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The 9 winners of the Ocean Awards 2017

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Science Award: Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller, Sea Around Us, University of British Columbia

Photographed by Trevor Brady

The Science Award recognises the individual or research team that has made the most important scientific contribution to the ocean this year. Nominees for the Science Award must have published a significant piece of scientific research that can be used for the benefit of marine conservation or ocean health.

Early last year, the marine biologist Dr Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and the fisheries scientist Dr Dirk Zeller, executive director of the Sea Around Us, a research initiative at the same university’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, published a study in the journal Nature Communications that concluded that fish were being taken from the oceans in far greater numbers than previously thought. Through their work, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Paul G Allen Family Foundation and based on research by an international network of 400 researchers, Pauly and Zeller revealed that over the past 60 years the global catch had been about 50 per cent greater than official estimates suggested it was. That said, explains Pauly, “global catches are actually declining because of overfishing and because no new stock are available to mask the decline”.

“So this is not a positive message,” says Zeller. “Too many fishing boats are chasing the too few fish that are left, though the fact that we catch more than reported does mean the oceans are more productive than we thought.”

Pauly first wrote a paper drawing attention to official data being incorrect as far back as 1998, after which the pair collaborated on a project for the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council in Hawaii. “This found that official data covered only a section of commercially caught fishes,” Pauly says. “Non-commercial catches were rarely if ever considered. Even some commercially oriented fisheries weren’t covered. From there, we expanded this research and discovered that the issue of under-reporting is both substantial and global.”

The two have also produced a book on the subject, The Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries (Island Press). Given that, as both agree, the principal challenges facing the world’s oceans are overfishing, warming and acidification, will their work make a difference, especially to the tropical grouper, Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna, which both men identify as the most acutely overfished species? Pauly is circumspect: “No, not to fishing behaviour, but to fishing policy and investment, at least in some countries,” he says.

“Ever since I was a child and started to swim dog paddle in lakes in southern Germany, I’ve been happier with my head under water than above,” says Zeller. Then “one thing led to another” and he found himself studying marine biology on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and in Southeast Asia, “the birthplace of tropical coral reefs”.

Does Pauly, too, feel he belongs in the ocean? “I didn’t learn to swim till I was about 12, in the public pool of the small Swiss town where I grew up,” he says. “But I know what’s in it.”

Highly Commended: Erik van Sebille, Imperial College London

Winner of the 2016 European Geosciences Union Ocean Division Outstanding Young Scientist award, the Dutch oceanographer and climate scientist Dr Erik van Sebille is based at Imperial College London, where his research focuses on the way ocean currents carry heat, nutrients, marine organisms and plastic around the world and the impact plastic pollution is having on the marine environment. His paper, co-authored by his student Peter Sherman and published in Environmental Research Letters, shows that focusing plastic clean-up operations near coastlines significantly reduces the harm it can do to ecosystems. An interactive website, plasticadrift.org, demonstrates where plastic ends up depending on where it reaches the sea. Discard a plastic bottle – or rather, don’t! – in the Mexican Caribbean and in four years it might have reached the Bay of Biscay.

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