The lungs of our planet

Marine Protected Areas, Ocean Optimism, Step Up For The Sea

Today is Oceans Day at the climate change negotiations conference, COP21, in Paris.

It’s really important not to forget how much we rely on the ocean.

It’s a major source of food, a massive oxygen producer, soaks up huge amounts of excess carbon and houses 80% of all life on earth. We’d be pretty stuck without it.

Climate change is causing unprecedented changes in the ocean, and we need to act now to prevent further damage.

This isn’t only damage done to the ocean itself, but also to the entire support system it gives us.

Climate change is making the ocean warmer, more acidic and it’s rising too. We don’t know how much longer the ocean will be able to provide for us if we keep pummelling it with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Marine Protected Areas can really help. They allow certain areas of the ocean to be under reduced pressure from human activities, like fishing, mining and dredging, and this means they are better able to withstand the impacts of climate change.

The last year has been great in terms of MPAs, with more than 2.5 million square kilometres designated. A positive step for sure.

Ideally we need to fully protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, that’s up from less than 1% right now.

Check out the infographics below from IUCN-WCPA all about how we can’t have a healthy climate without a healthy ocean. Join the conversation on Twitter with #OceanforClimate, #OceanCOP21 or #OceanOptimism.

lungs 1lungs 2

“Not for the faint-hearted” – Living Blue Planet Report 2015

Step Up For The Sea

Here’s a snapshot from the opening pages of the WWF-ZSL ‘Living Blue Planet Report, 2015’. Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, warned readers of the 2014 Report that it was “not for the faint-hearted”. This one isn’t either, but it’s important that we fully appreciate the state of the ocean so we can understand our role in its conservation.

You can find the whole report here.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 18.12.54

Source: WWF-ZSL Living Blue Planet Report 2015 Page 2

Charismatic megafauna and societal concern for the non-fluffy animals

Step Up For The Sea

‘Charismatic megafauna’ is the academic term for the cute animals, particularly mammals, which capture people’s hearts and are used to help bring home conservation messages. Chances are you’ll be able to get a fluffy version of them all in toyshops.

Tigers, pandas, lions, Great Whites, polar bears, wolves, dolphins. You get the idea. Big, charismatic, famous and fluffy (mostly).

PicMonkey Collage

Charismatic megafauna. Sources: Left. Centre. Right.

So what do charismatic megafauna mean for conservation?

Working out which animals people relate to can really help conservation efforts. It’s a conservation conversation starter, opening up audiences to hopefully hear more about environmental issues. By attracting people’s attention to the ways in which their favourite animals are threatened, conservationists can help extend societal concern to the animals’ environment. When I was growing up tigers were my favourite animal, therefore I learnt a bit about rainforests too.

However public concern for conservation shouldn’t stop at the cute animals. This is a problem which particularly applies to marine conservation. People are often less familiar with marine life, and, whilst much of it is beautiful, not much of it could be called cute. It is harder to be fond of a salmon in the same way that you can be fond of pandas or giraffes, for example.

tuna Collage

Both Critically Endangered. Source: Creative Commons (l) Greenpeace/Roger Grace (r)

I think it’s important to find a way to help people connect with these more underappreciated animals. People just don’t seem as fond of marine life in the same way as terrestrial, and utilising charismatic megafauna as a conservation tool to connect with the public has proven useful for NGOs such as WWF (who now use in their web address).

Save the tuna has less of a ring to it than save the tiger*, but the need is just the same. Both are classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Bluefin Tuna are the most endangered tuna species, and they are incredible creatures, but they are not cute. They are highly migratory so roam thousands of miles across the oceans in their lifetime, are extremely agile hunters and can dive deep. As people do not tend to engage with them on an emotional level in the same way as lions, gorillas and elephants it is harder to gain public support, both emotional and financial, for their conservation.

I think it comes down to accessibility. The marine environment is less accessible therefore perhaps it is more difficult to become fond of marine life. Documentaries such as BBC Oceans help bring the underwater world to people’s homes and social media may also have a big part to play in helping people to connect with it, whilst hopefully identifying some more favourite animals from the ocean.

*Southern Bluefin Tuna and Sumatran Tiger

5p plastic bag charge – for the oceans

Marine Pollution, Step Up For The Sea

As of today, you’ll have to pay 5p for a bag in most shops, and people, including me, will probably grumble about it at some point when they get to the checkout and realise they have no bags. The papers have pushed the importance of reducing the 8.5 billion plastic bags that were given out last year, but not many have linked the impact of these 8+ billion bags to the environment, particularly the oceans. I think it’s important to be clear why this is a great move for conservation, even if it might be a bit annoying sometimes when you’re in a rush.

Here’s a reminder of just some of the damage that plastic does to the oceans.

Entanglements and ingestion

Marine life of all kinds regularly gets caught up in plastic bags, meaning they can’t open their mouths to feed or swim properly. Plastic takes such a long time to degrade that juvenile turtles and other marine life can get caught in plastic bags and packaging, and as they grow larger the plastic will restrict their growth.

Seabirds, fish and marine mammals can also ingest plastic, mistaking it for food. Scientists have dissected some individuals to find their stomachs full of plastic, indicating that they starved to death, or choked on the plastic.

Floating rubbish dumps

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 13.31.02

Pacific Trash Vortex by NatGeo Education

When ocean currents meet they swirl together in gyres, and so does anything that they are transporting. The Pacific Trash Vortex is one such area where the vast amounts of plastic and other marine debris which is being carried is forced together to form mats of plastic on the surface. Smaller fragments are also suspended in the water column and a huge heap can form on the seabed.


It’s well known that plastics take a long time to biodegrade. As they do they break down into smaller and smaller fragments and  are often too small to be seen. Some plastics also reach the ocean in tiny form, such as the microbeads which are often used in cosmetics. Even tiny marine organisms such as zooplankton have been observed ingesting microplastics, indicating that it really has impacted all aspects of the oceans.


Zooplankton which has ingested microplastic fragments (in green)

Source: NOAA

Source: NOAA

So this is why reducing plastic bags is so important, and the 5p charge is a step in the right direction. Cutting down on plastic bags by using bags we’ve already got is a way that we can help slow down the rate at which we are rapidly clogging up and poisoning the oceans.

Speaking in schools: what I’ve learnt so far

Ocean Optimism, Step Up For The Sea

Towards the end of my first year at University I joined the Royal Geographical Society Geography Ambassadors Scheme, and it’s one of the best things I’ve done at Uni.

At school I had attended lots of talks by visiting speakers or students who had done exciting things during or after their school years. These talks were on expeditions or interesting potential careers, and I often left feeling inspired. Their passion for their topic was infectious. Hearing from older students made me apply for an expedition to the Amazon jungle in 2011, after which I came home and started to give talks about my experience. It was an easy thing to ramble on about because I had such incredible memories to share, and I started to get a taste of what public speaking is about.

During A levels I developed a drive to learn more about the state of the ocean, and pursued this further during my gap year. As I learnt more about the issues, I also became involved in some research looking at the public perceptions of the marine environment and realised that a lot of the public don’t know about the issues, or really care. So since then I have combined my passion for marine conservation, and the desire to tell everyone I meet loads about fish, with the buzz I get from standing up and giving a talk and the need to help fill this gap in public knowledge about the sea. The aim is to try to inspire some love and concern for the oceans.

That’s where the RGS Ambassadors Scheme comes in. When I got to Uni I wasn’t sure what the platform would be to continue with this, as I didn’t fancy the Debating Society, and standing on the street chatting to anyone who will listen about the state of the ocean didn’t seem like the way forward either. A friend told me about the Scheme and I signed up and went along to the training day. Since then I have given an A level fisheries management lecture, a Year 7 lunchtime talk to an Inner London school about why we need the sea, a couple of conservation expedition talks and lots of interactive classroom sessions, all marine conservation based.

A washing line full of fishy thoughts

A washing line full of fishy thoughts

I’ve learnt from every talk or session I have done and these are some of the things I’ve realised.

What I’ve learnt about speaking

  • Passion about a topic is cool. Not to all teenagers, but I’ve found a surprising number have approached me after a talk or lesson to ask how I got into it, what subjects I took etc. By not being afraid to show you love the fish you’ll definitely get through to some of them, and encourage them to speak up about interests that may be forming in their school lessons and pursue them further.
  • It’s scary, but that’s what makes it so great. I have been nervous before every talk or session, but also buzzing after every single one.
  • Science communication is about making the information accessible to everyone. Start with simpler background info, then be sure to link closely to what the teacher has taught, and then include some more challenging elements to push the brightest students.

What I’ve learnt about students

  • Kids can come out with some great answers. One task was to complete the sentence ‘we should look after the sea because…’ to which one child scrawled ‘they iz anmls’.
  • Up to a certain age, kids are not afraid to ask questions. I did a lunchtime talk to about 100 Year 7s, and was bombarded with questions about why we can’t build walls under the sea to protect certain areas, why turtles eat plastic bags and what do squid eat. Ask an A level class if they have any questions and most of them will sheepishly avoid your eye.
  • Pencils are a better reward for answering questions than you might think. ‘I love Geography’ pencils = golddust.
'They iz anmls'

‘We should look after the sea because…They iz Anmls’

I haven’t got a particular career plan just yet, but I hope that talks will feature in it somewhere. Planning a talk, standing up to present it, taking questions and chatting to people afterwards gives me such a buzz, and it seems like that’s not something I should ignore.

Who doesn’t want to tweet a shark?

Fisheries, Step Up For The Sea, Uncategorized

I’ve recently discovered the great white shark research being done by the scientists at OCEARCH, and keeping up with the great whites of the world has become a bit addictive.

Global data on mature great whites is lacking and this project is helping to fill the knowledge gap. Sharks are tagged, measured and assessed on a specially adapted research vessel, then released to do their thing in the ocean. Every time they surface for lScreen Shot 2015-09-14 at 20.06.41ong enough their tracker will ping and update their location.

This is important research because learning more about these vulnerable individuals gives us a lot more to work with in terms of deciding the most appropriate conservation strategies. The Shark Tracker can also be integrated into the curriculum to get kids learning more about sharks, whilst live-tracking some real ones at the same time.

Turns out, Mary Lee, Carl, Katharine and others are keen on social media and are frequently active on Twitter.

You can also get the Shark Tracker for
your phone, which is definitely going to make the next queue I’m in more interesting.