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The 9 winners of the Ocean Awards 2017

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Public Education Award: Ian Urbina, The New York Times

Photographed by Hannah Reys, The New York Times

The Public Education 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, in schools, or through campaigning. Nominees for the Public Education Award must have initiated activities that have had a demonstrable impact on the public understanding of an important ocean issue (or issues), or seen a significant milestone in a previously implemented activity.

Between July 2015 and February 2016, The New York Times published a series of articles entitled “The Outlaw Ocean” exposing the lawlessness that exists on the high seas. Its author was the Maryland-based investigative reporter Ian Urbina, who had spent two years travelling across 14 countries and five seas to research the stories. From the thousands of people murdered at sea each year (Urbina witnessed four men shot dead) to what happens to sharks when they are returned to the water after their fins have been hacked off to feed the market for shark fin soup (they sink to the seabed where “they starve, drown or are eaten by other fish”), his findings are shocking and his research exhaustive. Urbina also put himself in considerable danger.

“In Borneo, I was run off a rubber plantation deep in the mountains by several men tied to a criminal syndicate engaged in human trafficking and illegal fishing,” he recalls. “In Indonesia, I was detained by plain clothes police who did not want me to board a fishing vessel to travel to violent and contested waters. In the South China Sea, I hopscotched for days from boat to boat, 50 miles from shore on one vessel, 50 more on the next. The aim was to get out far enough to board one of the long-haul fishing boats notorious for using sea slaves: boys and men forced into labour because of debt or duress to catch fish for pet food. There, I stayed with 40 Cambodian boys who work 20 hour days, barefoot, rain or shine, on a slippery deck, just one misstep from disaster. On our first night, I was awakened by rats crawling across my legs.” But perhaps most terrifying of all, he says, was when he found himself 150 miles off the coast of Ghana one night in three metre swells on a small police boat with no lights or navigational system.

Urbina has been “interested in oceans” since childhood. As a postgraduate student he “worked on a ship based in Singapore and became interested in seafarers themselves” and in the environment within which they work. As he has written, “more than two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, and much of that liquid expanse is ungoverned and potentially ungovernable. Criminal enterprise has flourished in the breach. The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and approximately one in every five fish consumed globally is caught illegally”. The subject therefore offered “an unusual journalistic opportunity”. “My goal was to explore the diversity of lawlessness offshore and the attempts to counter it.”

In bringing such issues to a wider public Urbina has not only spurred criminal prosecutions and class-action lawsuits, but also alerted governments to the scale of the problem. A film based on his Outlaw Ocean series and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio is in development.

Highly Commended: Climate Council, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth, supporting tens of thousands of marine and terrestrial species, but it is also a valuable economic asset, contributing $5.7 billion a year to the Australian economy through tourism, recreation, commercial fishing and science.

In the first half of 2016, record-breaking ocean temperatures caused bleaching in corals on 93 per cent of the reef, and killed more than one-fifth. The Climate Council staged a series of strategic interventions to urge people to alter their behaviour to combat climate change, not least by encouraging them to use clean sources of energy instead of fossil fuels. It also exposed the way government officials had pressured UNESCO to remove all mention of Australia from a report on the impact of climate change on World Heritage Sites, owing to fears that it could impact on tourism.

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