The International SeaKeepers Society are just one of the leading Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) helping to turn the tide on ocean pollution. Northrop & Johnson talks to SeaKeeper’s Chairman, Jay Wade and Program Director, Tony Gilbert, on their innovative journey to rescuing our ocean.
Can you describe The International SeaKeepers Society in just one sentence?
The International SeaKeepers Society is a non-profit organization committed to facilitating marine research, conservation, and education, by linking the yachting and boating community with the scientific community, to accomplish otherwise cost-prohibitive research expeditions and field research, as well as many other activities that help bring awareness to marine science and conservation.
There are many organizations advocating for ocean conservation but what makes The International SeaKeepers Society different?
We take an untapped resource (yachts and recreational boats) and put them to use to actively facilitate marine research and conservation. This benefits the researchers who are trying to use science to identify and solve our environmental issues while also giving the yacht or boat owners and crew a unique opportunity to take part in these exciting expeditions. This allows vessels to actively participate in making a difference, as opposed to hoping their dollars go towards the cause they’re most passionate about. It really is win-win across the board for all involved.
The yachting industry is inextricably connected to the ocean. What more do you believe that our industry should be doing to promote ocean health?
Jay Wade – We should be recruiting more young people. Our misuse of the ocean environment over the last 100 years has created a huge problem they will unfortunately inherit, so the sooner we get them involved in the solution the better.
Tony Gilbert – It’s important to bring awareness to the yachting community about environmental issues, but that’s only half the story. Action then needs to be taken. There are many best practices in yachting and boating that can mitigate and/or stop some of the damage that human activities have on our environment. That is why we created ‘A Green Guide to Boating’. It offers best practices for recreational boating – from proper handling, responsible vessel maintenance and good refuelling to behavioural and operational habits that could reduce your carbon footprint and protect the incredible wildlife that live in our ocean. We also have the opportunity to participate in scientist-led expeditions, wherein yachts and boats can act as research vessels to get scientists out on the water to conduct field research. And last, but not least, citizen science initiatives wherein owners and crew can collect much needed data while on their usual cruising itineraries, with no science professionals on board.
Can yachting ever really be sustainable?
Tony Gilbert – I think in time, yes, we’ll be able to develop actual viable alternatives to diesel engines. Just over a decade ago, we would have never thought a practical electric car would be possible, and now we’re seeing companies like Tesla thriving, while almost every major car manufacturer has introduced hybrid and plug-in hybrid models to their lines. Luckily, there are some yacht manufacturers that are beginning to go in this direction as well. Solar panels can help in eliminating the need for constant diesel generator use. But propulsion systems, fuel efficiency, and emissions are only one facet of sustainable yachting. Things like proper waste management, the elimination of single use plastics (including water bottles via the use of a good water maker), better antifouling methods, and making sure to use mooring buoys as opposed to anchors when possible, are just a few examples of how yachting and boating can be more sustainable. We understand the scepticism on whether motor yachts will ever be as sustainable as their cousins in the sailing world, but I think the initial steps are being taken, and one day we will get there.
How can yacht owners and charterers be an ally in your work?
Jay Wade – Owners and charterers play a very important role in helping SeaKeepers fulfil our mission. From hosting scientists onboard to facilitating floating classrooms to participating in beach and dive clean-ups there are a multitude of ways they can support SeaKeepers and the ocean.
Tony Gilbert – Owners are literally what make our work possible. Without their generosity and willingness to offer the use of their yachts and boats, The DISCOVERY Yacht Program wouldn’t exist. We always need more and more yachts and vessels to be part of our DISCOVERY Fleet because matching scientific expeditions with available and willing yachts is like trying to hit a moving target, quite literally. Yachts are always on the move, so if the work calls for a team of eight scientist to travel to the Galapagos Islands in February/March for 10 days, the chances that a big enough yacht will be in the right place at the right time and willing to donate time to the project are pretty slim. But if more and more brokers promote our program to more and more willing owners, the chances of making an expedition happen increase dramatically.
How do you believe that we as individuals can contribute to sustain and protect our ocean?
Jay Wade – Individual action is in fact the key to sustainability. No one entity, regardless of how large can fix the issues facing the ocean. Only by everyone taking individual actions towards sustainability, will we ever succeed. No one can do everything needed to fix the problem, but everyone can do something.
Tony Gilbert – Here are a few easy practices you can incorporate into your everyday life:
- Try to eliminate single-use plastics from your life as much as possible. The amount of plastic that is polluting our planet is entirely unsustainable and has serious negative effects on wildlife. What’s worse? It never goes away. It photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which eventually bioaccumulate throughout the entire food chain and back onto our plates.
- Try to limit the amount of seafood you buy and consume. Humans are an omnivorous part of the food chain but taking the consumption of animals to the extremes that we do does affect the equilibrium of ecosystems. Bycatch, which it the unintentional killing of animals that get caught in industrial fishing nets, is also a huge problem.
- Use reef safe sunscreen. Sunscreen is important for our health, but many sunscreens can damage coral reefs. Look for zinc-based sunscreens that don’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.
How has the pandemic affected your work from an operational and funding point of view?
Jay Wade – From a funding standpoint, like any other organization we’ve had to adjust to the new reality of operating during the pandemic, although we’ve been very lucky in that regard as we have a strong fundraising base to support us. Going forward we realize that this is the “new normal” and are modifying our policies and procedures to adjust.
Do you think governments are using Covid as an excuse to push ocean conservation to the bottom of their to-do list?
Tony Gilbert – COVID has taken precedents over many causes these past two years, which is important and crucial to our society for obvious reasons. Governments have prioritized the awareness and drive behind getting their citizens vaccinated, because that’s the only thing that’s going to get us back to some normalcy. So, I don’t think COVID is an excuse; rather it’s something that actually does need to be dealt with as quickly as possible. As for government action for ocean conservation, governments have always historically put economy and defence at the top of their list (pandemic or no pandemic). These are short term human issues, that demand more immediate action. But while these issues are drawing everyone’s attention, the health of the Planet is slowly degrading. We need to understand that having the best armed forces, or the greatest GDP will mean very little to future generations who will simply want a habitable planet. The benefit to working with SeaKeepers is that it takes the pressure of funding ocean research, away from governments. Instead, we look for private citizens who have the means to help. Governments create important policy and regulations, but that needs to be informed by good science and that’s where we come in.
What do you look forward to achieving with The International SeaKeepers Society over the next 12 months?
Tony Gilbert – We’ve seen that we can have a big impact on the next generation of scientists and conservationists. As we continue to facilitate marine research trips for burgeoning scientists in the early parts of their careers, we have also started our Junior SeaKeepers Program which teaches high school students about scientific research as well as science communication. We’d like to see this grow to include as many students as we can handle. Another goal of ours is to be a big part of the Seabed 2030 initiative, by utilizing our DISCOVERY Yacht fleet to map as much of the Seabed, or seafloor, as possible. By connecting a small device no bigger than a cell phone, a yacht or vessel can log the data that is collected when using a depth finder. Some yachts out there even have 3D seafloor mapping equipment, which would be a huge help in this endeavour.
What has been the biggest breakthrough in ocean conservation that you have witnessed in recent years?
Tony Gilbert – I think, from a purely scientific standpoint, eDNA has been a game-changer. While there are many tried and true methods for detecting marine life, both big and small, eDNA, which stands for environmental DNA, can take a water sample, and tell you which species have passed through that area simply by the residual DNA left behind. For example, if there have been sightings of a certain species of shark in a certain area, you can confirm this with eDNA, rather than going out and fishing for said species.
Is there one person/ initiative in the yachting arena that you would like to highlight here?
Tony Gilbert – We’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to work with so many people, both owners and crew in the yachting arena that it’s impossible to highlight on only person that has made a difference in our mission. We appreciate each vessel that has an interest in marine science and conservation and has participated actively in helping us protect these resources.
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