Friday, March 8, 2013

Could social enterprise hold the key to saving our oceans?

To quote W.H. Auden "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water". Not only was Auden being poetic but he was also exactly right. 50-85% of the World's oxygen comes from the oceans, 50-80% of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface and over one billion people, often in the most deprived areas, depend on fish for their protein. Yet, very little is done to protect and preserve the oceans.

It is estimated that only 1% of the World's oceans are protected compared to 12% of the land. However, some social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are looking at how they can use social innovations to fill this gap and solve some of the ocean's many problems.

One of the main problems that the ocean faces is over-fishing. This means that the area is being fished so extensively that the supply of adult fish or shellfish is exhausted. The fish are therefore unable to replenish their population which upsets the ecological balance and depletes the food chain. It is estimated that 75% of EU fish stocks are overfished, compared to 25% on average world-wide. The damaged fish stocks mean that those caught are mostly made up of smaller and less valuable fish which are discarded either because they are below the minimum size, their low commercial value or they are the wrong species. In the EU as much as two-thirds of the fish caught are discarded. The majority of these fish are assumed not to survive thereby causing a vicious cycle which further depletes fish stocks.

Approach 1: innovative trawling solution

Dan Watson, founder of The SafteyNet, has developed a new trawling system that cuts down on the amount of fish discarded, lessening the impact of overfishing. By exploiting fish behavioural habits and physiology the system separates different species and ages of fish allowing the fish that will be discarded to escape from the nets before they are captured and brought to the surface. There are two main ways that the nets allow this:

1.) When trawling, the forces acting on the nets close the mesh so that younger, smaller fish are unable to escape through the holes, by placing illuminated reinforcing rings within these holes the mesh remains open allowing juvenile fish to escape while capturing the older marketable fish.

2.) A separator panel segregates fish based on their response to stress. One of the most endangered species is cod which, when under stress, will swim down to the sea bed to hide. Other fish, which are in plentiful supply such as haddock and whiting, swim up when under stress. The separator panel splits the trawl in two, with the small mesh in the top half catching the marketable fish and the large mesh in the bottom allowing the cod to swim away, un-hurt.

The nets also limit the environmental impacts of trawling, by raising the nets one metre off the bottom of the sea floor, they protect the delicate sea bed and the ecosystem it supports. This not only protects the trawl itself from damage but also saves on fuel as there is less friction.

The SafteyNet is currently in the testing phase but the ultimate goal is to get SafteyNets on fishing vessels not just in the UK and EU but across the globe. The inventor, Dan Watson, is conscious that for the SafteyNets to be a success they needs to make financial sense for those involved in the fishing industry and is therefore looking at incentives and schemes where the costs are shared between the various players.

Approach 2: community-based supply chain for discarded fishing nets: Net-Works

Another problem deriving from fishing and over-fishing is the quantity of fishing gear (most commonly gillnets and fish traps) abandoned, lost or discarded in the oceans. A report from the United Nations Environment Programme suggests that these nets represent approximately 10% of all marine litter (640,000 tonnes annually). This is of increasing concern due to the following negative impacts. The nets:

drift for many years continuing to catch target and non-target species (such as turtles, seabirds and marine mammals);

damage the delicate ecosystems, become navigational hazards and beach debris;

introduce synthetic material into the marine food web;

transport alien species; and

generate a variety of costs related to clean-up operations and impacts on business activities.

Interface, a global carpet tile manufacturer with a mission to erase all its negative impacts by 2020, together with the Zoological Society of London, an international conservation charity, are combining a commercially viable supply chain while bringing social impacts and ocean and beach conservation benefits. They are working with local fishing communities of the Danajon Bank in the Philippines, a fragile coral reef area, to collect these fishing nets and recycle them into carpets. The project, called Net-Works, gives these discarded fishing nets a value and therefore incentivises communities to organise beach clean-ups and fishermen not to discard them. As well as helping to preserve the ocean and local beaches while providing Interface with an innovative source of recycled materials for its carpet tiles, the project aims at generating funds for the local communities and making a positive difference on their livelihood, given that families' incomes in the area are typically less than £100 a month.

The need for further awareness and innovative solutions

Considering the size of the challenges facing the oceans, more companies need to follow Interface's lead and think about how they can have a positive impact on the oceans. Companies which are currently damaging the oceans and must take responsibility for this and if only for their own survival must re-think their model, adapting to the changing circumstances with innovative and financially viable solutions.

The UK is one of the leading countries in ocean conservation with many charities and other organisations working to protect the oceans every day. Organisations include:

Hugh's Fish Fight: Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall's "Save Our Seas" campaign, fights for more marine conservation zones in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and sustainable fishing techniques. The campaign uses TV shows and celebrities to increase awareness of the issues and to put pressure on the UK government.

Bite-Back: Bite-Back is a shark and marine conservation charity which aims to halt the trade and consumption of vulnerable fish species, promote sustainable fishing, protect ocean habitats and inspire worldwide respect for the marine environment. Bite-Back is working to 'devalue' a dead shark by ending the profit opportunities for all shark and shark-derived products in the UK including shark fin soup, shark cartilage, shark jaws, shark teeth and oils.

Fish2Fork UK: Led by the journalist Charles Clover who wrote the documentary "The End of the Line" to raise awareness on the scale of the over-fishing, the website rates restaurants that serve fish not only for the quality of their food but also for the effect they are having on the seas and on marine life.

Despite the great work of these organisations and others, the majority of the general public are not directly confronted by the problems and are therefore not aware of them (or at least not enough). Stakeholders have not been pressured via market demand to change their behaviour as much as in other sectors (e.g. organic foods, fairtrade products etc.). Therefore, governments, companies and charities need to work together to raise awareness of these issues particularly demanding higher standards for sustainable fishing. This increased awareness will encourage social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to get involved in the plights of the ocean and lead to much greater social innovation and activity in the area.

The activities of SafteyNets, Net-Works and the other organisations are very positive but the lack of awareness means that there is simply not enough activity in this area. The Ocean gives us oxygen and feeds us yet we do very little to protect it. It is only a matter of time before we realise that we are permanently damaging our most valuable asset. Let's hope it is not too late.

Sarah Cragg and Martin Oldenhove are 2012 On Purpose associates. On Purpose is a one-year leadership programme for professionals who want to transition into a social enterprise career. It involves two 6-month work placements in socially-driven organisations, intensive 1:1 support and a world-class business training programme. Martin is currently working at Interface on the Net-Works project.

Source: The Guardian

Image courtesy of Rubulz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)