Sustainable Marine Alliance: Fighting for ocean health through collective action

September 21 2023

The ocean is critical for life on Earth: the ocean provides us with more than half of the oxygen we breathe, provides us with food, water, and energy, and is home to an array of ecosystems and marine life.

Sustainable Marine Alliance: Fighting for ocean health through collective action

Despite this, though, the ocean is under continued threat from human activities and is increasingly suffering the effects of climate change, leading to hazards including ocean warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification.

The impact of our warming climate and the threats facing our ocean have increasingly made headlines.

Drawing on expertise from across the marine industry, one organisation, the Sustainable Marine Alliance, is on a mission to combine efforts and bring the industry together, creating a roadmap for the future.

Collaboration for ocean health

In June, the United Nations formally adopted a treaty that extends environmental protection to the two-thirds of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdictions. The treaty addresses environmental degradation and aims to prevent further biodiversity loss.

Meanwhile, in the marine recreation industry, more and more athletes, teams, events, and governing bodies are developing their own sustainability initiatives.

Sailing in particular has often led the way in advocating for protecting the oceans. For example, The Ocean Race works with teams, host cities, and partners to raise awareness of ocean issues and support ocean science, while SailGP have implemented an Impact League to integrate sustainability into its races.

‘It’s often said that sailing is one of the leaders in the sustainability space,’ says Anne-Cécile Turner, former Sustainability Director of The Ocean Race and co-founder of the Sustainable Marine Alliance. ‘The sailors themselves are often engaged—they can see that their playground is threatened.’

But, despite this, efforts and initiatives have not always aligned. Last year, Turner realised that there was a need for the industry to join together and combine its efforts to make sure it was achieving all it could.

‘Every organisation is facing the same issues, and it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel each time,’ she says. ‘The whole idea of sustainability is to maximise impact.’

Sustainable Marine Alliance

The result was the Sustainable Marine Alliance, which was co-founded by Anne-Cécile, Kellie Covington and Pierre Germeau last year. The team are supported by an advisory board with representatives from organisations across the industry, including World Sailing, The Ocean Race, 11th Hour Racing, The Carbon Trust, and IMOCA.

The mission was to advance the integration of sustainability in the recreational marine industry. The Alliance’s objectives include integrating standards and tools, sharing knowledge, and developing solutions to reduce environmental impacts.

The Alliance’s work is focused around five programmes: sustainable boat building; diversity, equity and inclusion; ocean science; ocean biodiversity; and sustainable teams and events.

Sustainable boat building

The Alliance’s first major project, the sustainable boat building programme, is the result of work that emerged from The Ocean Race’s Sustainable Boat Building Innovation Workshop Series, which was held between 2019 and 2022. The team have now developed a digital platform to share resources and an industry roadmap to 2030.

The focus on boats made sense because it’s such a tangible part of the industry.

‘We realised that the house was not one hundred per cent in order in terms of materials, pollution, and how we manage and produce the boats,’ says Turner.

So the team began to work on making every element of the boat and boat building process as sustainable as possible. ‘We thought, let’s regroup the industry, from the architects to the sailmaker, everyone in the chain, and see how we can make faster progress to create more sustainable boats—for the race, but also for the whole industry,’ Turner says.

More than 80 teams and companies came together over four innovation workshops to collaborate and solve some key problems. Innovations that resulted included using renewable energy on board and installing science devices so that boats could collect data and contribute to ocean science.

The boat building initiative is still underway, but the initiative has already resulted in an industry roadmap, a report on barriers and enablers, and an overview of impact-reducing actions. All the material is available on a dedicated digital platform.

The team have also seen some cultural shifts across the wider industry: last year, IMOCA announced a Green Sail Rule to reduce the environmental impact of sail production.

A range of projects

Beyond the boat building programme, the Alliance are developing initiatives under its remaining four programme areas: ocean science, ocean biodiversity, diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainable events.

Ocean science and the protection of ocean biodiversity are two areas where sailing can make a unique contribution. Because boats reach such remote areas of the ocean, they can gather and generate important data that scientists might otherwise not have access to.

Sailors can also take part in ‘citizen science’ during races: by observing things like whale circulations or bird populations, they can help to prevent collisions with marine animals and heighten awareness of animal behaviour.

But, again, there’s a need to make sure that the entire marine industry is working together.

‘There’s a need for collaboration, to establish a scientific protocol, and to have a common destination for all the data, to make sure that all the combined data has more power for policymakers to make change,’ says Turner.

For their diversity, equity and inclusion work, the Alliance has worked with the Magenta Project, which promotes equity and inclusion in sailing through mentoring programmes, training, and network building.

Finally, the team hopes to develop comprehensive guidance for hosting sustainable marine events. ‘We want to produce a sustainability charter, a common way for teams to measure carbon impact, and a repository of knowledge for everyone to use,’ says Turner.

Collaboration underpins all the Alliance’s work, and the organisation is an example of how we must all work together if we want to make real, rapid progress on environmental targets.

‘Partnerships are absolutely essential,’ says Turner. ‘That’s the essence of this organisation; it’s a collaboration platform.’

Plans for the future

 Less than a year into its work, the Alliance can already point to some important achievements, and has clear goals for the next few years.

‘We want to see real, tangible, measurable change: a more sustainable industry, fewer collisions with marine mammals, scientific data that is more understandable and visible for the media, and solutions in boat building—and all of that in a more inclusive and diverse manner,’ says Turner.

The team are also clear about some of the challenges ahead in the wider sustainability field.

‘The journey has big ups and downs,’ says Turner. ‘I think there’s a lot of progress over the last five years—every organisation now has sustainability on the agenda. There are good signs from global institutions as well, like the Plastic Treaty and the High Seas Coalition. But despite all this progress, we’re not going fast enough.’

Making sure industries like marine sports have clear roadmaps, and can share their resources and pool their knowledge, will be one way that sport, and wider society, can accelerate change.

‘It’s like a big cargo ship—the movement is slow, but it has changed direction,’ says Turner. ‘That’s the moment we’re at now—how do we accelerate? That’s why the alliance was created—to accelerate change.’

And the team behind the Alliance are clear that sport has a critical role to play.

‘There’s more and more pressure around us, and more media attention,’ says Turner. ‘So people start to understand and realise, and turn that realisation into action. And I think that sport has a very strong role to play to convert from understanding to action.’

Read moreBethany White

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