As CEO of the Blue Marine Foundation, Clare Brook is tasked with a monumental challenge: trying to slow and effectively stop industrial overfishing on a worldwide scale. Blue Marine has been making headway. Over 1.5 million square miles of ocean are now protected—from Ascension Island, in the middle of the Atlantic (and a favorite nesting place of sea turtles), to St. Helena, off the coast of lower Africa. But there’s still much more work to be done. We caught up with Clare to learn more.
I read somewhere recently that 71 percent of the Earth is made of oceans, only 4 percent is protected. Is that still true?
It’s now closer to six, which shows how rapidly we’re making headway in terms of getting governments to protect more and more of the ocean, which is exciting. When Blue Marine was setup, in 2010, less than 1 percent was protected.
What does that 6 percent include?
The main movers on this have been the US, France, and the UK. The big deal is those countries’ overseas territories, because even the tiniest little island has an exclusive economic zone around it that extends out about 200 nautical miles. So, you’re talking an area nearly the size of France around each of these remote islands [including Pitcairn, Ascension, St Helena, and Tristan de Cunha].
These little scraps of territory around the world are a hangover of our imperial past. So we have huge amount of ocean that is “ours,” that’s up for protection, if our governments our minded to do so.
Tell us about these islands.
The UK has 14 overseas territories, and they are in every ocean. So there is Pitcairn in the Pacific, quite a few in the Caribbean. One that is in great interest to the Blue Marine Foundation is Ascension Island, which is right smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic. If you’re a turtle swimming from the armpit of Africa to the bulgy bit of Brazil, you come to Ascension. So, it’s got a huge green turtle nesting site on it. And then about 1,000 miles south of there you come to St. Helena, which is where Napoleon was exiled. Another 1,000 miles south you come to Tristan da Cunha. And those three territories are absolutely fascinating because they’re incredibly rich in biodiversity in the waters around them.
But they’re under pressure from massive industrial fishing vessels. And, until recently, Ascension’s waters were being fished by mainly Asian and longline vessels. And they have a fishing line that extends to 80 miles long with hooks. They haul in mostly tuna, but of course they also get sharks, flying fish, turtles, seabirds—huge amounts of by-catch from that method. So, we were able to persuade the Ascension Island and British government to close half of Ascension’s waters to fishing completely. And the other half is open to fishing, but only according to best practices.
How did your recent partnership come about with Sunseeker Yachts?
They came on board this year to support our London to Monaco cycle ride. We’ve done it for two years now, and it’s a ride attempted only by very fit people [laughs], from London to Monaco, which is 1,000 miles, or about the same distance going from Ascension to St. Helena.
We did that last year and raised 280,000 pounds for our two projects: Ascension and the Aollian Islands. And this year we’ve raised even more money and it’s going towards four different projects: Ascension, the Maldives, our salient oyster restoration project in the south of England, and a whole range of plastic clearance in the Mediterranean.
How important are these yacht builder partnerships to your mission?
They’re completely vital. Our biggest partnership is with Lürssen. Peter Lürssen has personally been supporting Blue Marine now for three years. He basically provides us with our core money to keep going. So we are able to raise money for specific projects, but we have to have someone to support us in our little office from where I’m speaking to you in central London. I think it’s fair to say that without the support of Lürssen, Sunseeker, Feadship, Benetti, and Amel, Blue wouldn’t be able to keep going. It’s completely vital that the yacht industry supports us, and we’re really so grateful for them
The Sunseeker partnership is really interesting to us because they’re also very interested in potentially getting their clients involved with Blue Marine. If we can do something with yacht owners as well as the builders, then we can really look to protecting vast amounts of ocean.
If I’m a yacht owner, why should I care about preserving what’s underneath these oceans?
If you like to go into the ocean, then obviously you’d want to see some marine life when you’re swimming. The trouble with overfishing is that people somehow think, ‘Oh well if you take the fish out it’ll somehow be fine.’ The methods of large scale fishing are so destructive to the ocean you’re basically removing entire ecosystems. So, what you’ll be left with in the water is a very simplified ecology of just mud, plankton, worms, and jelly fish. Jellyfish absolutely thrive when there aren’t enough big fish to eat them up. For example, an adult tuna eats 31 pounds of jellyfish a day. You can imagine jellyfish don’t weigh that much, so that’s a hell of a lot of jellyfish!
You fish out all the tuna of, say, the Mediterranean, where this is happening, and you get this sort of nasty, murky water that just has jellyfish in it. So for someone who swims from a yacht, it’s very distressing, I think, when you go into the water and what was a lovely underwater world is completely ruined. And if I think if that was happening on land there would be a lot more of an outcry.
For example, there have been these coral bleaching events in recent decades around 3/4 of all coral reefs in the world have been bleached to the point that they are basically dead. Now, if ¾ of the world’s forests were bleached and standing denuded of all life and all leaves, I think even the most hardened climate change opponent would be horrified and would say, ‘We have to do something about this!’
People who own on yachts do care about the ocean, and they do care what’s underneath, so they can take action to make sure that the seas aren’t fished out and the habitats are protected.
What does the future look like for our oceans?
The exciting thing about the challenge of overfishing is it’s a relatively solvable problem. Really the only thing that’s holding us back is the amount of funding we can raise. The more yacht owners and builders that get involved in conservation, the more millions of square miles that can be protected.