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Introducing the 2024 Ocean Awards winners

8 May 2024 • Written by Claire Wrathall

Each year, BOAT International joins forces with Blue Marine Foundation to recognise the exceptional individuals and groups that are taking strides to protect our marine environment. This year, after whittling down 153 entries from across the world to a shortlist of 23, our esteemed judges decided to add an extra special award to make eight worthy winners. Congratulations, all!


Kura Paul-Burke

The Local Hero Award recognises an individual, grassroots or community-based group whose campaigning, innovation or conservation work is making a positive impact on the marine environment in the place where they live.

Paul-Burke is Professor of Marine Research at the University of Waikato, New Zealand ,working on the restoration of the shellfish population, Ōhiwa Harbour. 

What was the issue?

“In 2007, there were 112 million baby kuku (mussels) in a continuous two-kilometre reef,” says Kura Paul-Burke. Twelve years on, there were fewer than 80,000 in the entire harbour. Something was “eating [them] out of existence” . 

How did she discover this catastrophe?

Diving in Ōhiwa Harbour one day she spotted a patch of brilliant orange on the otherwise murky ocean floor and swam towards it. Up close, she saw it was composed of tens of thousands of 11-armed pātangaroa (aka reef stars), a predatory species of starfish. Around them lay the empty shells of green-lipped mussels. “In a healthy balanced ecosystem, you’d expect to see around 15 pātangaroa per hectare,” the marine scientist says. “We found 50,000.”

What happened next? Did she follow the science?

Not exactly. Even though she is a professor of marine science, Paul-Burke, who is Māori and the descendant of the Ngāti Awa coastal tribe, felt the root of the answer probably lay in mātauranga Māori, or Māori ancestral knowledge, which she defines as inherently practical and hands-on. “It’s a holistic knowledge system and at its heart it asks questions and figures out how to solve complex issues about the natural world.”

Paul-Burke began by consulting local kaumātua (respected tribal elders), who were able to tell her where the mussel beds had historically thrived away from the starfish colonies and helped her to map them.

How do you restore a mussel bed?

In collaboration with four iwi (nations or tribes), a host of tribal volunteers and other stakeholders including the University of Waikato, she set up four restoration stations where baby mussels could be nurtured until ready to attach themselves to the lines on which they traditionally grow.

Conventionally, these lines are made of plastic, but the idea of putting something so toxic into the ocean struck Paul-Burke as wrong. So she and her team began to experiment with natural fibres, the most effective of which were dead leaves from the tī kōuka or native cabbage tree, which a master weaver, Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron, and her students wove into rope. When the lines biodegrade, young mussels fall to the bottom as a whānau [family], and now they’re regenerating on the sea floor again.

How was the project funded?
The Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge project came on board with support.

And what’s the upshot?

Sixteen years on from the dive when Paul-Burke identified the problem, mussels are thriving again. By the end of last year the population of a single bed in Ōhiwa Harbour had grown to an estimated 16 million and the area is starting to live up to its name: the Bay of Plenty. 

And the starfish?

Paul-Burke and her local Māori PhD student have been working with scientists from the Cawthron Institute and the Plant and Food Research Institute to develop a starfish action management plan for Ngāti Awa and local government bodies to help keep the starfish numbers in check.


Rose Huizenga, Gili Air Island, Indonesia

For Coral Catch, an initiative to empower local women and protect and restore the coral reefs of Indonesia. coralcatch.org

Rose Huizenga


Christopher M Free

This award recognises a significant contribution made to a peer-reviewed publication or study that stands to widen understanding of an aspect of marine conservation and benefit ocean health.

Christopher Free

Christopher Free works alongside the University of California Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute, in an initiative to prevent humpback whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear.

What was the problem?

Pot- or trap-caught Dungeness crabs are not just a delicacy in the US, but comparatively abundant along the Pacific Coast. In Washington state, $64.6 million-worth were landing during the 2022-to-2023 season. And they account for more than a quarter of revenues in California’s $200 million commercial fishing industry.

But increasingly humpback whales and sea turtles are becoming entangled in the fishing gear used to catch them, specifically the lines that connect traps on the ocean bed with buoys on the surface. And this has led to calls for new regulations and even the closure of fishing zones, which would impact seriously on the local economy.

The challenge was to find ways to protect whales

As Christopher Free and his team at UC Santa Barbara write in their paper, “Static Management Presents a Simple Solution to a Dynamic Fishery and Conservation Challenge”, which was published in the journal Biological Conservation, the goal was to be able to “maintain uninterrupted fishing seasons and high catch and effectively prevent whale entanglement risk by directly reducing the number of vertical trap lines”. 

And the conclusion they reached?

Use less gear.

Simple as that?

Well, yes. Although naturally Free and his colleagues did a lot of research to test this theory against other arguments, such as delaying and shortening the fishing season and implementing early closures of the fishing grounds, all of which were more complex and expensive to instigate.

They developed a computer model for analysing and comparing data from various management strategies and their impact on the fishers, as well as whale behaviour and crab populations. “What we found is that some of the simpler strategies, such as just reducing the amount of gear allocated to the fishermen, outperformed a lot of the more complex management strategies,” Free says.

So, problem solved?

Not quite. “No strategy is a panacea,” Free counsels. But when they weighed up these different methods holistically, reducing the number of lines by about 30 per cent “really stuck out as being the most efficient way of protecting whales with the least impacts to fishing.” The beauty of the strategy – which requires no costly surveys or monitoring, nor any dynamic movement of lines – is that it can be easily implemented by all fisheries where whales may become entrapped.

Is there another way?

Stringing multiple traps from the same line, as they do in lobster fisheries off the Atlantic coast of Maine, would be better yet. For the moment, however, California bans the practice. But Free maintains: “I really believe gear reductions offer the most promise for saving whales while maintaining a profitable fishery.”


Diego Cardeñosa

This award recognises a new technology, product, service or process that seeks to reduce stress on the marine environment or remedy a problem affecting the health of the oceans.

Diego Cardeñosa
Jill Morris-Blake

Diego Cardeñosa works for Florida International University's global forensic and justice center using DNA analysis to combat the trade in protected shark fins.

How big is the trade in shark fins?

According to the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, up to 100 million sharks are killed annually for their fins.

And just how serious a threat to sharks is that? 

“It’s the ultimate threat” to the existence of some species, says Diego Cardeñosa, a researcher and post-doctoral associate at Florida International University in Miami.

What’s being done about it?

Since 2014, more than 140 species of sharks and rays have been included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which means their trade must be regulated internationally.

So shark fishing isn’t actually illegal?

No, and neither is the trade it supplies. Certain types of shark can still be traded as long as they are “legally caught and traceable through the supply chain, and their extraction is not detrimental to the species’ survival,” explains Cardeñosa.

But how to tell a protected shark from a permitted one?

The challenge lies in the concealment of illegally traded fins or meat within dried or processed products, making it visually difficult to discern the species’ origin. Unscrupulous traders often camouflage fins and meat from illicitly traded species among those from licensed sources. “For instance, a shipment of shark fins may possess the necessary permits for a specific species like the blue shark while clandestinely containing fins from other unreported species such as hammerheads, silkies or threshers. These undisclosed species cannot be legally traded without the requisite permits. Notably, blue, scalloped and smooth hammerheads, as well as mako and silky sharks constitute about 70 per cent of the fins sold in markets like Hong Kong and Mainland China. 

What’s the answer?

The quick DNA test that Cardeñosa created. Almost five years in development, it’s a “rapid, portable, inexpensive in-port DNA protocol” that can identify most species of sharks and rays. 

How does it work?

“It’s like a Covid test,” he says. A tiny fragment of fresh or dried fin is washed and immersed in a chemical solution that extracts its DNA. Then a PCR test is conducted at the point of inspection. Within just two hours, and for less than $1.50 a sample, molecular confirmation tells you the species of any shark or ray. “DNA is the ultimate forensic evidence,” says Cardeñosa. “Such an easy protocol can really help us combat wildlife crimes.”

But how does that catch criminals?

The ability to test shark products in the markets in which they’re traded enables organisations such as Interpol to crack down on illicit traders.

“Law enforcement personnel around the world need all the tools they can get to detect illegal trading if we want the CITES ban to work,” he says. “Our team has been building capacity in trade hubs across Europe, Asia and Latin America. Our goal is to bring this technology to as many countries as possible. [And to design further protocols] to detect other species subject to wildlife trafficking”.


Ben Williams, Zoological Society of London and University College London

For using machine learning to automate the analysis of marine soundscapes to detect illegal bomb fishing in Indonesia.

Ben Williams



This award recognises an individual or group that has this year best engaged the public with a campaign and/or original content on ocean conservation.


Oceanósfera encourages a new generation of marine enthusiasts and protectors in Chile.

What is it?

A not-for-profit outreach organisation “with a mission to educate and inspire people to care for the ocean and its biodiversity,” says Carolina J. Zagal, one of the three co-founders, along with Carla Christie and Consuelo Hermosilla. “We firmly believe that education and contact with nature is the way to generate change.”

And what does it do?

It teaches young people, particularly in rural coastal communities, about Chile’s 6,435 kilometre-long Pacific coastline, the ocean and marine biodiversity. “We want today’s kids to enjoy nature and have access to information about the sea-life they observe,” Zagal says. “Children can be our greatest teachers and they are the future decision-makers.” 

Where did the idea come from?

“From a young age everything about the ocean fascinated me,” Zagal says. “I was eager to learn, but I couldn’t find any books to help me.” Part of her mission is to write and publish children’s books illustrated with underwater photography. The first, Zoom Off: Marine Animals, is the story of a diving trip on which two young explorers encounter “27 animals that are almost unknown in Chile, such as sharks, rays, sea turtles, whales and dolphins, as well as species that are threatened and that we must protect,” Zagal says. Through Oceanósfera, 1,000 copies have been distributed free of charge to 122 organisations.

What first ignited her interest?

Learning to dive and later attending an intensive marine ecology course at Stanford University after she finished high school. “The daily cold- water dives and lectures increased my passion to raise awareness about the ocean’s unique biodiversity and importance,” she says. “I decided then that if I wanted to learn more about Chile’s marine ecosystems, I had to study marine biology.” Having finished her PhD, she spent 20 years teaching in universities and working for environmental organisations before setting up Oceanósfera.

The initiative runs workshops and activities for young people, families and national-park rangers, providing them with field guides, books and digital guides, which it distributes to schools, libraries and other community institutions.

What about field work?

“Education shouldn’t just be theoretical,” Zagal says. The Oceanósfera team hopes to secure funding to create a marine education centre where kids can explore the beach and learn to kayak and dive.

What next?

A new range of guidebooks, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy Chile. One on Chile’s littoral bony fishes, and another on its 32 Marine Protected Areas. They are also looking for funding to print a book on Chile’s sharks, rays and chimaeras, and an educational card game about sea turtles.


Alistair Allan, Bob Brown Foundation, Hobart, Australia

For its campaign to end krill fishing in Antarctica endkrillfishing.org.au

Alistair Allan
Flavio Gasperini


Ghofrane Labyedh

This award recognises an individual aged between 18 and 30 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.

Ghofrane Labyedh

Labyedh is manager of the Rays and Sharks Programme at the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation and the Manta Trust, Cameroon.

Who is she?

On leaving school Ghofrane Labyedh planned to study genetics at university in her native Tunisia. But after moving to the coast to take up a place at the Institut Supérieur de Biotechnologie in the Mediterranean city of Monastir, she found herself captivated by the ocean and switched to marine biology.

What took her to Cameroon?

Labyedh first started working with the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation and the Manta Trust as a volunteer while she was doing her masters in the biodiversity and dynamics of aquatic ecosystems, but later joined its staff and moved to Cameroon.

Directly south of Nigeria, on the Gulf of Guinea, Cameroon has 402 kilometres of Atlantic coastline and a high concentration of fisheries. Little was known about the shark population in these waters. Labyedh’s brief was to research marine megafauna – whales, dolphins, sharks, rays and sea turtles – and she now leads AMMCO’s shark and ray programme. 

Easier said than done...

The first challenge was to engage local fishers and get them to participate in a citizen-science programme. Labyedh persuaded 80 to keep records of everything they landed and upload photographs of their catches on to an app that AMMCO created. This has enabled her to analyse more than 4,000 images and identify the existence of 45 different species of shark and ray. 

What else does her work involve?

Advocating more generally for the protection of sharks and rays among the local population, in schools and at government level; working with fishers to persuade them to carry observers; and surveying fish landing sites and markets.

With a grant from the Save Our Oceans Foundation, she’s also running a project to train fishers to protect and release blackchin guitarfish and scalloped hammerhead sharks, the two shark species most landed in Cameroon.

So the future health of the oceans lies with fishers?

“They’re the solution, not the problem,” she says.

So what next?

Labyedh is hoping to roll out similar programmes elsewhere in West Africa and has been training fishers in Gabon, Ghana and Senegal to use the app and identify shark and ray nurseries. Ultimately the aim is to secure the creation of a succession of Marine Protected Areas along the west coast of Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea. 

Why is all this important?

It’s only through knowing what’s in the water that AMMCO can work with the fisheries to ensure shark and ray populations are protected. “By the end of this project,” Labyedh says, “we envision the publication of an atlas on the different species of sharks and rays captured, incorporating data on their distribution and trends along the landing points in the northern coastline of Cameroon.” Because after all, “we can’t improve what we haven’t measured”.


Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala

This award recognises an outstanding career that has made demonstrable difference to our knowledge and understanding of the world’s oceans and what needs to be done to improve and conserve their health.

Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala
Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

Who is he?

A former councillor and member of the Hawaii House of Representatives, Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala, 73, is descended from seven generations of Polynesian ocean voyagers and has dedicated his life to protecting what has long been his family’s – and homeland’s – lifeblood.

A former chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, he is currently the Native Hawaiian Elder representative on the advisory council of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

And what’s that?

An area of more than 1.5 million square kilometres in the Pacific Ocean, encompassing 10 islands and atolls in the north-western Hawaiian islands that was originally granted national-monument status by President George W Bush in 2006.

Uncle Sol, as Kaho’ohalahala is widely known, subsequently petitioned the Obama administration for its expansion, which was granted in 2016, extending it by 200 nautical miles in all directions, so that it’s now larger than all the national parks combined and the biggest conservation area in the US.

And he is being honoured for a lifetime’s dedication to the ocean?

His advocacy career began in 1978 when he successfully campaigned for his home island, Lāna’i, to become a Marine Life Conservation District, an initiative that banned commercial fishing from the area. Only fishers using Hawaiian canoes and traditional methods are now permitted. He later established the Maunalei Ahupua’a Mauka-Makai Managed Area and is a co-founding member of the Maui Nui Makai Network, supporting traditional communities on Lāna’i, Moloka’i and Maui.

What is he up to now?

Last year he joined Greenpeace International’s delegation to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the intergovernmental body of 167 member states established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has issued 17 exploration contracts as a precursor to deep-sea mining in the vast Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific, which starts just less than 500 miles south of Hawaii. Here Kaho’ohalahala has advocated for a moratorium on deep-sea mining as well as for the inclusion of the voices of indigenous peoples.

To disrupt the deep sea is “potentially to disrupt the food chain on which we have subsisted for millennia”, he warns. “If mining companies start using the ocean floor for profit, they do so knowing that they are decimating sacred and cultural connections. I want to be the voice of our ancestors [because] we come from this place. This is our home.”

But he has bigger ambitions yet

Kaho’ohalahala is leading a proposal to expand another Marine National Monument in the Pacific Remote Islands, 495,189 square miles of ocean containing seven wildlife refuges across Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands, Johnston, Wake and Palmyra atolls and Kingman reef.

“The Pacific Remote Islands hold precious connections to our past and promise for our future as Pacific peoples,” he says. “In the same way these waters are at the nexus of cross-cultural voyaging pathways across Polynesia, they likewise are an intersection of climate change mitigation, cultural practice and scientific discovery. The seabed is the source of creation. And we need to take care of everything that precedes us.”

The Judges’ Special Award: Marine protection


  • The UK and Scottish governments
  • Natural England
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee
  • Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
  • ABP Marine Environmental Research
  • Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science
  • Economics for the Environment Consultancy.

For the ban on the fishing of sand eels in the English and Scottish waters of the North Sea. 

Sand eels

Why do sand eels need protecting?

Sand eels, which aren’t eels at all and are properly known as sand lances, are an important food source for sea birds, specially puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, shags and Arctic terns, as well as for marine mammals such as harbour porpoises, seals and minke whales and fish such as haddock and whiting.

Do we eat them too?

No. They’re plankton feeders with substantial fat reserves, which makes them pretty unpalatable. But that didn’t stop us fishing them. In 2021, for example, 446,765 tonnes – about 11 billion individual sand eels – were caught in British waters. 

What for?

Pet foods, fertiliser and livestock and salmon feed, mostly. Their high fat content means they burn well, and the Danes also used them, alongside cheap coal, to fuel power stations. 

What a waste!

It was worse than that. Not only was the sand eel population potentially in crisis, but sea birds, already devastated by avian flu, were beginning to starve too.

How did the ban come about?

The ban was the result of a number of organisations campaigning together: Natural England; the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; ABP Marine Environmental Research; the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science; and Economics for the Environment Consultancy. They were joined by two UK government ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Victoria Prentice and then her replacement, Mark Spencer – who took action to halt industrial sand eel fishing. A ban was eventually enacted by the UK and Scottish governments.

A consultation drew responses from 33,000 individuals in the UK, almost all of them supportive. (The reaction from European fishers was less positive.) And in January 2024, the UK government announced it had “decided to prohibit the fishing of sand eels within English waters of Area 4 (North Sea)”. The measure applied to vessels of any nationality and became effective on 26 March, just before the start of the next sand eel fishing season.


  • Professor Martin Attrill, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Plymouth
  • Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Chef and campaigner
  • Aino Grapin, CEO, Winch Design
  • Frederikke Magnussen, Co-founder, A Plastic Planet
  • Professor Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation, University of Exeter
  • Professor Yvonne Sadovy, Professor of Marine Biology, University of Hong Kong 
  • Co-chairs: Sacha Bonsor, Editor-at-large, BOAT International and Charles Clover, Co-founder and Senior Adviser, Blue Marine Foundation.

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