Why sailors should fall in love to save the worlds oceans! An interview with Fredrik Myhre of the WWF

A diver shines a light on underwater pollution. Photo by: Fredrik Myhre / WWF-Norway

A diver shines a light on underwater pollution. Photo by: Fredrik Myhre / WWF-Norway

Never before have so many cruising yachts made their way into the higher latitudes such as Norway, Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland. Judging by the numbers from a survey in this magazine, around half of you reading this are planning to set sail for the high north soon. With high latitudes cruising comes responsibilities and we are all going to be held accountable for how we treat this part of the world by future generations. 

As we are about to learn in this interview with Fredrik Myhre, a Senior Advisor for Fisheries and Marine Conservation in the World Wildlife Foundation, it is now up to each and every one of us to make a difference. And what we need the most, according to Myhre, is to fall in love!

Interview by Daniel Novello, Editor of Scandinavian Mariner Magazine

First of all, thanks for talking to us! Scandinavian Mariner Magazine, as you know, believes the whole idea of cruising and adventure is worthless without clean and healthy oceans.

According to the United Nations, climate change is now affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives, costing people, communities and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow. Are there any good news on the horizon?

Climate change is affecting us all. We are now also really starting to see some of the direct consequences, with longer periods of draught in various places on earth, the increase of stormy weather and massive deaths of important living areas such as coral reefs. 

The good news is that we know and understand what is causing many of these changes. And we also see a shift in the global politics, especially after the Paris Agreement in 2016. If we are to save the ocean – and thereby also ourselves – we need to see the a global rescue package for the ocean.

WWF wants to see the establishment of a global fund that must contribute to solve the increasing ocean temperature and ocean acidification, both caused by the human emissions of greenhouse gases. The fund must also help to tackle the rapidly increasing pollution of the ocean and the huge overfishing that takes place globally. Getting more ocean areas of significant importance protected and safeguarded are key in this work.

Fredrik Myhre. Photo by: WWF-Norway

Fredrik Myhre. Photo by: WWF-Norway

Recently, scientists in Norway found more than 30 plastic bags and other plastic waste inside the stomach of a whale stranded off the coast. The news spread quickly around the world and made plastic the culprit of the seas. How serious is the threat from plastic in the marine environment and how does it affect the food chain upwards?

- Plastic is slowly choking the oceans. The ever-growing plastic monster in the sea is one of the main threats for life in the ocean as we know it. And the problems plastic are already causing are severe. Every year at least 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. That equals the weight of 100 million people if we say that the average weight is 80 kilo. That’s the same as the population of Italy and Spain combined. And remember this is just one year of plastic ending up in the ocean.

According to science, if we do not change the way we produce, use and dispose plastic, we are going to have more plastic in the ocean by 2050 than fish (in weight). That’s is simply mind-blowing – and scary. The plastic is entering the food chain at all levels, and do affect all living animals in the ocean. All the way from the smallest of animal planktons to the biggest of whales. 

Goal number 14 listed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals reads: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”. We believe sailors visiting Scandinavian waters should act as examples to all mariners. What concrete measures should a sailing family from Europe take when sailing to The Nordic Region?

- It is quite simple; make sure to throw your plastic in a safe place and not in the ocean. A trash bin with lid does nicely. Do not throw plastic in the toilet neither. Q-tips, contact lenses and sanitary products all belong in the trash bin, not the toilet. Also if you see some pieces of plastic floating on the surface or laying at the beach you are visiting – and you definitely will – pick it up and take it to a functioning trash bin

Fishing boats in the North of Norway. Photo by: Fredrik Myhre / WWF-Norway

Fishing boats in the North of Norway. Photo by: Fredrik Myhre / WWF-Norway

How are the Nordic Countries coming along in reaching the Goal 14 targets and which countries are better than us?

- I hope we will see the Nordic countries as global champions for the oceans both through national implementation and global action in the coming years.

All though the Nordic countries are doing good in many areas, there is still a long way to go in order to reach the Goal 14 targets. The targets include sustainably managing all fisheries, halting pollution and protecting 10% of all marine areas, all fundamental for developing a sustainable blue economy, but still far from reached in the Nordics. 

There has been uplifting news from Sweden the last years with an increase in the efforts for marine protection including surpassing the target of protecting 10% of marine areas. Norway, on the other hand, is far behind with only 2% at the moment, despite the large areas of global ecological importance in need of protection in Norwegian waters.

There is increased Nordic cooperation in the area of marine littering. The joint Nordic Beach Cleanup Day last year was a great success and will be repeated this year. 

On the global stage, I hope the Nordic countries can take a leading role for the health of the oceans. Sweden was one of the co-organizers of the first UN Oceans Conference last year, while Norway has been championing the marine litter issue at the United Nations Environment Assembly. However, I hope to see the Nordics coming closer together and work jointly to establish a global ocean fund to finance sustainable management of the ocean across the globe and to get in place a new international binding agreement on marine litter and microplastics. 

The North Atlantic and the Arctic are in the international spotlight, because of geopolitical interests and potential enormous reserves of oil and gas. The region is  also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Why is this area of the world so important to preserve?

- Yes, it is correct that we see a significant increase of interest for oil and gas exploration in the North Atlantic and in the Barents Sea and the Arctic especially.  These are often areas which are much more sensitive to both the regular operations of the petroleum industry and potential acute oil spills than for example existing areas in the North Sea.

Important spawning areas for fish, vulnerable ecosystems including deep-water coral reefs, sponge societies and sea pen colonies and the abundance and variety of seabirds and marine mammals makes the northern waters even more important to safeguard from disturbing and devastating human activities. The richness of life these waters provide does also support some of the biggest and most important fisheries in the world. It is really important that we do not jeopardize these important renewable resources for some short-term oil and gas income. 

A cod eating a herring. Photo by: Daniel Novello

A cod eating a herring. Photo by: Daniel Novello

And to put it all into an even bigger picture; if the world are to be successful in reaching the climate targets made in the Paris agreement, then the arctic oil and gas must be left in the ground going forward. The rich and clean ocean areas do also provide fantastic experiences for the ones that are lucky enough to pay these oceans a visit. The cold waters of the north are really an adventure. 

According to WWFs Living Planet report, we have over the past 40 years seen a reduction of almost 40% of living organisms in the oceans. That seems pretty dramatic. How does this affect the oceans ecosystems?

- Yes, over the last 40 years we have seen a loss of 36% of the life in the ocean. We do not know the full consequences of this continuous loss yet, but we know quite a lot. We see that coral reef systems are being overgrown by algea and die due to overfishing of the large predators such as sharks.

Let me explain; the loss of the big fishes are making the middle sized fishes more abundant. These middle sized fishes eats a lot of the important grazers (fish that eats algea) which are keeping the corals clean and healthy. 

Much of the loss of life is also directly linked to the loss of living areas (also called habitats) in the ocean. We see that 75% of the worlds coral reefs are under threat. The reefs covers only 0.1% of the ocean, but more than 25% of all marine species live in coral reefs. That says a lot of how important these coral are to the ecosystems – and to us humans. The reefs are dying in huge numbers and places that used to be blooming gardens now are left behind as wastelands.

The lush underwater world. Photo by: Fredrik Myhre / WWF-Norway

The lush underwater world. Photo by: Fredrik Myhre / WWF-Norway

We also see the same for areas which used to have thriving mangrove forest or green and healthy seagrass meadow. 20% of the mangrove forest globally is gone and 30% of the seagrass meadows. This again have huge effects on the species in those areas. The fish populations in the seagrass areas for example have had a dramatic decline of over 70% between 1970 and 2010.

Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer and scientist reported from the RA II expedition in 1970 that they found masses of oil in various sizes on the surface in the Atlantic Ocean. His findings were reported to the UN and led to the ban of dumping of waste oil in the seas in 1972. It seems to us that the oceans were used as dumping grounds for all sorts of rubbish and waste before. And still is, apparently. Why does it take so long to act on climate issues in your opinion?

- It seems like we humans never learn, and history often repeats itself. We do have a lot of the facts and the knowledge about what the consequences of our actions are and will be in the future, but still it’s often the short term economic profit that drives countries and companies. The best example is maybe the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, who withdraws his country from the Paris Agreement only to push for a significant increase in exploration of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). Luckily, other big nations do have a significant push in the right direction and have started developing and using renewable energy in a scale like never before. China is a good example in this case.

The UN recently announced the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) to mobilise the scientific community, policy-makers, business and civil society around a programme of joint research and technological innovation. What is WWFs strategy for the next decade and what are your predictions when it comes to solving some of the major challenges?

- We need to get a global financing mechanism for the ocean in place. This is crucial for funding the efforts to sustainably manage all fisheries, stop pollution and littering, protect the key ecosystems and reduce the impacts of ocean acidification and temperature increase in developing countries. 

Then we need a new international binding agreement for marine litter and microplastics with concrete reduction targets for all countries. 

The world agreed to have a global zero tolerance ambition for discharge of plastic into the oceans at the United Nations Environment Assembly in December 2017. This is a game changer and it is now up to national and local governments to follow up on this. It is also an attractive challenge to the private sector as businesses can set their own zero discharge targets, developing new business models and practices on the way to achieving it. I am looking forward to see this happening with some of the large producers and users of plastic.

Plastic waste found on a beach in southern Norway. Photo by: Daniel Novello

Plastic waste found on a beach in southern Norway. Photo by: Daniel Novello

Overall, I have to be positive on behalf of the oceans. There is no other option than to succeed in saving the ocean as we know it. Yes, the ocean is under pressure like never before in human history, but people start seeing and understanding the crucial role healthy oceans have for life on earth and for our own existence. With increasing pressure from citizens, governments and businesses will have to act to solve the large challenges the oceans are currently facing. 

I think we will also see a more active private sector engaging in sustainability and marine conservation. The oceans represent vast business opportunities, but only if they are healthy and managed sustainably.

We like the principle of “think global and act local”. We are playing with the idea of producing a sticker that every foreign yacht receives when they enter a Nordic or Scandinavian port. If you could write down ten "commandments" for cruising in the higher latitudes; what would you write?

- The principal of “think global and act local” is a really good principle. If we did every small thing correctly, we would have had fewer large problems in the world. It all starts with you and me. And everybody – and by that I mean actually everybody – can make an significant impact towards a more sustainable future. 

Ten commandments for Cruising in the Higher Latitudes

  1. Do not throw garbage in the ocean.
  2. Do not throw cotton buds, contact lenses, cigarette butts, etc. in the toilet. It ends up in the ocean. 
  3. Do a beach clean up at a local beach you are visiting.
  4. Reduce your CO2 emissions by always using shore power when available.  
  5. Do not disturb wildlife in the Arctic.
  6. Always observe wildlife on the animal’s terms. Let the animals approach you, not the other way around.
  7. Download and use WWF-Norway’s Seafood Guide if you want to have seafood for dinner. Choosing species with “Green light” is always the right choice for the environment.
  8. Always report to the local authorities if you come across environmental hazards. 
  9. Always obey the national and/or regional laws and legislations when spending time in nature.
  10. Share your experiences of the Northern wilderness with the world and be an ambassador to safeguard this vulnerable, valuable and magical place.
A quiet afternoon in Norway. Photo by: Daniel Novello

A quiet afternoon in Norway. Photo by: Daniel Novello

Climate change is being addressed with campaigns, communications and legislation. Long distance sailors in particular have always appreciated that the worlds oceans are the last place on the planet where you can roam in complete freedom. Many are now worried that, especially the vulnerable higher latitudes such as the Arctic, will fall to tougher regulations and legislations. What could the maritime leisure boat industry and its users do to counteract what would be seen as restrictions to sail wherever they want?

- Firstly, anyone who enters the ocean by sailing, scuba diving, swimming and so on, must acknowledge and accept that we humans are only a visitor to this majestic and magical place. Our use must never result in significant harm to species, living areas or sustainable communities. This is especially important to take into account when entering in to more “untouched” nature areas such as the Arctic. It isn’t so that the ocean is our playground and we can do what we want with it. The ocean is first and foremost the home of a huge variety of fish, marine mammals, seabirds and invertebrates. That being said, if we always try to keep our negative footprint to a minimum, the Arctic is quite an adventure – that I wish everybody could see and experience first-hand. 

If we are to safeguard this unique place from the effects of climate change, the activity of oil and gas exploration, overfishing an so on, we need to get people to fall in love with this place. Someone smarter than me once said “people only protect what they love”. And this is true. We need to get more people to fall in love with the Arctic nature and the beautiful and lifegiving nature it holds. 

Thanks, Fredrik, it was a pleasure and quite an enlightening experience to hear what you and the WWF have to say on this very important matter.

We call upon all cruisers who are planning on heading north to the higher latitudes the coming season to pay attention to the 10 "rules" mentioned in the article. We believe that is a great start! And we also cherish the idea of more people falling in love with the higher latitudes as we already are!

If you have ideas on how sailing can become more sustainable, please write us or leave a comment on Facebook