Saving the Oceans Means Saving Ourselves

An Inside Look at Ocean Protection Efforts with Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas

Photo: Healthy Seas

Oceans are the source of livelihood for millions of people, and the home to hundreds of thousands of distinct species. In fact, we’re all connected to the oceans, and we all have the responsibility to protect them. Recently, an important global event for ocean protection was held in Malta; Our Ocean 2017. As part of the Our Ocean conference, the Healthy Seas initiative organized several side events, dedicated to raising awareness and cleaning the oceans and seas of marine litter.

Soon after the conference, still fresh in her memory, Healthy Seas’ Project Coordinator Veronika Mikos stopped by our ECONYL® regeneration plant in Ljubljana. We used this opportunity to talk to her about the threats our oceans are facing and the inspirational contribution of Healthy Seas to ocean protection.

Our Ocean Conference

Since 2014, world leaders have met at the annual Our Ocean Conference to establish concrete ocean protection policies and provide funding for worldwide ocean protection projects and efforts.

This year’s event was hosted by the European Union on the 5th and 6th of October in Malta, at the initiative of Mr. Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. High government officials and experts addressed themes of marine protected areas, marine pollution, climate change, sustainable fisheries, blue economy, and maritime security.

Veronika Mikos, Sylvia Earle and Pascal van Erp at Our Ocean 2017. (Photo: Healthy Seas)

The EU pledged 550 million euros to support various measures and is already following up on the commitment. Altogether, there were more than 7 billion Euros pledged to tackle ocean health issues. An unprecedented level of 437 tangible commitments was made, 100 of them by the corporate sector. A special report on Our Ocean and its outcomes was made by Sky News — which is also featuring Healthy Seas’ activities.

The importance of these kinds of successes can’t be overstated, as oceans play a crucial role in the wellbeing of our entire planet. “Oceans provide us not only food and blue economy, but the source of life, inspiration and joy…”, Veronika Mikos added, as she gave us her take on the results of Our Ocean 2017.

“The outcome of the conference was unprecedented. Besides the European Union, governments, industries and various initiatives made commitments for the future of our oceans and for the designation of 2.5 million square kilometres of additional Marine Protected Areas.”

Oceans are vital for life on Earth…

It can be hard to picture that oceans cover two thirds of our planet, especially for those not living in their proximity. But their influence reaches us all, no matter where we live. Ocean organisms produce more than half of the oxygen in our atmosphere — more than all land plants together. They regulate the world’s climate by containing sun heat, producing precipitation, and keeping global temperature in balance through the movement of their currents.

Renowned marine biologist, oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer Sylvia Earle inspired everyone around her at Our Ocean 2017.

Besides oxygen, oceans also provide us with food.

They are the world’s largest — and for more than 3 billion people, the primary — source of protein. Other ocean organisms are essential ingredients of everyday products such as yogurts, frozen foods, soymilk, shampoos, toothpastes, and even in vitally important medicinal products.

Polluting the oceans means killing our future.

…and they are facing dire threats

Confronted by the consequences of our negative impact, we’re finally becoming aware that as vast as they are, the oceans aren’t immune to our actions. The oceans absorb half of man-made carbon emissions, which causes changes in their chemical composition; this process is known as ocean acidification. Simultaneously with the increase in oceans’ temperature, the sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent. These occurrences are seriously harming marine organisms, our food supply, and entire communities around the world.

With the growing global demand for seafood and fish products, the fish population cannot keep up and fully regenerate. It is estimated that over 70% of the world fish species are either depleted or exploited to the maximum. This hikes up the fish prices and leads to even larger-scale fishing enterprises, both on private and governmental account. Stricter fishing regulations have been put in place to combat overfishing, but in return, the number of illegal and unreported fishing practices is rising.

“No ocean, no life support system.” Sharing her story and experience with oceans, Sylvia Earle highlights the importance of oceans, and leaves no doubt that humans are to blame for their degradation.

The biggest threat to oceans is marine pollution

Marine pollution comes from various sources. Sewage, industrial discharge and crude oil are the most toxic types of waste and enter the ocean directly. However, the majority of marine litter — more than 80% — comes from land-based activities, and the amount of it is alarmingly high. Each year, approximately 1.4 billion pounds of trash go into the ocean, and most of it consists of plastic. In the last decade, we’ve produced more plastic than during the whole last century. Plastic products are typically discarded very quickly, often after only one use.

Veronika explained that even when plastic is disposed on land, far from the beach, there’s a big chance it will end up in the ocean, carried there by river streams. This means that despite our distance from the ocean shores, we are all a part of the marine pollution problem — and thus can be a part of the solution as well.

Discarded plastic floats downstream into the ocean.

This should be a stark wake-up call for us all and prompt us to do whatever is in our power to keep our environment clean, starting with making sure our plastic gets recycled or thrown-away properly. Plastic litter is extremely harmful to sea animals. Whales, seals, turtles and seabirds regularly mistake plastic products for food and eat them. Their stomachs get blocked and deprived of vital nutrients, and they die.

Smaller marine organisms aren’t excluded from plastic meals. Plastic products disintegrate into tiny plastic particles, also known as ‘microplastics’, that become food for fish and shellfish, and eventually end up on our own plates. Prince Charles, one of the keynote speakers at the 2017 Our Ocean Conference, noted that “plastic is now on the menu”, referencing the fact that soon every fish caught — and eaten — will contain plastic particles.

By 2050, there will be more plastic in our seas than fish.

10% of marine litter is abandoned and lost fishing gear, which keeps capturing animals

About 10% of marine litter consists of abandoned or lost fishing gear. It may not sound much, but derelict fishing nets are actually one of the most problematic types of ocean debris — the ‘silent killers’ in our oceans. They keep capturing animals without any human involvement; hence the term ‘ghost fishing’. Fish and other marine animals can remain entangled in these nets for months, and possibly suffer horrible deaths without ever getting out.

Veronika Mikos has a lot to tell about this problem. She has been the Project Coordinator of Healthy Seas, a business-NGO initiative co-founded by Aquafil with the mission to clean the oceans from abandoned fishing nets.

According to Veronika, every sea and ocean on our planet is polluted with abandoned fishnets, even remote places like Antarctica.

Annually, about 640,000 tons of ghost nets end up in our seas and oceans.

Veronika pointed out another major problem of ghost fishing nets. Since they are made of long-lasting plastic materials, they can keep ‘fishing’ for hundreds of years, all the while emitting tiny plastic particles that end up in fish stomachs and eventually on our plates.

Healthy Seas’ marine protection efforts in Malta

Healthy Seas joined Our Ocean 2017 conference in Malta at the invitation of the host, Commissioner Vella, who in became an official ambassador of Healthy Seas in 2016.

EU Commissioner Vella stresses the importance of Initiatives like Healthy Seas, as they lead the way to a more circular economy and to a healthier marine environment.

Alongside the conference, Healthy Seas and its partners organized various side events. Between the 1st and 3rd of October, volunteer divers from Ghost Fishing and Maltaqua Dive Centre removed over half a ton of lost fishing gear. During a coastal cleanup event, targeting the general public and schools, volunteers managed to collect 1.5 tons of marine litter. This amounts to over 2 tons of removed marine litter from the sea and shores around Malta.

Together with local divers Healthy Seas managed to remove over 2000 kilos of lost fishing gear and other marine litter. Now, the local community continues on its own.

Veronika told us about the importance of involving local divers in their ocean cleanup actions. That way, once Healthy Seas leaves, the message lives on — local divers are very motivated to continue working on this problem with the help of their communities.

Involving local divers helps the message live on.

Normally, the fishing nets Healthy Seas recover from the sea get recycled by Aquafil into ECONYL® yarn, out of which sustainable textile products are created. The marine litter, collected in Malta, have however has transformed into an impressive sculpture of Poseidon, and exhibited in the Malta National Aquarium — a great way to raise awareness among people and shed light on all the suffering caused by marine litter.

Poseidon, King of the Seas, created by Jennings Falzon as a tribute to all marine animals that have suffered and died because of lost fishing gear. (Photo: Healthy Seas)

It all began with divers and their love for the ocean

The story of Healthy Seas is a story of love for the ocean. It started with divers. Wreck diving has always had a certain appeal for divers; it’s adventurous, mysterious, beautiful and haunting at the same time. During wreck diving expeditions, divers encountered a problem. They were losing their favorite diving locations because all the wrecks were disappearing under derelict fishing nets, to the point where they couldn’t see them anymore, let alone explore them.

When divers saw the drama down there, they started to remove the lost fishing nets from wrecks.

What’s more, they saw the horrible suffering of many animals trapped in these nets and couldn’t just swim by; they started removing the ghost nets. Until partnering with Aquafil, they didn’t know what to do with the recovered nets, so they sent them to landfills or incinerators. But Aquafil had a better solution: regenerating the fishing nets (together with other nylon waste) into new nylon. And so, a partnership was born.

A lucky moment in time

In 2013 — at a lucky moment in time, as Veronika put it — the Healthy Seas initiative was established to tackle the problem of marine pollution in a wholesome way. The initiative not only cleans the oceans from fishnets, but also gives the fishnets a new life in the form of beautiful new products. Within the “Journey from Waste to Wear” concept, the volunteer divers collect the ghost nets from the sea, then send them to Aquafil’s ECONYL® Regeneration Plant in Slovenia with the help of Nofir.

Cleaning the ocean from fishnets is the first step in the Journey from Waste to Wear. (Photo: Peter Bullen)

There, the nylon from the fishing nets gets transformed into new nylon. Together with other nylon waste materials, such as fishing nets from the fish farming industry, old carpets, textile scraps and plastic components, it is regenerated into sustainable ECONYL® nylon yarn. ECONYL® yarn has the same qualities as virgin nylon from crude oil. So, instead of being burned or dumped in landfills, the discarded fishing nets are used to make beautiful new textile products, such as swimwear, socks, carpets, etc.

This is possible thanks to the support of the founding partners, Aquafil and Star Sock, as well as all the brands that are supporting the Healthy Seas initiative: Miliken, Jersey Lomellina, Carvico, Modulyss, Interface, Desso, Kaufland, Nofir, Egersund Group, Verter, Bracenet — Save the Seas, Wear a Net, and many others. Check them out. By buying from them, you enable more sea cleanups and thus contribute to a good cause.

Another way to support the work of Healthy Seas and its partners is via 1% for the Planet, an organization that helps businesses donate 1% of their sales to vetted, sustainability-focused NGOs.

Healthy Seas, a partnership of NGO’s and businesses, represents a major step to a circular economy and can take pride in impressive achievements. Its results are growing exponentially: in 2016, the collected nets amounted to almost as much as all three previous years combined. (Photo: Healthy Seas)

What can we do for our oceans as individuals?

Both the successes of joint cross-sector initiatives, such as Healthy Seas, and the positive outcomes of global environmental summits, such as Our Ocean conference, prove that through collaboration we can really make a difference. At the same time, they inspire us to take our personal share of responsibility for saving the oceans.

What are some day-to-day things you can do?

  • Reduce energy usage (take the bike or public transportation more, unplug electronic appliances when they’re switched off, turn off the lights in empty rooms, use energy-efficient products, and so on),
  • choose seafood from sustainable sources and ocean-friendly products
  • be responsible with plastic (limit your plastic consumption, avoid single-use plastic products, choose products from recyclable plastic, etc.)
  • dispose all your litter properly, especially toxic or hazardous waste. Don’t forget that everything you throw away (or pour down the drain) can end up in the ocean.
We’d be happy to hear about your ideas and contributions to protecting the oceans. Share them in the comments below.