The winners of the Ocean Awards 2018

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Local Hero Award: Norlan Pagal

Fearless campaigner and advocate of new seabed project

Since Boat International and Blue Marine Foundation launched the Ocean Awards three years ago, the world seems to have become a more ocean-aware place. The success of Blue Planet II and the brilliant anti-plastic campaign have played important parts. It is a step in the right direction and one that we all have a responsibility to ensure grows in power and action. Equally, when we appealed for nominations for our Awards this year, we were bowled over by the response – in terms of numbers, geographical breadth and tangible impact. Once again, the judges had the unenviable task of singling out winners and finalists. Their remarkable stories are matched only by their extraordinary success and it is thanks to them, and others on the front line, that we have an ocean to preserve at all.

Local Hero Award: Norlan Pagal

This award recognises the individual or group that has had the most positive impact on the marine environment within their local community this year. The winner will be a recognised leader on marine conservation issues within their community or organisation.

Long a campaigner against illegal fishing in the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape in the Philippines, local councillor Norlan Pagal was on his way home after making a speech in a village hall in San Remigio when he was shot. The attack left the father of five, a fisherman by trade, paralysed from the waist down at the age of 46.

It was not the first time that Pagal had been physically attacked – his boat was blown up on one occasion, and on another he was beaten about the head with an oar – but he continues to campaign on marine conservation issues with the Anapog Fishermen’s Association. The association was formed in his home village of Anapog (population fewer than 2,000) to guard against piracy in the Anapog Fish Sanctuary, one of eight Marine Protected Areas in the municipality where fishing was banned and for which Pagal was a seaborne patrol chief.

Now a wheelchair user, he remains pragmatic, even optimistic about the future. The association, which he chairs, has embarked on a project to seed abalone, clams and sea cucumbers to nurture new life that can in time be harvested. “I am not afraid to continue my advocacy, even if I lose my life,” he has said. “What is important is that our children and grandchildren will see that it is not a lost cause; that there is value and goodness they get out of it after all.”

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The Science Award: Ben Halpern

Lead author of pioneering report on limits of Earth’s resources

This award recognises the individual or research team that has made the most important scientific contribution to the ocean this year.

Last year brought the publication of Planetary Boundaries for a Blue Planet, an epic report that was 15 years in the making. It was led by Ben Halpern, director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, an independent research affiliate of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It builds on some of the seminal work that Johan Rockström developed about a decade ago at the Stockholm Resilience Centre on planetary boundaries for the Earth,” he says. That focused on the limits to which the Earth’s resources can be pushed and remain sustainable but, as Halpern points out, it “essentially forgot the ocean”.

“The message of the work,” he continues, “is that we are probably closer to some of the boundaries beyond which the system starts to break down irreversibly, than we realised.” Halpern trained as an ecologist and marine biologist and believes it’s possible to find solutions to managing and conserving nature only if you also understand people and how they interact with it. “To do that you have to include economists, decision scientists, social scientists, anthropologists and so on, as well as all the scientists who study the natural system.”

He is optimistic “for two broad reasons. First, we still have time; the window of opportunity is still open.” And second because there’s been “an awakening of appreciation of the oceans”. He cites the ongoing creation of Marine Protected Areas “at really quite an accelerating pace” and “the international treaties and UN commitments focusing on oceans for the first time. There are wonderful examples of success and hope,” he says.

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Judges’ Special Award: Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

One of the foremost experts on how global warming is threatening the world’s oceans

More than two decades ago Ove Hoegh-Guldberg was one of the first scientists to warn that coral bleaching was a sign of climate change and global warming. No surprise then that he appears in and was the chief scientific adviser for the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, winner of the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Festival.

The film warns that a temperature increase of just two degrees Celsius is sufficient to put marine life into a state akin to “living with a constant fever”, hence the death of more than half the world’s corals in the past three decades. A professor of marine science at the University of Queensland, Hoegh-Guldberg is also the inaugural director of its Global Change Institute, which describes itself as “an independent source of innovative research, ideas, policy and advice for addressing the challenges of a changing world”. As one of the foremost experts on how global warming is threatening the world’s oceans, he was lead author of the chapter on the ocean in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, and has advised organisations as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the World Bank and the Royal Society in London.

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The Innovation Award: Ben Kibel

Inventor of ProGlow, an endurable, reusable alternative lightstick

This award recognises the individual, company or group that has done the most to drive innovation for the benefit of the health of the ocean. This could include business operations which are not undertaken at the expense of the marine environment or development of the most promising new technology (or technologies) for the benefit of the marine environment.

In 1999, Ben Kibel, a mechanical engineer, and his brother, Pete, a fisheries specialist and biologist, founded Fishtek Marine to develop gadgets that make fishing less harmful to marine life and to the environment. When fishing for swordfish, fishers tend to use chemical lightsticks or glowsticks to attract the fish. They are highly polluting if they are discarded in the ocean, which about 700 million are each year. They are also expensive: about 10 per cent of a fishermen’s expenses. Fishtek’s solution, ProGlow, is an inexpensive, endurable, reusable alternative, weighing just 17 grams and depth-rated to 1,000 metres. There are three models with varying degrees of brightness, all fuelled by two replaceable AAA batteries, and the basic model should last two years.

The Kibels were also exercised by bycatch, the unintended harming of turtles, sharks, cetaceans and especially seabirds. Hookpod is a transparent pod fitted to the line that encapsulates the point of the hook and barb, releasing it only when it sinks between 10 metres and 15 metres below the surface of the ocean, where water pressure activates the mechanism. At that depth the bait will no longer be swooped on by albatrosses, petrels or shearwaters, which cannot dive that deep. The pod is retrieved when the line is hauled in and can be reused, so there’s no waste. The Hookpod company was formed in 2013, and the device has been successfully trialled in Brazil, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, though Hookpod remains based in Devon, UK. As the company’s slogan puts it: save money, save time, save seabirds.

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The Public Awareness Award: James Honeyborne and Mark Brownlow and team

Executive producer, series producer and team whose breathtaking series captures oceans’ plight

This award recognises the individual or group that has done the most this year to advance public understanding of marine conservation issues, be it through the mainstream media, art forms, in schools, or through campaigning.

16 years after the original Blue Planet series, the BBC’s Natural History Unit, in partnership with the Open University, produced a follow-up, a seven-episode series presented by Sir David Attenborough and broadcast at prime-time on Sunday evenings. Towards the end of the Blue Planet II series last year, it was attracting audiences of 17 million; when Theresa May visited China in January, she took Xi Jinping a copy of the box set.

This was serious television setting the agenda in a way anyone concerned with the plight of the world’s oceans could only find cheering. The series was filmed over four years, involving 125 shoots in 39 countries and 6,000 hours of underwater filming.The final episode, Our Blue Planet, examined the toll taken on the oceans by humanity through over-fishing (and discarded fishing gear), the careless trashing of plastics, especially those used just once, noise and light pollution. If we do not act, was its message, then the marine life you have marvelled at will be gone.

The BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, expects to sell Blue Planet II in 200 territories. As the series’ executive producer James Honeyborne puts it: “Ocean-related problems tend to be global issues. If you drop a bit of plastic in one ocean, it can end up in another, even several oceans away. So it’s great for this series to get into every country it can.” The series continues to be cited as an inspiration, not least by Buckingham Palace. In February a palace spokesperson announced that single-use plastic bottles and drinking straws would no longer be used on royal estates.

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The Visionary Award: Judi Wakhungu

Joint winner - Kenyan politician who won her long battle to ban plastic bags

This award recognises the individual or group that has taken the lead on globally- significant actions for the benefit of ocean health. The winner of this award will have shown consistent leadership and vision on ocean issues, going above and beyond others in their commitment to protecting marine life. This can include important policy initiatives and the people behind them.

Last August, Kenya became the latest country in Africa to ban plastic bags, following the lead set by Rwanda in 2008. It was the culmination of a long campaign driven by Professor Judi Wakhungu, then cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources since 2013. Now visitors arriving by plane are required to leave duty-free and other plastic carriers at the airport; and they may not be brought ashore from boats.

Prior to the ban, an estimated 24 million bags were handed out each month across the nation (which has a population of 41 million), 86,000 a day in Nairobi alone. Few were responsibly disposed of, let alone recycled, hence the 24 tonnes of plastic waste that was collected across the 188 square kilometres of Lake Nakuru National Park in 2016, a protected area of spectacular natural beauty that is home to 56 species of mammal (including lions, white rhino, zebra, baboons and waterbuck), 450 species of bird, most famously flamingos, and about 550 species of plant.

The environment can only benefit from the ban. “I am excited my efforts have yielded this,” says Wakhungu, whose masters degree was in petroleum geology and who has spent most of her distinguished career in the energy sector, having worked in the Ministry of Energy and Regional Development, investigating geothermal energy in the Rift Valley. “It is something I have been yearning for.” The blight caused by plastic bags was becoming an “environmental nightmare”.

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The Visionary Award: Kristina Gjerde

Joint winner - US lawyer breaking new ground in ocean governance

The currents that cause sargassum weed to aggregate in the Sargasso Sea have also caused it to become a gigantic gyre, or agglomeration, of plastic waste, so endangering the unique species for which it is a breeding ground. Thanks in part to the American lawyer Kristina Gjerde, adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, and senior high seas adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, this “wondrous place” is now the object of a campaign to protect it and its ecosystem.

The Sargasso Sea Alliance, which she co-founded in 2010, aims to ensure legal protection for fragile ecosystems and provide insight to aid the establishment of other Marine Protected Areas. Gjerde began her career as a specialist in admiralty law at a firm in New York, but it was winning a three-year Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation that led her to specialise in advocating the need for governance of the oceans and seabed.

Applying the rule of law to the high seas is one thing, enforcing it is another. This, as she said in her TED talk, leads her to her second passion – space technology. “I wanted to be an astronaut, so I’ve constantly followed the tools available to monitor Earth from outer space.” This enables the tagging and tracking of fishing vessels.

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Campaign of the Year: Establishing the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area

The Ross Sea is the southernmost part of the Southern Ocean. It extends into a huge bay under the Ross Ice Shelf, part of the polar ice cap that is Antarctica. It remains one of the last, perhaps the last, genuinely pristine place on Earth, home to a fully functioning marine ecosystem that is still miraculously free from pollution, untainted by mining and untroubled by invasive species. Wildlife thrives here, but in 1996 a New Zealand fishing vessel discovered abundant Antarctic toothfish that, as Chilean sea bass, commanded about $70 a kilo. By 2010, as many as 20 long-line ships were catching about 3,000 tonnes a year, threatening an entire ecosystem; their dwindling numbers affecting killer whales, Weddell seals, sperm whales and giant squid, who all prey on them. The only way the unique Ross Sea ecosystem can survive intact was for it to be declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA), the world’s largest, in which commercial fishing is banned.

In December 2017, the 25 countries that comprise the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international convention founded in 1982 to protect the southern polar seas, agreed that 72 per cent of the MPA, which covers 1.55 million square kilometres, should be declared a no-take zone, in which all fishing is prohibited for the next 35 years. It is, says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, one of the Ocean Awards 2018 judges, “a phenomenal achievement… it shows that the protection of great swathes of our oceans is a possibility”.

Many individuals and organisations were involved in this achievement, but the judges singled out the below individuals for their outstanding contributions.

Scientist, George Watters

Chair, CCAMLR Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management

As the lead US scientist who worked on the campaign to have the Ross Sea designated an MPA, the fisheries biologist Dr George Watters spent six years on the project, travelling the world to persuade all 25 member countries of CCAMLR to come on board with the plan. China and Russia were the last to be convinced: the former wanted a special zone for krill fishing; the latter higher quotas and a larger commercial fishing zone within the protected area.

Watters’ solution was to expand the size of the MPA in order to accommodate this. “Making it bigger could achieve their objective and ours.” His day job is director of the Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, whose mission is “to generate the scientific information necessary for the conservation and management of living marine resources”.

Peter Young, John Weller and David Ainley

The Last Ocean filmmakers

Vital to the success of the Ross Sea MPA campaign was the team who made the film The Last Ocean (2012), winner of numerous documentary awards. Its tagline summed up its objective: “The race to protect the Earth’s last untouched ocean from our insatiable appetite for fish.”

Shot in Antarctica, Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, the UK and the US, the 88-minute documentary was a collaboration between the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Young and the Californian ecologist Dr David Ainley, who had spent three decades studying Antarctica.

With the American conservation photographer John Weller, they also set up a charitable trust of the same name, through which they were able to spend significant time speaking to policymakers as well as the public to raise awareness of the dangers facing the Ross Sea. As Ainley puts it on the voiceover: “You can’t be a doctor of the oceans without knowing what a healthy patient looks like.”

Lewis Pugh

Founder, the Lewis Pugh Foundation

A maritime lawyer by profession, as well as the UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, ocean advocate and endurance swimmer, Lewis Pugh is best known for his superhuman ability to survive immersion in near-freezing water. He uses this talent to publicise the plight of the polar oceans through “Speedo diplomacy”, which he defines as “a fair bit of swimming, and a great deal of listening”. The 48-year-old has completed two swims in the Ross Sea. The first, in February 2015, was off Cape Adare, where he covered 540 metres in 10 minutes in water with a temperature of -1.7C. The air was -4C. Six days later, he swam 330 metres in the Bay of Whales. The water was -1C; the air was -11C, and in the wind it felt like -37C.

Delighted by the subsequent designation of the Ross Sea as an MPA, he’s not stopping there. “Our Antarctica 2020 campaign is about expanding that protection with three more MPAs, so that the entire protected area is bigger than the continent of Australia,” he says.

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