SeaKeeper of the Year awardees form a brilliant constellation of marine ecology stars. Their initiatives and enterprise facilitate the work of scientists and researchers who further populate this universe.
An ecology and ocean stars-studded affair honoring this year’s recipients was held in Bermuda at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, just as the British territory was in the grip of the frenzied excitement of America’s Cup racing. The Atlantic island’s inland waters were populated with boats of every description, from Bond-worthy super yachts - some docked along-side eight of an existing ten graceful J Class yachts, the vessels which dominated the competition in the early 1900s and there this year for their own regatta - to runabouts festooned with team flags and logos. On Bermuda’s shores a mass antipodean migration was in evidence in support of the New Zealand challenge, and from every vantage point, a view of the contenders for the Auld Mug; spectacular, space-age catamarans, hydra foiling over Bermuda’s spectacular azure, then violet and turquoise waters at three times the wind speed, easily out-pacing their chase boats.
Michael T. Moore, Wendy Schmidt, and Richard Snow.
Wendy Benchley, the International SeaKeepers Society 2014 SeaKeeper of the Year, was at this year’s gala dinner. She described the organization.
“SeaKeepers is collaborating with Governments and organizations, bringing yacht owners who love the oceans and want to do something productive with conservation. SeaKeepers match them with scientists and they do it beautifully. They ensure the projects are legitimate and have value. The yacht owners are enthused because it is fascinating to have scientists on board, and to learn about this body of water on which they have been sailing.”
One beneficiary of SeaKeepers explained further: “They provide solutions that go beyond research platforms.”
Andrew Smith, who was at the awards ceremony as well, is the mission manager for the charity Ocean Tech, which he explained utilises an advanced, autonomous underwater vehicle which tracks and records how species use the marine ecosystem, so areas that require protection can be defined.
“Ocean Tech uses specific vessels designed to launch this type of vehicle, so we don’t require a SeaKeepers boat. However, each Ocean Tech mission also includes a local education and outreach programme that includes curriculum development. SeaKeepers have now offered Ocean Tech the use of vessels specifically to assist with our education programme. Students will be able to jump on board a SeaKeepers vessel at our mission location in Bermuda and head out into the ocean to observe what we do first hand.
“Connecting curriculum with real world opportunities in order to learn is what makes the biggest difference to our children’s behaviour, dreams, aspirations and learning experience, and will ultimately pave the way to a solid ocean recovery.”
Ms Benchley’s own initiatives and unstinting efforts on behalf of the world’s oceans are crowned by her work protecting and conserving the world’s shark populations – and with massive declines in shark fishing, those efforts are now seeing real success.
Speaking after the SeaKeepers event, from her home in Washington, DC, Ms Benchley brought matters back to earth, reflecting on the elemental need for marine research. “We know more about the moon and mars than we do about our ocean. And we must have basic research on the ocean ecosystems in order to know how to protect them.”
Wendy and Peter Benchley in a shark cage. Mr. Benchley died in 2006, but Wendy continues their efforts to protect sharks and rehabilitate their public image.
Wendy Schmidt Recognized
This year’s SeaKeeper of the Year, the entrepreneurial philanthropist, Wendy Schmidt, is a “marvelous” choice for the honor. As President of the Schmidt Family Foundation, the organization which houses grantor The 11th Hour Project, and is focused on renewable energy development and wise use of natural resources: “She is a heroine to the larger ocean community – she has the resources, and is putting those resources to work for the ocean in such a smart way. I think she is as a superb choice. She is working creatively and strategically with corporations, businesses, entrepreneurs, citizens, governments, NGOs, et cetera, to come up with solutions to the existential issues of our time ... climate change, ocean acidification and plastic pollution, essential ocean research, and more.”
Ms Benchley was serving as an elected Princeton Borough Councilwoman when Ms Schmidt started Climate Central. She was intrigued by Climate Central’s practical goal – to supply scientific data to meteorologists across the US on the affects climate change is having on the weather. “My understanding is that the idea was to mainstream this information and help make it real to all citizens. I thought this was very important and desperately needed.”
Ms Schmidt’s initiatives do not stop there, Ms Benchley pointed out. Plastics pollution is now on her agenda, and she will approach the issue by working with the industries which produce those plastics.
“I always thought we gave up too early, in the 1980s,” said Ms Benchley. She explained recycling became the solution to that era’s plastic pollution problem. “So, we put the responsibility back on the customer to recycle, rather than on the industry to create bio-degradable plastics.”
International SeaKeepers Society board chair Michael Moore said: “Like ECO Magazine, SeaKeepers serves the global ocean environmental cause. We do this in several ways. We try to shine a little limelight on wonderful persons like Wendy Schmidt.
“In our view, Wendy does not have to do anything but, in fact, she does everything. From what we can tell and from what so many of our supporters have told us, she is a role model and leader in what is no less than the cause of the most important issue facing mankind today: global climate change. She is a spokesperson: beautiful and articulate. We should all be so lucky! Smart –Smith College, Summa Cum Laude - and able to articulate and distill complex issues into understandable concepts. We are so fortunate that she is our 2017 SeaKeepers Award recipient.”
Mr Moore had praise for Ms Benchley as well. “We think she is a true rock star and one of the original women who was in ocean advocacy. We are so proud that she is a past SeaKeepers Award recipient.”
As a media partner to the International SeaKeepers Society, ECO was one of the publications distributed at the awards event.
SeaKeepers has honored an unprecedented four Bermudians as SeaKeepers this year for their work in and on the waters of the British island territory.
Mr Moore said: “With this award we try to shed a little light on the hard work of the local scientists and environmentalist who are doing the heavy lifting in their geographical areas. Certainly, Judie Clee, Chris Flook, Dr Philippe Max Rouja, and JP Skinner fit the bill perfectly.
“We think Judie is a perfect example of the kind of person deserving of this recognition. She has done so much. A lifetime of service to the greater good.” Ms Benchley agrees: “They are all superb for their efforts on the local level.
“Judie Clee is modest, but she is a real star,” pointing to her work introducing the REEF programme to Bermuda in 2000. As principal of the organization, she has recruited dozens of divers to survey local fish population levels, and the health of the reef environment.
During the past decade, Ms Clee – who already has been awarded the Queen’s Certificate by her country for her work - has also helped curate the 1,400-strong Bermuda humpback whale ID catalogue, and actively volunteered for many of Bermuda’s marine protection organizations. She shares her passion for the ocean by giving tours and lectures.
Ms Clee said: “For me, having been honored with one of the SeaKeepers 2017 Bermuda awards is a very humbling and exciting experience. Growing up in Bermuda, the beautiful ocean around the island was my playground. I spent as much time as possible in, on or under the sea, and it was all just fun and play.
“Now as an adult I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer and help with many marine-based projects and have learned so much about this amazing ecosystem and how vital it is that we protect it.
“In many ways, it is still fun and play for me – enjoying observing everything from a tiny little glowworm to a huge humpback whale – but also being able to share the knowledge and delight of it all with so many other folks in a fun, and hopefully, entertaining way!”
Marine educator and fellow awardee JP Skinner called Ms Clee “a hero of mine,” in a recent article published in Bermuda’s local newspaper. He founded and runs Water Start, an education programme which has seen hundreds of young Bermudians and island residents get into the water to learn about their ocean environment.
In the same article, Mr Skinner said: “Ultimately, we want them to become stewards of the ocean. We don’t have to lecture much. We just take them down and show them what’s there. If they love what they see, they’ll want to protect it.” “JP Skinner has been in the trenches for years, teaching and educating,” said Mr Moore. “We think nothing is more important than education! This is vitally important to the cause.”
And Ms Benchley believes Mr Skinner’s work is significant: “I wish other island nations would use this education model to get their citizens out and on the water,” she said.
Anthropologist Dr Philippe Rouja has worked in waters around the world, gaining his PhD for research on fishing practices, conducted with the Bardi people of North Western Australia - but Bermuda is now his focus. “I’ve known Philippe for years, and his knowledge about what we have in and around Bermuda is astounding,” said Ms Benchley.
And from wrecks to seaweed, Dr Rouja does it all. He is the Principal Scientist – Marine Heritage and Ocean Health for the Bermuda Government. He oversees the management of the Island’s ship wrecks and acts as a scientific director, partner and liaison on Bermuda-focused international marine science and media projects. His role is so diverse as to have led to the retrieval and analysis of Civil War era wine found on the wreck of a blockade runner to sea level rise research and efforts to document the diversity of life in the Sargasso Sea.
Dr Rouja explained his work is guided by his early experience working with and learning from the Bardi people from Northwest Australia. Fishing experts in one of the most rigorous coastal environments in the world, the Bardi have developed and applied incredibly sensitive fisheries managements systems fine tuned to account for the ecological needs of every species and their complex interactions. The system promotes the reproduction of species and maximizes the nutritional benefit to the community.
“The Bardi example is a constant benchmark for all I do - I learned that if we look deep enough, experience enough, learn enough and are humble enough to acknowledge our limitations, and work with local experts who know so much more than us then perhaps we can come upon solutions to the current man made ecological oceans crises that otherwise will escape us.
“Bardi tropical fisheries management systems are still out there waiting to be adopted - the dedicated seasonal pursuit of omega three fatty acids that their system promotes also avoids the spawning period of many species of fish. The motivations for community nutrition and preservation of the ecosystem services they depend on are equally weighted.
“Tropical and semi tropical fisheries across the world have the same inverse relationship between omega three fatty acid accumulation and spawning, yet so-called modern fisheries have yet to adopt such intelligent measures for fisheries management. The costs and the solutions are apparent - what is missing is commitment, and perhaps that requires a conversion in places of power to the rational belief that places human beings back in the natural world.”
Dr Rouja says he is “incredibly grateful” for the perspective his Bardi family shared with him.
“Sea Keepers is an important collection of committed people who are connected to, and care about, the oceans.
“Being invited to address them as a trusted sanctioned commentator is incredibly valuable. Being recognized among so many people I respect and consider friends is especially nice.”
Mr Moore calls him: “… a living example of the complexity of our cause.
“As an anthropologist, he helps the rest of us understand the relationship between the health of the oceans and human health.”
The 007 of Bermuda waters, Chris Flook was almost alone when he first took on the aggressive lionfish which threatened all reef life around Bermuda, and the fish populations of the western Atlantic and the Caribbean basin.
He founded the Bermuda Lionfish Project, which has brought together REEF, NOAA and domestic NGOs in the initiative to curb the highly aggressive fish populations. Now, an army of scuba enthusiasts on the island have obtained their ‘license to kill’ from the Bermuda Government in an effort to slow down this invasive species, and the project has been used as model in several Caribbean countries.
“We love the focus!” said Mr Moore. “Chris Flook as a fish behaviorist is amazing. If we had paid attention to his work back in 2007 the Lionfish situation would under control!
“We love what he is doing in the cause of understanding the challenges we are facing in the global climate change war.”
Mr Flook’s CV also includes ‘Olympian swimmer’. He got out of the pool and into the ocean to become the Bermuda Aquarium’s Collector of specimens and Dive Safety Officer, and as liaison to Bermuda for projects sponsored by BBC, National Geographic and NOAA.
Mr Moore concluded: “So, it is easy to see how complex and interrelated all of this is. Each one of the SeaKeepers of Bermuda is playing a part in our overall efforts to make the world a better place.”
Ms Benchley has a decades-long relationship with Bermuda, and she pointed to Bermudian Teddy Tucker, a legend for his ocean discoveries and depth of marine knowledge, as a role model for the SeaKeeper awards. He was the man who inspired her late husband, author Peter Benchley - best known for his book ‘Jaws’ - to write ‘The Deep’ as well as inspiring their work in marine protection. In fact: “Teddy Tucker was the original SeaKeeper of all time! For 65 years, he took scientists from around the world, ‘National Geographic’ writers and many others out on the ocean, giving his boat, his time and knowledge - spending weeks, months, years - supplying the expertise so scientists could do their research. We need thousands more like him and SeaKeepers is working on this goal.”
Ms Benchley was “… completely thrilled” to be given the award in 2014. “I did not feel I was in the category.”
Respected ocean-focused organizations disagree. The 2014 SeaKeeper of the Year was also selected to be in the Women’s Diver Hall in 2014-2015, and was given the Diver of the Year Award by the Beneath the Sea organization in 2016.
SeaKeepers are bound together by action, and Ms Benchley’s list of labors and initiatives is formidable.
She has added an awards programme to the roster of her work to honor those who have advanced the question of the welfare of the ocean.
It was after Peter Benchley died, about a decade ago, she founded the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.
It is an initiative that Mr Moore called “amazing.”
Ms Benchley explained: “That was really a recognition that Peter and I had for many years of the many descriptions and people involved in ocean issues – scientists, media, journalists, youth, people in public policy and government. Together they make a cohesive, powerful force, moving ocean issues forward. “I and David Helvarg, the co-founder, have produced the Benchley Ocean Awards for 10 years, and the ocean community has greatly appreciated it.”
She pointed to Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s Minister of Fisheries and Marine Affairs, whose policy of legally prosecuting and then blowing up illegal fishing vessels has been an effective deterrent. “It sends a message you can’t fish illegally in our waters,” she said. “President Widodo has received lots of pressure from China for this policy, because most of the boats are Chinese, but the policy continues and now there are 350 less boats illegally fishing in Indonesia waters.”
She highlighted the island nation of Kiribati as well, which has established huge marine reserve, despite the fact it likely will be the first nation of the world to be submerged as a result of sea level rise.
“Jaws opened up the world of the ocean to Peter and me and we were very fortunate to be able to participate in many expeditions. We saw the damage being done to the oceans but we also saw many, many efforts to change damaging practices.”
Ms Benchley points to the Environmental Defense Fund as an area of deep interest, and she sat on their board for several years. “But the main thing was I got deeply involved in ocean conservation issues.”
Ms Benchley is specifically interested in the issue of the fishing of sharks for their fins, still considered a culinary delicacy in parts of Asia. The practice has impacted hundreds of millions of sharks.
“I work on the board of Wild Aid in San Francisco which is the lead group in educating people about the decimation of sharks from the millions of people eating shark fin soup, and the near extinction of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns. ‘When the buying stops, the killing can too’,” she quoted.
Working with Wild Aid to change the public perceptions associated with sharks and shark fins, she said: “We have basket ball player Yao Ming and movie actor Jackie Chan doing public service announcements (PSAs), really high quality PSAs, on Asian television, so we have saturated television with them.
“It has worked to educate the minds of the Chinese people. There has been a 60 percent decline in demand for shark fins in the last three years. We have been doing it for 10 to 15 years, but we have really seen the results in the last three years.”
“And I work with Ocean Champions. They are the only group in Washington who lobby for ocean conservation issues, and put together coalitions of senators and congressmen and women.”
Ocean Champions put together a bi-partisan bill two years ago on the issue of algae in inland waterways. “They are a very strategic and savvy organization,” she said.
“Senators and Congressmen and women are now working on the American north-east coast and Hawaii, hoping they can fight back against any attempt to eliminate the marine parks established there.”
By Rebecca Zuill, Freelancer to ECO