How marine sports are stepping up to protect the ocean in 2023

November 16 2023

The ocean is critical for life: it provides us with food, water, oxygen, and energy, and is home to marine wildlife and ecosystems like coral reefs and mangrove forests.

How marine sports are stepping up to protect the ocean in 2023

While we rely on the ocean to sustain life on earth, the ocean is continually under threat from human activities and suffering the effects of climate change, including ocean warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss.

But, over the past year, the marine sports industry has been stepping up its efforts to protect ocean health.

From connecting with policymakers, running educational projects, restoring marine habitats, and reducing their own carbon footprints, sports from sailing to surfing have attempted to play their part in protecting the seas.

So what are some of the main areas that sport is addressing when it comes to ocean health? And what are some of sport’s biggest achievements over the past year?

Marine sports and the ocean

Marine sports, like sailing, surfing, rowing, and diving, all have their own unique impacts on the ocean.

Sailing, for example, needs to consider issues like the impact of races on delicate marine ecosystems, the emissions created through transportation, and the sustainability of the materials used to build the boats.

Other issues include noise and light pollution, plastic waste, and megafauna strikes.

But many marine sports events, teams, and organisations have been ahead of the game when it comes to sustainability. As Global Sustainable Sport has reported over the past year, organisations including World Sailing, The Ocean Race, SailGP,  The World Surf League, Foundacion Ecomar and the Sustainable Marine Alliance are working to address the industry’s biggest issues.

Over the past year and a half, wider awareness of ocean issues has increased, as well as action at an international policy level: the second-ever UN Ocean Conference was held in Lisbon in July last year, followed by the formal signing of the UN High Seas Treaty in New York in September.

As momentum grows, sports organisations from across the world have increased their efforts to protect the marine environment.

Reducing emissions and materials

One key way that sports organisations have continued to protect the ocean is through reducing their own organisational and event-related emissions.

This year, The Ocean Race claims that its race featured ‘the most ambitious sustainability programme in its fifty-year history’, with a specific focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The organisation estimates that this years’ race resulted in a substantial 75% reduction in GHG emissions compared to last year’s edition.

In addition, The Ocean Race also supported a number of blue carbon projects, resulting in more GHG emissions being ‘drawn down’ than emitted. As a result, organisers claim that the event was ‘climate positive’.

Meanwhile, SailGP saw an 83% reduction in freight emissions and a 22% reduction in staff transport emissions in their third season.

The organisation also became the first sport to disclose its carbon strategy with the Carbon Disclosure Project, which aims to make organisations’ carbon reduction strategies transparent and accountable.

In the same year, World Surf League recorded an overall emissions reduction of 49% compared to their 2018 baseline.

While World Sailing, sailing’s world governing body, has not yet published any data on their emissions reductions this year, they have also committed to a 50% reduction by 2030 target, in line with the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework.

Other organisations, however, have shown how difficult it can be to substantially reduce emissions from operations like boat building.

11th Hour Racing Team, a sustainability-focused sailing team that this summer became the first US team to win The Ocean Race, have set an ambitious target of becoming ‘climate positive’ by drawing down at least 20% more greenhouse gases than emitted from their operations.

However, in their recent impact report, they reported that ‘it proved strikingly difficult to reduce our operation’s footprint’, largely as a result of complex designs.

They concluded that sustainable sourcing, ‘insetting’, and carbon emissions thresholds need to be adopted across the whole industry if large-scale reductions are to be realistic.

A related issue is the question of finding a sustainable process for boat building, which at present is highly waste- and energy-intensive.

Since 2017, The Ocean Race has worked with the Sustainable Marine Alliance to host sustainable boat building workshops, which bring people together to identify the industry’s biggest roadblocks and share resources for more sustainable builds.

Reflecting progress towards a more sustainable approach, this year 11th Hour Racing Team reported that they had replaced 100kg of carbon fibre with more sustainable materials.

Ocean health

Beyond reducing emissions, many sports organisations have worked to address ocean health issues more directly, including plastic pollution and habitat destruction.

This year World Surf League partnered with local communities, organisations, and Indigenous and First Nations peoples on projects that directly protect and conserve the marine ecosystem.

WSL has planted 100,000 corals through work with Coral Gardeners, removed two tons of plastic through river intervention projects, and protected or restored 45,374 hectares of land, including surf ecosystems in Hawaii, Australia, Uruguay and Brazil.

Meanwhile, The Ocean Race has also directly engaged with partners to support mangrove restoration projects in countries including Madagascar, Pakistan, and the Philippines. The organisation has developed principles for selecting projects to support, with an emphasis on ‘blue carbon’.

SailGP has also worked directly with ocean protection projects, including seagrass preservation in Bermuda and conservation of seahorses in Australia. In Spain and Portugal, Foundacion Ecomar has lead coastal clean-up projects with schoolchildren.

While marine sports have a responsibility to address their own impacts, like emissions, events and materials, partnering with local ocean health projects means that organisations can also ‘give back’ to the ocean.

However, supporting ‘blue carbon’ projects should be viewed as positive projects that are separate from emissions reductions strategies. As recent reporting has shown, offsetting, even through ‘blue carbon’, is not necessarily a reliable or accurate way to ‘draw down’ emissions.

Education and awareness

As with all sports, marine sports have a huge platform and the opportunity to reach a wide audience through education and campaigns.

More and more marine sports organisations are engaging with volunteers and youth and community projects to transform passion for sport into awareness of environmental issues.

In 2023, World Surf League ran educational programmes on cultural and environmental stewardship for over 3,000 young people, and engaged with over 1,500 volunteers.

Meanwhile, SailGP continued its Inspire Program, working with 14,665 young people and surpassing its target of engaging 10,000 youth by 2025, while World Sailing recently announced its new series of sustainability sessions.

The Ocean Race also has a substantial education programme, including ocean education resources, a series of innovation workshops, and an online knowledge centre.

This season, The Ocean Race has focused on sustainability more strongly than ever.

Meegan Jones, Senior Sustainability Advisor at The Ocean Race, reflected that ‘in this edition of the Race we have been able to inspire action for the ocean like never before.’

In this year’s event, over 30,000 school children took part in activities at Ocean Live Park, and 108,500 people visited the One Blue Voice immersive experience, which was designed to educate audiences on ‘the race to protect the ocean’.

Importantly, marine sports have also continued to use their race platforms to support scientific research.

Over 4 million measurements were captured by sailing teams during the 2022-23 Ocean Race. Data gathered included sea surface temperature, dissolved carbon dioxide, microplastics, and oxygen levels.

Thirteen scientific organisations are now analysing the data, and details are available to view on a dedicated website.

More recently, SailGP has also worked with the universities of Bristol and Cadiz to research the underwater noise pollution caused by its events, while Foundacion Ecomar is working with a Spanish-based project that explores seagrass replanting in the Mediterranean.

As the challenge of protecting the ocean intensifies, data and collaboration will be crucial. As athletes and fans come into such close contact with marine habitats, sport has a unique opportunity to contribute to critical science.

The fight for ocean rights

Building on its growing track record of work, the marine sports industry came together in September to present a petition for ocean rights at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The One Blue Voice campaign, which was spearheaded by The Ocean Race, the government of Cabo Verde and the Earth Law Center, was the culmination of years of work to develop a set of principles for a Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights, developed by over 150 global experts, scientists, and NGOs.

The campaign presented a petition signed by over 32,000 people from 178 countries.

The September event was the 20th summit held by The Ocean Race to explore the concept of ‘ocean rights’, and reflects a growing movement to grant nature, including ecosystems and species, rights in law.

The UN summit was a fitting example of how the marine sports industry is increasingly working together and connecting with stakeholders beyond sport to take their fight for the ocean to the next level.

As we look ahead to the next UN Ocean Conference in Nice in 2025, there is plenty still to do.

Creating industry-wide standards to reduce emissions and waste, sharing resources and best practice, educating fans, and finding ways to contribute to science will be key for the marine sports industry if it is to truly address its impact.

But achievements over the last twelve months—including The Ocean Race’s most sustainable event, the Sustainable Marine Alliance’s efforts to bring the industry together, 11th Hour Racing Team’s race success, SailGP and Foundacion Ecomar’s scientific collaborations, World Sailing’s knowledge-sharing and World Surf League’s community projects—show how the potential to make an impact is as huge as ever.

As the race to save the ocean intensifies, marine sports are poised to play a huge role if they can build on this year’s efforts.

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