A social enterprise based in Europe is rocking the boat with a new approach that could greatly increase the level of real-time ocean protection. Starting it hasn’t been without its challenges, but the effort is now gathering momentum in some of the most unlikely quarters.

It has been an exciting few years in ocean conservation. Multiple new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been announced and there is growing awareness of the effects of plastic pollution and climate change. For those of us working in the ocean space over the last two decades, it is great to witness an ocean revolution.

There is, however, a problem. NGOs and scientists have been so effective at pressing for better protection that the 11,827 strong network of so-called MPAs that have been duly created are now primarily conserved on paper. Research published in Nature concludes that only nine per cent of MPAs have adequate staffing levels and resources to be managed properly. At the moment, the legacy of the environmental movement is at risk of only working on paper.

Ocean Unite, Sea Rangers

Training staff and operating ships at sea is hugely capital-intensive and few governments are willing – or able – to implement comprehensive management plans with dedicated ships. Add to this the need for knowledge on how to finance, build and operate ships professionally and few NGOs would have the capacity to play a role. The inspiration for developing a workable solution came from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was launched by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. He mobilised three million unemployed young men to set up 800 national parks in only nine years, which proved a powerful example of simultaneously tackling unemployment whilst also restoring biodiversity.

In 2018, our first Sea Ranger ship set sail across the North Sea. The success of the CCC was our inspiration to manage MPAs, with high rates of youth unemployment in coastal areas around the world becoming a driver for change. We organised a bootcamp which offered five weeks of basic maritime training in which young people gained entry-level maritime qualifications. Following the bootcamp and training, some were selected as Sea Rangers and offered direct employment. Coached by military veterans, the structure and discipline resulted in a professional maritime ranger service – the first of its kind in the world.

Ocean Unite, Sea Rangers

Being trained as a Sea Ranger acts as a stepping stone towards a maritime career. We now train unemployed young people from coastal communities in the Netherlands and use special sailing ships to increase capacity for MPA protection. Daily work includes monitoring, taking samples to research plastic pollution, meteorological observations and wildlife surveys. The work is combined with commercial tasks such as light maintenance work in seaweed farms, visual inspection tasks and surveying with underwater cameras.

We have been able to run the Sea Ranger Service as a social enterprise, diversifying our income streams and working along a financially sustainable business model that is no longer reliant on government subsidies and donations. The blue economy, as the growing ocean economy has become known, is believed to be expanding more rapidly over the next 15 years than the overall global economy. It is for this reason that we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of working towards a sustainable future for the ocean.

While we currently operate our first vessel, we have a second one under construction. We have also developed a franchise model with the expectation that Sea Ranger Services will have been established in at least four  countries by 2024, expanding to a total of 12 countries globally by 2030.

Launching this initiative has not been without its challenges. The capital-intensive nature of building ships, establishing new training standards in a highly regulated industry and the risks of operating ships at sea, have provided plenty of obstacles. However, as a team, we pressed on. We now operate the first certified sailing ship to carry out commercial work in the offshore services industry.

The type of sailing work vessel we have developed emits on average 95 per cent less CO2 and is 30 per cent cheaper to operate compared to a motorized ship of similar size. This makes for a strong business proposition. We anticipate this will enable us to deploy 40 per cent of the sea time of each Sea Ranger vessel for commercial work, while 60 per cent of the year the vessel can work to support conservation of the most biodiversity-rich areas in the world – at very low cost.

With the Sea Ranger Service we have managed to change the narrative. The message is no longer only about the need to protect our ocean – of course that is the case – but in order to gather the support from those that can actively help to fund, contract and build up crucial MPA management capacity, the story is also focused on tackling unemployment, creating ship building jobs, training young people for a maritime career and supporting veterans in the process.

Ocean Unite, Sea Rangers

Our partners are now port authorities, local councils, banks, employment agencies, consultancy firms, maritime companies and private investors, which all back the Sea Ranger Service in growing numbers. It is our mission to increase the real-time management of the world’s existing MPAs from 9 per cent to 35 per cent within 30 years. In 2017 we made a commitment at Our Ocean to launch the Sea Ranger Service and scale it internationally. I am proud to report that we are on course to achieve just that. 

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.