a transformative effect on the marine environment.
What is it?
As its name suggests, Saildrone Surveyor is a sailboat-like ocean drone, a 22-metre wind-propelled autonomous vehicle, carrying solar-powered multibeam acoustic research sensors.
And what can it do?
Its sensors can survey and map the ocean floor.
But hasn’t the ocean floor been mapped?
Not much of it. So far, only about one-fifth of the ocean floor has ever been accurately recorded. Traditional techniques involving crewed vessels are expensive, carbon hungry and dangerous. And the noise that the ship’s engines produce can compromise their findings. Saildrone Surveyor needs no one on board and is virtually carbon neutral, and because it is wind-powered, it is a lot quieter than any diesel-powered survey vessel.
Why do we need to map the ocean floor?
Accurate ocean topography is necessary for navigation and telecommunications, not to mention our understanding of climate, weather and by extension the ability to generate energy offshore.
Where did the idea come from?
Saildrone’s founder and CEO, Richard Jenkins (pictured above, spent more than a decade designing carbon fibre wind-powered land yachts, achieving the land-speed record for wind-powered vehicles when Greenbird reached 203.1km/h in California’s Ivanpah dry lake bed in 2009. Saildrone Surveyor is among its successors.
What has it discovered so far?
Its most important discovery to date is a previously unknown 800-metre seamount 50 nautical miles off the coast of San Francisco, which it discovered during its sea trials. Its first ocean crossing was a 28-day, 2,250-nautical
mile voyage from San Francisco, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, which covered about 22,000 square kilometres.
Can it tell us about marine life too?
Its echo sounders can gauge fish stocks. And it is working on a capability that should enable it to analyse eDNA in water samples. This is DNA found in water and derived from sloughed-off skin, mucus and excreta from marine life that can reveal the genetic compositions of organisms in any given area.
What’s its ultimate goal?
With 20 Surveyors, Saildrone reckons it should be possible to map the entire ocean floor in high resolution within the next decade, as part of the Seabed 2030 project.
Professor Christopher Ruf and Madeline Evans | University of Michigan, US
This awards recognises an individual or research team that has made a significant contribution to a peer-reviewed publication or study, which stands to widen understanding of an aspect of marine conservation and benefit ocean health.
We know the oceans are full of microplastics. How does your new approach help us to find the most polluted areas?
“Currently, microplastic data is predominately sourced from research vessels that tow large, fine-meshed nets,” says Professor Christopher Ruf (pictured above). “But this method only covers small areas such as the North Atlantic and North Pacific gyres. And there is also little data available on how microplastic concentrations change over time. We were concerned it might be underestimating the real concentration of microplastics.”
How did the idea come about?
“We’d been taking radar measurements of surface roughness [of the ocean] and using them to measure wind speed. We knew the presence of stuff in the water alters its responsiveness to the environment, so we got the idea of doing the whole thing backwards. We used changes in responsiveness to predict the presence of microplastics and developed a new method of detecting and imaging it using spaceborne radar.”
By harnessing satellites?
“Yes. We have used NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, a network of eight microsatellites that was launched in 2016. They measure how wind roughens the surface of the ocean, which acts as an indicator that can be used to track large concentrations of microplastics because material floating on the water’s surface reduces its roughness.”
So the satellites aren’t picking up on the microplastics themselves?
“No. We think the changes we are identifying are caused by surfactants – oily, soapy compounds usually found alongside microplastics, which lower the surface shear stress [friction against a surface] where the ocean meets the air.”
What do these indicate?
“We’re using them to create a global time-lapse of ocean microplastic concentrations that reveals previously unknown seasonal variations. For example, zoomed-in daily images near the mouths of large rivers such as the Yangtze reveal the outflow of bursts of microplastics in some weeks but not others, especially in winter.”
How is this going help clean up the oceans?
“We’re still early in the research process, but I hope this can be part of a fundamental change in how we track and manage microplastic pollution. We are in talks with The Ocean Cleanup [a Dutch non-profit focused on ridding the oceans of plastic pollution], and UNESCO, which has sponsored a task force on tracking microplastics, may also use the data.”
So it should be a gamechanger?
“We hope so. It’s one thing to suspect a source of microplastic pollution, quite another to see it happening.”
PUBLIC AWARENESS AWARD
Help Our Kelp | Sarah Cunliffe and Big Wave Productions, UK
This award recognises an individual or group who has done the most this year to advance public knowledge and understanding of a marine conservation issue that is affecting the health of the oceans, whether through campaigning, advocacy, educational programmes, social or mainstream media or the arts.
What is Help Our Kelp?
A short film at the heart of a big campaign.
Why does kelp need help?
In the words of the marine ecologist Dr Ian Hendy, one of the contributors to the seven-minute film, “Global macroalgae, including kelp forests, draw down more than 600 million tonnes of carbon per year, roughly twice the amount the UK emits.” A type of seaweed, kelp can aid the sequestration of carbon by stabilising sediment; it can oxygenate seawater, enabling marine life to thrive; and it can even “mitigate or reduce wave energy by up to 70 per cent”.
What inspired the film?
The Sussex kelp forests were a vital nursery and feeding ground for numerous species, from commercial fish, cuttlefish, squid and lobster to black seabream, cat sharks and even rare short-snouted seahorses. “To learn the forests that once thrived along a 40-kilometre stretch of the Sussex coast had virtually all gone over 35 years was shocking,” says the film’s producer, Sarah Cunliffe (pictured right). “If it had happened on land there would have been an outcry because only about four per cent now remains.
“In 2019, I heard about the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority’s plans to propose a landmark ban on trawling, which tears the kelp from the seabed,” Cunliffe continues. “The aim was to protect 304 square kilometres of seabed, in order to let the kelp recover and regenerate. We made the film to raise awareness on why these marine forests are so important. It led to the Help Our Kelp campaign, which we initiated, and the formation of a coalition of non-governmental organisations, now known as the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project.”
How did the film help?
Featuring mesmerisingly beautiful underwater footage and narrated by Sir David Attenborough (pictured above left), Help Our Kelp was seen by millions. It trended on BBC Online as well as multiple social media platforms and is still available to watch on YouTube.
Critically, too, adds Cunliffe, the film inspired “more than 2,500 people to write to support the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority byelaw”, which was approved by the government and enacted in March 2021. “This was a landmark decision for the UK,” Cunliffe says. “We definitely raised the national conversation on kelp.”
YOUNG INITIATIVE AWARD
Minorities in Shark Sciences | Amani Webber-Schultz, Carlee Jackson, Jaida Elcock and Jasmin Graham, Florida
This award recognises an individual or group of individuals between 18 and 30 years of age, who are at the beginning of their career and whose vision and commitment, professional or voluntary, to improving the ocean environment indicates they will become a future leader in the field of marine conservation or science. The winner will have demonstrated promising leadership and vision on ocean issues, be it through campaigning and advocacy, the mainstream media, art forms or educational programmes.
What is Minorities in Shark Sciences?
“We are four Black female shark researchers. We founded Minorities in Shark Sciences to be seen and take up space in a discipline which has been largely inaccessible to women like us.”
What is its mission?
“We want to help female gender minorities of colour and young people from other minorities to overcome the financial barriers that have historically kept them out of the field of shark science, through education, mentorship programmes and fellowships.
“We believe diversity in scientists creates diversity in thought, which leads to innovation. So we hope to topple the system that has historically excluded us to create an equitable path to shark science.”
And what does it do?
“Specifically, in our first year, we supported six Minorities in Shark Sciences fellows with stipends and travel awards. Ten women of colour participated in an all-expenses-paid three-day workshop aboard the research vessel Garvin, where they learned everything from tying knots to hands-on shark research. We also recruited more than 200 new members from around the world and reached 240 kids and adults through the Gill Guardians programme.”
Tell us what Gill Guardians is
“It’s an online curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade [from 5 to 17-18 year olds], as well as adults, to educate them about sharks, skates and rays and the threats they face. There are also live courses taught by ecologists, educators and scientists.”
The numbers you’re reaching are impressive
“They are! Through our activities – from fishing and kayaking to field surveys and shark dissections – we reached more than 100,000 people last year. That’s a lot of people who may not have thought that marine science was for them.”
Local Hero Award
Runner up | Pascoal Nhamussua |Love The Oceans, Mozambique
Pascoal Nhamussua was 25 when he learned to swim, an achievement that not only changed his life but will also potentially impact the fish stocks in the waters of Jangamo Bay, Mozambique, where he lives, now a Mission Blue Hope Spot – an important step towards becoming a marine protected area. Having qualified as an STA swimming teacher, he received his PADI Open Water and Advanced dive qualifications last year and is working on the construction of a community swimming pool.
What role can teaching people to swim play in a campaign against gill-net fishing?
If fishers can be persuaded to give up gill nets in favour of pole-and-line fishing from kayaks, they need to be able to swim!
How many adults and children have learned to swim?
More than 800, including 27 fishers who now work from kayaks. It is a skill that will not only enable them to fish sustainably and earn a living in an area where unemployment is around 70 per cent but, Nhamussua hopes, it will also engender a love of the ocean. “Before, as a fisherman, I only knew the ocean from above,” he says. “Now I want to know it from the inside.”
Runner up |Möbius by Whale Seeker, Canada
Möbius is a tool by Whale Seeker that uses artificial intelligence to detect marine mammals from aerial images captured by drones, planes or satellites.
Why is it important?
It enables shipping to avoid the marine mammals, or at least to slow down and quieten their engines so as not to disturb them as stress can disrupt their feeding and breeding. It is a faster, cheaper and more accurate way of analysing data than the human eye, which is especially important in places such as
the Arctic, where the sea can be treacherous and it is dark
for half of the year.
But it’s not just about protecting the whales; it’s also about saving the planet
Six out of the 13 great whale species are endangered, which should be reason enough to be striving to protect them. But humanity has a vested interest too because whales play as critical a role in combating climate change as trees do. When they die, they sink to the ocean floor, where the carbon they have absorbed over their lifetime – an average of 33 tonnes per animal – remains sequestered instead of being released into the atmosphere.
Judged: Sofia Blount Trustee of Blue Marine Foundation | George Duffield Co-Founder of Blue Marine Foundation | Sir Charles Dunstone Chairman of TalkTalk and Royal Museums Greenwich | Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall Writer, broadcaster and campaigner | Peter Lürssen CEO of Lürssen | Frederikke Magnussen Co-founder of A Plastic Planet | Professor Callum Roberts University of Exeter | Professor Martin Attrill University of Plymouth | Jasper Smith Chairman of Arksen | Romain Troublé Managing Director of the Tara Ocean Foundation | Professor Alex Rogers, Director of Science, REV Ocean. Co-chairs: Charles Clover Executive Chairman, Blue Marine Foundation | Sacha Bonsor Editor-at-large, BOAT International
Watch the whole ceremony:
Cover photo: Credit, Getty.