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Ocean Awards 2020: 'People Assume That Ocean Collapse is Driven by Pollution'

7 May 2020

Each year, the Ocean Awards celebrate those who are making a significant contribution to protecting the oceans. The Visionary Award recognises an individual with a global vision to improve the health of our oceans and a willingness to go above and beyond others in their commitment to the cause. This year the gong was awarded to Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana.

Oceana was founded in 2001 by five US philanthropic institutions – Pew Charitable Trusts, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Oak, Marisia (then Homeland) and Sandler Foundations – to address the fact that less than 0.5 per cent of all resources being spent by environmental non-profit groups in the US were going towards ocean advocacy. Since its formation it has been instrumental in the protection of more than 11.5 million square kilometres of ocean and been behind 225 changes in legislation to conserve the seas.

In 2019 it persuaded the Chilean government to pass a new law against illegal fishing and to sign an agreement to make the movement of 1,500 vessels publicly available through tracking website Global Fishing Watch. It also persuaded Spain to increase the Cabrera Archipelago Maritime- Terrestrial National Park ninefold, creating the second-largest marine park in the Mediterranean. In the US, it won a lawsuit to protect dusky sharks and prompted New York governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill prohibiting the exploration for and production of offshore oil and gas.

However, perhaps its greatest achievements of the past year were in Canada. Here it secured the creation of the Banc-des-Américains Marine Protected Area (MPA), covering 1,000 square kilometres in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The protected zone extends to depths of over 150 metres and is not just an important feeding ground for marine mammals but rich in corals and sponges. A month later, thanks to Oceana’s tireless campaigning, Canada banned industrial activity in its MPAs. And in the summer the nation enacted a new Fisheries Act undertaking to rebuild its fish stocks, 13 per cent of which were deemed critically depleted. Finally, thanks to a private member’s bill initiated and championed by Senator Michael MacDonald and MP Fin Donnelly, it also banned the import and export of shark fins (prior to this Canada was the largest importer of shark fins outside Asia).

Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless (right) is a tireless campaigner for the world’s oceans

“People assume that ocean collapse is driven by pollution,” writes Oceana’s CEO, Andrew Sharpless, who previously worked at Discovery Communications, the cable television programmer behind the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. “That’s discouraging, because pollution is difficult to prevent. The good news is that most of the collapses in ocean fisheries are not caused by pollution. They are instead caused by short-sighted commercial fishing practices that include overfishing, habitat destruction and high levels of by-catch. But these are fixable problems. We know what to do. We just need to get the government officials who set the rules for commercial fishing to do a better job.”

As Michael Bloomberg, in his capacity as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action, noted when the act passed into law, “By rebuilding its fisheries, Canada is helping lead the way toward healthier, more sustainable and more resilient oceans.” And it is Oceana, under Sharpless’s leadership, that is driving that change.

All the winners of the 2020 Ocean Awards can be found in the June issue of BOAT International.


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