Each year the Ocean Awards, held in partnership with Blue Marine Foundation, celebrates the achievements of individuals, groups and organisations from around the world dedicated to restoring the health of our oceans. Now in its eighth year, the awards continue to shine a light on a number of worthy initiatives, from local community projects to large-scale studies, and a panel of judges had the unenviable task of whittling down 94 entries to just 23 finalists. Discover the individuals, innovative technologies and environmental projects that have made the shortlist this year…
The 2023 winners will be announced on May 10, 2023.
The Local Hero Award
The Local Hero Award award recognises the individual or group that has had the most positive impact on the marine environment within their local community this year.
Name: Mohsen Rezaie-Atagholipour
Organisation: Qeshm Environmental Conservation Institute (QECI)
Mohsen Rezaie-Atagholipour is an Iranian marine conservationist who in 2018, launched Iran’s first shark and ray research conservation project, through which he works alongside local fishing communities to build a comprehensive database of elasmobranch biological diversity. Iranian waters are extremely data-poor and understanding of apex predators is severely limited. Traditional shark and ray fishing is still very common in Iran and these practices, combined with widespread data deficiency, means the waters of the Persian Gulf are overexploited and its species are misunderstood. By building this biodiversity baseline, Mohsen is addressing major data gaps and providing an essential foundation for the conservation of elasmobranchs in Iran. Mohsen’s long-term vision is to provide evidence for the development of conservation plans and fisheries management measures, while raising awareness and reconnecting Iranian people with the ocean. Mohsen runs the elasmobranch biodiversity project through his NGO, the Qeshm Environmental Conservation Institute (QECI), which he founded in 2014. QECI was founded to protect sharks and rays, but it has expanded into protecting sea turtles, sea snakes and dolphins. To date, Mohsen has involved over 700 fishers from 40 communities along the entirety of Iran’s 1400-kilometre-long coastline. Plus, Mohsen and his team have visited 46 of Iran’s 100 fisheries landing sites, taking measurements, photographs and interviewing fishers returning to port about their catch.
Name: The Loch Craignish Community
Founded by Danny Renton, Seawilding is a pioneering, community-led charity working to restore degraded inshore marine habitats. Located in rural West Scotland, Seawilding utilises the strength and knowledge of the local community to restore the sea loch to its former glory. The sea loch was once home to vast seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, beds of blue mussels and horse mussels, shoals of salmon and a carpet of brittle stars. However, the ecosystem has suffered decades of destructive scallop dredging and excess nutrients from agricultural runoff. Seawilding was established with the aim of bringing back the biodiversity that has been lost within living memory and beyond through hands-on restoration of priority marine features. Seawilding’s flagship projects are to restore one million European native oysters and 80 hectares of seagrass meadow in Loch Craignish. With the help of scores of volunteers, Seawilding has so far grown and reintroduced 300,000 native oysters (1.7 tonnes) and reseeded 0.5 hectares of seagrass using a variety of experimental techniques.
Organisation: Las Chelemeras
Las Chelemeras is a group of 18 women descending from the Maya who, since 2010, have worked to restore and protect their local mangrove forests. The women all originate from the Mexican port town of Chelem, on the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. In this region of Mexico, mangrove habitat is seen culturally as ‘dirty’ or a ‘dumping ground’, so protection of this ecosystem has never been considered a priority. This project was initiated 12 years ago with the help of two Mérida-based biologists, Jorge Herrera of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) and Claudia Teutli of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s National School of Higher Education (ENES). Together with the local community, it was decided that action must be taken to prevent the local mangrove forest from disappearing forever, so Las Chelemeras was formed. A typical workday for Les Chelemeras entails building canals and clearing existing waterways so fresh groundwater can enter deforested or degraded areas. Without planting a single mangrove seedling, Las Chelemeras have reforested 50 hectares (124 acres) of mangrove across two sites, first in the port of Yucalpetén and now in the port of Progreso.
Name: Teina and Jackie Rongo
Organisation: Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau
Kōrero o te `Ōrau is an environmental NGO established in 2017, consisting of indigenous Cook Islanders passionate about protecting the culture, environment and natural resources of the nation. Kōrero o te `Ōrau initially focussed on research and education, but with deep-sea mining becoming a pressing threat to
Cook Island culture and nature, the Kōrero ote `Ōrau now also engage in campaigning and negotiations with local government. To date, Kōrero o te `Ōrau have educated hundreds of young people from the Cook Islands in traditional marine management, protected tens of hectares of coral reef and influenced national-level discussions on deep-sea mining. Spearheading this effort are Teina and Jackie Rongo, a husband-and-wife team with a mission to re-instil traditional ecological values of the Cook Island culture into today’s increasingly westernised younger generations. Since 2018, Kōrero o te `Ōrau has run the ‘Ātui’anga ki te Tango programme to reconnect youth to their natural environment through a combination of scientific and culture-based learning.
The Science Category
This Science Category recognises the individual or research team that has made an original scientific contribution to the ocean this year.
Name: Austin Gallagher et al
Research paper: “Tiger sharks support the characterization of the world’s largest seagrass ecosystem”
This paper, published in Nature Communications in November, significantly increases (by 41%) previous scientific estimates on how much seagrass exists on Earth. Within just three weeks of publication, this paper was downloaded over 14,000 times. Gallagher has been studying sharks in the Bahamas since completing his PhD over a decade ago. The Bahama Banks, which house the newly discovered extent of the Bahamian seagrass meadows, act as a rare natural laboratory for ecosystem recovery. This is due to the ban on longline fishing (established in 1999) and the designation of the Bahamas as a shark sanctuary (designated in 2011). Combined, these two pieces of legislation have led to the restoration of sharks’ role as apex predators and an increase in shark populations not seen elsewhere in our oceans. Only in 2019 did Gallagher begin exploring the role of sharks in conservation efforts, as well as a focus of conservation efforts. Gallagher and team hope that this paper has secured a protected future for sharks in the Bahamas and opened the door to the Bahamas’ Blue Economy.
Name: Daniel Boyce et al
Research paper: “A climate risk index for marine life”
Climate change is affecting virtually all life, including humans. The complexity of these impacts makes it incredibly difficult to understand the climate risk to individual species and ecosystems and hinders progress towards climate adaptation. Boyce, of Dalhousie University, and his international team created a pragmatic new framework to assess the climate risk for 25,000 species and their ecosystems in the global ocean. Though ‘climate risk’ papers already exist, Boyce and team are the first to ground this concept in data rather than expert opinion alone. “A climate risk index for marine life” was published in Nature Climate Change in August and has already been cited five times. The paper found that 90% of assessed marine life would be at high or critical risk by 2100 if the world continues upon a high-emissions pathway.
Name: Shirel Kahane-Rapport et al
Research paper: “Field measurements reveal exposure risk to microplastic ingestion by filter-feeding megafauna”
In November, Shirel Kahane-Rapport and her research team published this paper in Nature Communications. In just two months, this groundbreaking field study on microplastic ingestion in whales has been accessed online over 10,000 times. The research team combined microplastic and biologging data from blue, fin and humpback whales to determine the ingestion risk. This study is the first to show microplastic ingestion with empirical data in whales – all previous studies are estimates. Without these findings, it is difficult to develop risk assessments to understand potential health effects or establish plans to support species- or ecosystem-based management. Kahane-Rapport was inspired to launch this project after attending a conference in Copenhagen, where she and co-author Matthew Savoca were surprised to find out that no researchers have yet combined the biological mechanics of whale filter feeding with widely available microplastic datasets. The team trialled this methodology off the coast of California, using microplastic data from the California current ecosystem, provided by a range of partners, including Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Cascadia Research Collective and Hopkins Marine Station. Kahane-Rapport explains that her biologging methodology is comparable to an Apple watch for a whale, which detects orientation, speed, light and sound, and can therefore provide detailed information about movement and feeding. Using this, Kahane- Rapport and her team could determine how much water is being engulfed by each whale species, and by layering this with microplastic data, the ingestion of microplastics for each whale species can be estimated.
Name: Joshua Cinner
Research paper: “Linking key human-environment theories to inform the sustainability of coral reefs”
Joshua Cinner, of James Cook University, led a team of geographers, sociologists and ecologists to conduct a global-scale study into how coral ecosystem states are intertwined with key socioeconomic conditions, such as human population, proximity to markets and socioeconomic development. Cinner challenges the narrative that the human population is the primary factor driving reef degradation by looking for more pragmatic and inclusive solutions to coral reef management. This paper, published in June, is the latest in a series of studies by Cinner and his research group looking for solutions for the ongoing “coral reef crisis”. This paper combines global-scale modelling with local fieldwork case studies to create a comprehensive picture of coral reef sustainability globally. Cinner and his team found that proximity to markets was the strongest driver of reef degradation globally, suggesting that marine conservation efforts must better focus on managing the negative impacts of markets.
The Innovation Award
The Innovation Award recognises the individual, company or group that has this year publicly introduced innovative measures for reducing stress on the oceans or for improving ocean health.
Name: Scallop Potting
Innovation: Fishtek Marine Ltd
Wild scallops are mainly caught using mobile fishing gear such as dredges and trawls, or by hand in small quantities. Dredges are most commonly used to catch scallops and the dredge design used in the UK is one of the most damaging types. The heavy tooth dredges can weigh more than two tonnes and penetrate between three and ten centimetres into the seabed. This recovery of the seabed and ecosystems post scallop dredging can take up to ten years. Therefore, scallop dredges are seen as the most damaging to non-target benthic communities as well as seafloor habitats. Fishtek Marine Ltd, in collaboration with local fishers, pot markers and scientists from Exeter and York Universities, has developed an alternative to scallop dredging. While trialling Fishtek Marine’s PotLights, created initially to increase crustacean catches, the local crab fishers found that rather than attracting crustaceans, the lights attracted scallops. After this discovery, they started designing two new pots, specifically for retaining scallops attracted by the PotLights.
Innovation: Flying Fish Technologies
Underwater visual data collection and analysis can be costly both in terms of time and financial resources. To tackle this problem, Dr Brett Kettle of Flying Fish Technologies designed Vertigo3, a new class of small, fast and agile underwater gliders. It has been specifically designed for robotic, artificial intelligence (AI) assisted broadscale marine surveys, with the ability to operate across complex reef environments. Kettle is a marine scientist, who has a research background in Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) ecology. Besides being a marine scientist, Kettle is an innovator. He has previously developed computerised oil spill response systems. He currently chairs the Independent Technical Advisory Committee for Townsville Port Dredging. In 2017, Kettle began developing Vertigo3 to replace the 50-year-old manta tow method applied to COTS management on the Great Barrier Reef. After the initial design stage, Brett Kettle brought his son David Kettle into the project, who is currently the CEO of Flying Fish Technologies.
Name: Ahmad Catur Widyatmoko
Innovation: Electronic monitoring and artificial intelligence for small scale fisheries
Catch data in small-scale fisheries remains vastly underreported due largely to a lack of resources, both in terms of people and equipment. The common method to collect catch data is by assigning an enumerator to conduct sampling when the vessel returns to port. This method has many drawbacks; it is labour intensive and since it is conducted on the port, important information such as fishing ground location and details of the fishing operation are commonly missed. Ahmad Catur Widyatmoko, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania, has begun tackling this issue. By installing a low-cost camera and GPS tracker onto the fishing vessel, the activities on deck, including spatial movement, can be recorded. He has developed an artificial intelligence program that can automatically extract information on species, time, length, weight and the number of individual fish caught. The GPS tracker then identifies the location of the fishing grounds from the electronic monitoring data. Widyatmoko’s project has seen the equipment rolled out onto small tuna vessels fishing in Indonesia, resulting in high-quality fisheries data for those vessels at a small cost. This innovation means that the government recognises fishers and their catches, opening doors for the fishers to have a say in local fisheries management. It also means they can meet export requirements for markets including the EU and US and allows them to pursue sustainability certifications.
The Public Awareness Award
The Public Awareness Award recognises the individual or group that has done the most this year to advance marine conservation objectives, including public literacy about marine conservation issues, be it through campaigning and advocacy, the mainstream media, art forms, or educational programmes.
Name: Frozen Ocean
Company: BBC Frozen Planet II
Frozen Planet II is a six-part BBC nature documentary series which highlights the diversity of life in Earth’s frozen realms, along with the seasonal and climate-induced issues currently being faced. The second episode of this series, Frozen Ocean, was released on 18th September 2022. Using state-of-the-art technology and a world-renowned production and cinematography team, Frozen Ocean explores the wonder and fragility of the Arctic Ocean and its wildlife. The Frozen Ocean episode received 5.71 million views in the UK on its opening night, putting it as the third most-watched programme that week.
Name: Wild Isles
Company: Newyonder Films
Newyonder uses media as a beacon to inspire, engage and inform people on environmental topics, particularly relating to marine wildlife conservation. The production of all Newyonder films is carbon-neutral through its contribution to conservation projects. The organisation is also B-Corp certified. Their programmes tell stories about our planet and the natural world, focussing on the hope of making a change before it’s too late. Their 2022 film ‘Wild Isles’ visits the coastal communities and local conservation organisations fighting to protect the marine and coastal wildlife of the British Isles. Wild Isles is a 93-minute feature-length documentary that has 12 awards and nominations since it was released in February 2022.
Name: The Black Mermaid
Company: The Black Mermaid Foundation
The Black Mermaid Foundation was founded by Zandile Ndhlovu in 2020 after she decided to embark on a mission to spread her passion for the ocean to others from her local South African community. Zandile, who is nicknamed ‘the Black Mermaid’, is the first ever black African freediving instructor in South Africa, an achievement that has gained her national respect and admiration. The goal of the Black Mermaid Foundation is to inspire other black and African people to share a passion for the ocean to join her in protecting it. Only 15 per cent of South African people can swim. Learning to swim is often the first step in connecting with the marine world, so Zandile’s project brings awareness to support diversity in ocean spaces and consequently in marine conservation. Zandile’s short film, The Black Mermaid, is featured on WaterBear, the first interactive streaming platform dedicated towards the conservation of our planet.
Name: Danni Washington
Company: Big Blue & You
Danni has made significant advances in marine awareness, especially for women and ethnic minorities, through ten years of continued advocacy and a varied portfolio of projects. From her work, Danni has gained recognition around the globe for becoming a leading science communicator and conservation advocate, as well as a much-loved TV personality. In 2016, Danni achieved the accolade of being the first ever African American woman to host a national science show; Xploration Nature Knows Best. Danni is leading the way in the mission to bring people from all backgrounds into ocean conservation. She is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of a non-profit organisation called ‘Big Blue and You’, which aims to encourage young people into ocean conservation through art, media and science.
The Young Initiative Award
The Young Initiative Award recognises an individual, or group of individuals, between the ages of 18 and 30 who is at the beginning of their career. The winner of this award will have demonstrated promising leadership and vision on ocean issues, be it through campaigning and advocacy, the mainstream media, art forms, or educational programmes.
Initiative: Project Hiu
Madison Stewart – nicknamed Sharkgirl – is a marine conservationist, science communicator, underwater photographer and founder of Project Hiu (translates to shark in Basha Indonesian), an inspiring conservation project to protect sharks and empower shark fishing communities. At 25, Madison founded Project Hiu which in the past four years has grown into a successful programme working with shark fishers to establish alternative livelihoods in the eco-tourism industry. Over 1,000 sharks have been saved through Madison’s project, and over 30 fishers have been able to find higher-earning and safer jobs since Project Hiu began.
Initiative: Madison Wildlife
Madi is a Welsh PhD candidate, wildlife filmmaker, community conservationist and ocean advocate. Since starting her career in marine conservation around five years ago, Madi has actively worked to inspire communities by telling stories of our ocean and its diversity of wildlife. She has been integral in the production of several short films, including City and the Sea, a Welsh Government funded film produced by young conservationists in Swansea. Madi has worked in various communications roles including with Surfers Against Sewage, the Dolphin Alliance Project, Lizzie Daly’s Earth Live Lessons and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust; as well as producing the Skomer LIVE series for the Wildlife Trust. Her work through these projects aims to educate and collaborate with coastal communities, particularly those within her local community in South Wales.
Initiative: 30 x 30 Indonesia
Brigitta is the founder of 30×30 Indonesia – a movement aiming to educate and mobilise public support towards protecting 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030. Through this initiative, she utilises education to address marine issues, restore habitats and inspire action. To date, Brigitta has reached over 10,000 people and attracted the attention of Bali’s Provincial Government’s Marine and Fisheries Service. The 30×30 Indonesia project was launched after Brigitta was granted seed funding by the National Geographic Society, The Nature Conservancy and Paragon One. One of Brigitta’s greatest achievements to date is the establishment of the 30×30 Coral Garden, an educational and recreational site which she feels embodies the incredible collaboration of multiple stakeholders including the Tulamben fishing village, the local diving coalition, Bali’s regional government and importantly, local youth. Brigitta also works on mangrove restoration projects, leading high school students and their teachers to plant mangroves and learn about coastal restoration from experts in the field.
Initiative: Francesca Page Art and Photography