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The winners of the 2021 Ocean Awards

5 May 2021

Over the past six years, we have had the privilege of getting to know a wealth of extraordinary personal and collective efforts to save our seas. This is all thanks to our annual Ocean Awards hosted in partnership with Blue Marine Foundation and in association with the Fishmongers’ Company, which, this year, has brought these exceptional individuals to our attention. Meet the winners of the 2021 Ocean Awards...

Yacht of The Year Award Sponsored by Arksen: M/Y Beluga

For participating in the Great Reef Census
This award acknowledges private vessels, their owners and/or crew that have helped enhance the health of the ocean. This award is sponsored by Arksen, a company that designs the ultimate marine exploration vessels.

In October 2020 the Great Reef Census was launched as a citizen-science initiative that required the help of vessels to survey and photograph the Great Barrier Reef, 40% of which had never been mapped. Ocean Alliance, a Queensland-based superyacht brokerage and charter company, wanted to get involved, as did the owner of the 34.7-metre Moonen Beluga. No stranger to philanthropy, the yacht has participated in missions for the turtle sanctuary in Papua New Guinea’s Conflict Islands and for Take 3 for the Sea, which fights plastic pollution. No surprise then that she became the first superyacht to participate in the Great Reef Census. Rather than return empty to her Port Douglas base from a charter that had ended in Lizard Island in the reef’s north, her cabins were made available to marine scientists, a photographer and an engineer from Dell Technologies, which is working with the project to enable real-time data to be collected. “We were able to hop on the boat, and her crew helped us do surveys on its way home. It’s a classic example of the shared economy,” says Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

Ocean Alliance’s MD, Jo Howard, is optimistic more owners will get involved. Indeed, charterers could invite marine scientists aboard during their cruise to learn about their work, even if just for a few hours. “The Great Reef Census is a world-first to encourage yachting for purpose and make a contribution to the ecosystem,” he says. View all the finalists here.

Local Hero Award: Naomi Longa and Dr Andy Lewis, the Coral Sea Foundation

For the Sea Women of Melanesia programme to teach women to dive
This award recognises the individual or (grassroots/community-based/local) group that has had the most positive impact on the marine environment within their local community this year.

Born on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea, Naomi Longa grew up swimming in the Bismarck Sea and exploring the coral reefs of Kimbe Bay. It was the start of a fascination that led her first to study biology at the University of Papua New Guinea and then to complete her PADI Open Water Diver certificate and become Papua New Guinea’s first female dive instructor.

Now one of the team that runs the Coral Sea Foundation founded by Dr Andy Lewis in 2012, Longa knows better than anyone how literal immersion in a marine environment can inspire a passion for it and an ambition to protect it. Hence the Sea Women of Melanesia, of which she is director, which not only teaches women to snorkel and scuba dive but trains them in conservation theory and related skills such as using GPS-equipped underwater digital cameras to photograph coral and gauge its condition.

Melanesia, a sub-region of Oceania, stretches from New Guinea in the west to Tonga in the east and is home to 75 per cent of the world’s coral species and 2,200 species of reef fish. The Sea Women of Melanesia hopes that women will take an active role in creating and monitoring marine-protected areas around the reefs and islands on which they live.

“Melanesian women are strong advocates for marine conservation,” says Longa. “And with the education and training we provide, they are better equipped to foster the community support that we need for successful marine conservation.”

To date, the programme has trained about 30 women in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and has directly contributed to the creation and management of 15 marine reserves. It is also funding seven reef-survey teams of locally recruited trainees. And during the pandemic, the women also used their boats to deliver medical supplies to local communities. View all the finalists here.


Science Award: Dr Lauren Biermann, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

For using satellite data to find patches of floating plastic litter from space
This award recognises the individual or research team that has this year made an original scientific contribution towards a peer-reviewed publication or study that directly benefits ocean health.

To remove concentrations of plastic pollution from the ocean, one first has to find them. Dr Lauren Biermann and her team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory have pioneered the use of optical satellite data to identify concentrations of plastic pollution in coastal waters.

First, they needed data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites, which take high-resolution images every two to five days. To differentiate plastics from natural sources of debris they developed a library of “things that float on water – sea foam, seaweed, algae and driftwood – and how they looked according to Sentinel-2’s eyes”, creating spectral signatures of different debris types including that of plastic.

“We used published literature and social media posts to look for places that we thought had a high chance of plastic debris floating in their coastal waters.” They identified four: the waters off British Columbia in Canada; Scotland’s east coast; Accra in Ghana; and Da Nang in Vietnam. Crunching the satellite data, their algorithm confirmed their suspicions that plastic pollution was present in high enough concentrations in these areas to be detected from space.

“Obviously this doesn’t solve the marine plastics problem,” she says. “But this is a good first step to classifying the plastics that are already out there in the marine environment." And unless plastic pollution can be located, it cannot be cleaned up. The team now have grand ambitions to scale up the research to use drones and aircraft with multispectral sensors to detect plastics in every body of water from rivers and lakes to the open ocean. View all the finalists here.


Innovation Award: Dr Chris Wilcox

For his programme to tackle illegal fishing activities using radar and a system that detects poaching and fishing with explosives in the marine environment
This award recognises the individual, company or group that has this year publicly introduced innovative measures for reducing stress on the oceans, such as business operations that are not undertaken at the expense of the marine environment or promising new technologies that benefit ocean health.

Costing legal fisheries up to £16 billion a year and accounting for up to 20 per cent of the annual global catch, unregulated and unreported fishing not only threatens the marine environment and the human populations that depend on fish for sustenance and income, but is also linked with slavery, human rights abuses and organised crime.

Yet, as Dr Chris Wilcox, principal research scientist with CSIRO’s oceans and atmosphere marine data analytics team, says: “Existing observation systems able to detect ‘dark’ vessels are often prohibitively expensive, especially for developing countries with large marine estates.”

Last year, however, he and his team developed two techniques to provide low-cost data on fishing activities. The first uses ships’ existing navigation radar systems. By adding onboard data storage, a system that costs about £1,000 and runs in the background, the ship becomes a sensor platform. That data can be harvested and compared with other ship-tracking data to provide what Wilcox calls “a substantially more complete picture of the distribution and density of vessels at sea, at significantly lower cost to current alternatives”.

Pilot trials were completed by the end of last year and the technology is about to be rolled out to the Indonesian fisheries ministry and its offshore patrol vessels. The team’s goal is to distribute this technology to legal fishers, allowing them to contribute to the campaign to stop illegal vessels.

The CSIRO marine monitoring and surveillance team has also been investigating the use of hydrophones – essentially underwater microphones – for ocean surveillance, using recorded sound to track activities such as fishing with explosives and poaching in marine reserves. By combining an off-the-shelf hydrophone with a custom-built buoyancy engine and satellite communications unit, the team created a device that sits underwater and detects sound but can surface to send alerts in real time to a smartphone or email. The sounds it records can be analysed according to a set of AI algorithms. “This means the hydrophone can be ‘trained’ to recognise anything from whales to explosives,” says Wilcox. View all the finalists here.
 

Lifetime Achievement Award: Dr Nancy Knowlton

Sant chair in marine sciences at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
This award recognises an individual who has taken the lead on globally-significant actions for the benefit of ocean health over an extended period of time. The winner will have shown consistent leadership and vision, going above and beyond others in their commitment to protecting marine life.

When asked in an interview with the journal Current Biology to name the most memorable moment of her career, Dr Nancy Knowlton would have been spoiled for choice. She is, among other things, a leading authority on coral reefs, founding director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, author of the bestselling popular science book Citizens of the Sea, co-founder of the #OceanOptimism campaign and now Sant chair in marine sciences at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. As she describes it, hers is a career not short of “wonderful eureka moments” or experiences such as “being in the water when corals are engaged in their annual mass spawning orgy, or being confronted by creatures your size or larger”.

Even so, her answer was startling. She and nine researchers were working at the Smithsonian’s San Blas station in 1989 when Panama was invaded and they, along with Knowlton’s then four-year-old daughter, were taken hostage. “When your job description ends with ‘and other duties as assigned’, somehow you never imagine being force-marched at gunpoint, barefoot, over the continental divide, carrying your data and your daughter’s favourite stuffed animal,” she said.

Last year, Knowlton and Carlos M Duarte, Tarek Ahmed Juffali research chair at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, co-authored an article on how the pandemic might be used as a springboard to environmental action. “Many ecosystems and species could be rebuilt by 2050 if people worked together to repair the damage and stabilise the climate,” they wrote.

Duarte went on to nominate her for this award: “Dr Knowlton’s lifelong science, educational and outreach initiatives have made fundamental contributions to ocean health,” he says. “Her leadership in exploring the biodiversity of the ocean and her contributions to understanding the keys to the conservation of coral reefs and drawing a pathway for positive outcomes in ocean conservation bring scientifically informed hope that a healthy ocean is possible.” View all the finalists here.

Public Awareness Award: The Sea Change Project

For the film My Octopus Teacher
This award recognises the individual or group that has done the most to advance marine conservation objectives through campaigning and advocacy, the mainstream media, art forms or educational programmes.

In 2012, the documentary film-maker Craig Foster founded the Sea Change Trust in his native Cape Town. The trust is a non-profit that works to protect and raise awareness of the kelp forest that runs for 1,200 kilometres along the southwest coast of South Africa and the astonishing biodiversity it supports.

Freediving one day in the frigid waters of False Bay, a little pocket of calm on the stormy Western Cape, Foster encountered a female octopus that seemed to trust him. He resolved to visit her daily and film her. The result was the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher - a fascinating and profoundly moving 85-minute film directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed. More than an exercise in observation, the film charts the development of what can only be described as a relationship between the two, as the octopus responds to Foster, appearing as curious about him as he is about her. 

“A lot of people say an octopus is like an alien,” begins Foster’s voiceover. “But the strange thing is, as you get closer to them, you realise that we’re very similar in a lot of ways.” The more he interacts with her – she allows him to hold her – the more he (and we) learn, not just about cephalopods, but the ecosystem in which they exist. 

The film is proving an effective means of raising awareness of what Foster calls the “great African sea forest”, which he hopes will come to be “recognised as a global icon, like the Serengeti or the Great Barrier Reef”, for the film’s reach has been astonishing.

My Octopus Teacher became an overnight hit with features with a mass of celebrities flocking to social media to praise the movie. Variety called the series “a word-of-mouth phenomenon”. View all the finalists here.
 

Young Initiative Award: Francesca Trotman

Founder and managing director, Love the Oceans
This award celebrates and recognises an individual between the ages of 18 and 30 who is at the beginning of their career and has demonstrated promising leadership and vision on ocean issues.

As a child, Francesca Trotman knew she wanted to work with sharks. She learned to dive at 13, gained her PADI Divemaster certification at 19 and studied marine biology at the University of Southampton. At the end of her second year, she went on a diving holiday to Mozambique and witnessed a shark being killed for the first time, which was, she says, “very emotional, given my attachment to sharks”. But not so upsetting as to cloud her understanding of the issue. “It was the shark-fin industry I needed to be angry at,” she says, “not the individuals doing the killing,” who were just trying to earn a living and didn’t have access to sustainability or conservation education.

Back in Southampton, she persuaded Ken Collins, a senior research fellow at the National Oceanography Centre, to become her master’s supervisor and give her a lecture slot. This enabled her to teach second-year students, three of whom she recruited as research assistants and who accompanied her back to Mozambique after her third year to collect data for her master’s research project. In November 2014, she founded Love the Oceans, a non-profit working to create a marine protected area off Mozambique’s Inhambane province, an area of diverse wildlife.

Now 27 and based in Jangamo Bay, her work also embraces turtle patrols, marine life research, analysis of what is collected on the beach cleans she organises (and takes part in) and turning waste into building materials for schools. With her only paid colleague, Pascoal Nhamussua, she promotes sustainable fishing, supervises Mozambican conservation interns and teaches local children to swim, thereby fostering a passion for the marine world in the next generation. View all the finalists here.

Nominations for the 2022 Ocean Awards are now open.
ᐅ Click here to submit a nomination.

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