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Sea life across our oceans is under acute threat. This is a global crisis. It requires massive, concerted action – which is why so many Aiglonians are working to change the future.
Growing up in Greece, Kyriakos Filippou (Belvedere, Year 12) can’t remember a time when he wasn’t swimming, diving or fishing. However, the majority of his dives these days aren’t pleasure excursions but rescue missions. In his holidays, he works as a diver with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), helping to restore coral reefs in the Caribbean that have been devastated by a combination of factors including hurricanes, fertiliser pollution, and rising ocean temperatures.
He has seen the ocean’s devastation first-hand. On a dead reef, the characteristic bright-pinks and oranges of healthy coral fade to a uniform grey. As they decompose, a dull cloud of sediment washes into the water around them. The myriad tiny fish that once fed on the reef are gone, replaced by plastic bags, plastic nets, plastic bottles. The occasional lionfish – an invasive species, now rapidly multiplying – might swim by. On his coral rescue dives, Kyriakos will spear as many as he can, in an attempt to keep numbers down.
“Diving on a dead coral reef is like putting a needle in my heart,” he says. “A healthy reef is an incredibly sensitive ecosystem, perfectly evolved to its surroundings over millions of years. And it has taken us just a hundred years to destroy them with our selfishness.” The CRF grows new coral on inland coral farms and, when it reaches a healthy size, volunteer divers such as Kyriakos ‘plant’ it on existing reefs. So far, he has spent 950 hours underwater helping reefs to regrow.
Kyriakos is just one of the many Aiglonians devoting their time and energy to solving one of the most challenging problems of our time: saving the oceans. The statistics are staggering. Eight to 12 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans every year – that is the equivalent of one rubbish truck every minute. According to the UN, nearly one-third of fish stocks are being over-fished and another 60 per cent are being fully fished. And the rising levels of carbon dioxide we produce are increasing global temperatures and making the oceans more acidic, destroying the most diverse ecosystem on our planet.
The stakes could not be higher. “If we pollute the oceans too badly, we die,” says David Rebak (Clairmont, 1965), Board Member of the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada, an Ocean Wise initiative. “The oceans, not the rainforests, are the true lungs of the world – they produce more than 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe.” But, he says, the magnitude of the problem doesn’t mean we can’t fix it. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” he points out. “First, we need to educate and carry out research. And then we need co-operation between government, industry, and environmental movements. We have a growing number of millennials who are saying: ‘We need to worry about the ocean.’ The younger generation gets it.”
Helen Normand (Exeter, 2010) is an Aiglonian who certainly ‘gets it’, and she credits her time at the school as an inspiration to do something positive for the world. She runs the outreach department for Sea Shepherd, an international non-profit organisation that focuses on ocean conservation. Their mission: to end the destruction of habitats and the slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans. Sea Shepherd’s ethos comes from a passion for direct action: the group’s disruption of Japanese whalers in the southern oceans was the focus of the documentary series Whale Wars. Yet while direct action remains a central part of what the organisation does, Helen points out that it can’t happen in isolation – local communities, governments, and companies play a crucial role.
Sea Shepherd’s campaign to save the last 30 remaining vaquita porpoises on Earth, which live in the Pacific Ocean’s Sea of Cortez, off the coast of Mexico, demonstrates the complex nature of the ocean’s problems. Here, geographical, economic, and cultural factors have all come together to extinguish a species. “The vaquitas share their habitat with the totoaba fish, which is also endangered,” Helen explains. “Totoaba bladders, known as ‘maws’, fetch up to $20,000 on the black market – they are highly prized in China. To catch the totoaba, fishermen place gillnets, which also catch and kill vaquitas.”
Four years ago, Sea Shepherd took action: their ship went to the Sea of Cortez and activists pulled up the nets. Then, campaigning group Parley for the Oceans turned the nets into yarn for use by Adidas in a new line of shoes, creating profit from conservation. It is all done legally and in collaboration with the Mexican navy and government. “The Mexican government made it illegal to put down gillnets but they didn’t have the finances to patrol those areas effectively,” says Helen. “We have had two ships down there patrolling every year. Every time our activists see any activity, they report it to the navy, who send out their ships and make arrests. More recently, the navy has come on board with us, so that they can make arrests on the ships, too.”
Helen believes that her generation will make positive changes. “Social media has made it much easier to become informed, get together and stand up,” she says. “I think more and more people are conscious about what they do and how their daily choices impact on the ocean. It’s probably a small percentage of the population compared with the entire world, but it is still a change. Ultimately, governments are a reflection of what their people want, and a government is not going to change something unless they are asked to.”
Aiglon’s current students are typical of this desire to do something practical. “We already had a marine biology project running off the Maldives, where students arranged a scuba diving trip,” explains Head of Science Mr James Pigott. “But this year, a group of the IB biologists wanted to increase the service element. They asked if we could also look at how diving damages reef ecosystems and what we can do about it.”
This has resulted in a new programme. In February, the first cohort of students will undertake the EcoDiver Reef Check course, in Koh Chang, Thailand. This enables the students to learn how to survey coral reef in the IndoPacific region; they submit their data to the University of Queensland. Along with non-profit organisation the Reef Check Foundation, the university has conducted around 11,000 independent surveys to generate reef health data over the last 25 years.
“You can tackle most of these larger problems with legislation and education,” says Mr Pigott. “For example, many countries have now banned microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic that are added to everyday cosmetic products, which were going into the ocean. With big business, legislation has to be the way forward. But education is making sure that the younger generation understands what those problems are, so that they are able to continue pressurising governments to legislate for what they perceive to be the largest problems.”
David agrees that no single approach will be enough to save the oceans. The urgency of the situation is reflected in a decision taken, two years ago, by the board of the Vancouver Aquarium to change “from an aquarium with an environmental mission to an environmental movement that happened to have an aquarium”. Education and awareness are a big part of this strategy. Around 1.2 million people a year visit the building, but the target is for more than 100 million people to become engaged, either by visiting the aquarium or via the Ocean Wise website, ocean.org. “Just reaching the people who visit is not enough,” says David. “We need to do more.”
Various initiatives have spun off from the Ocean Wise initiative, including the Shoreline Cleanup project in Canada, which encourages people to remove litter from coastal areas. Yet, while such projects are incredibly valuable locally, David points out, not every shoreline is accessible to willing volunteers. The sheer scale of the problem demands both money and vision. Research is also vital – it only recently became apparent, for example, that leisure clothing such as fleece is contributing hugely to ocean microplastic pollution. Every time a fleece is washed, microfibres break off and end up in the ocean. Now, thanks to research, some of the larger textile manufacturers are changing the length of the fibres they use, so they don’t come off when you put them through the washing machine.
So it is not all bad news, David says – large organisations increasingly realise that only a multipronged, well-funded solution will work. “Governments are so focused on the short-term infrastructure and operational issues of their own country that nobody is really providing the funding necessary for a comprehensive approach,” he explains. “But, thanks to the efforts of multiple environmental organisations, there are a growing number of corporate entities jumping in with finance to help good projects move forward.”
He is currently in talks with a major consortium to fund potentially groundbreaking projects on an enormous scale. “And this is not about how much money you can make,” he says. “It is driven by the desire for our great-grandchildren to have clean, fresh water to drink and live in a world with healthy, flourishing oceans.”
Although it is a colossal challenge, Kyriakos believes that everyone can make a difference, however small. “Whether it’s making a donation to the CRF, or eating fish that’s from a farm rather than the ocean, the threats to the ocean are something we can all do something about,” says David. “We have damaged the ocean. It needs our help to undo that damage.”
If you would like to support, or just find out more, about Aiglonian efforts to save the oceans, please contact the alumni office and we will put you in touch.
Originally published in the Aiglon Magazine | Issue 10, June 2018
Writer: Writer: Lucy Jolin