The ocean faces many problems that we as a society are responsible for. Enthusiasts in Europe and around the world are finding new ways to raise public awareness while creating career opportunities for young people willing to help. That's what this Ocean episode is about.
Snorkeling with instruction in Malta
Every year millions of beach lovers visit Malta in the Mediterranean. A group of snorkelers in Qawra, Malta are not just here for fun. "Today we celebrate the Med Coast Day, our beautiful Mediterranean Sea. We will go on a guided snorkeling trip," said the Malta National Aquarium education officer, welcoming the participants.
Take a free tour of the Maltese National Aquarium, learning about the local marine life and its importance to humans. If you add a bit of education to snorkeling, it's twice as much fun, is the motto.
"Personally, I like this area very much," says Thais Amaral from the National Aquarium. "There are some spots here with Posidonia oceanica, the scientific name for a species also known as Neptune Grass. It's called the lungs of the Mediterranean. It produces a lot of oxygen and is home to a variety of species. And not only that , it also prevents erosion.",
One participant says it was her first time snorkeling with a guide. "So I actually knew what I was looking at instead of just going out and looking at the fish." Also, some rubbish will also be collected on the tour, some hooks, plastic bags to carry a message: if we see rubbish, we'll take it with us.
We need more ocean literacy
Such actions target a fundamental problem: the public does not seem to know enough about the ocean to want to help. According to Professor Alan Deidun, the Maltese Sea Ambassador, most people are emotionally disconnected from the sea, it seems big and far away. But committed campaigns can help bridge this gap.
"Europe has a blue growth strategy that aims to generate more economic activity from the sea. But we need to make sure that this is done in a sustainable way. And one way is to provide more knowledge about the sea, not just for the ordinary citizens, but also for policy makers, because you would be amazed at how little some of them know about it," said Maltese Ambassador to the Ocean Alan Deidun.
The promotion of ocean competence is the goal of the European Ocean Coalition EU4Ocean, which is supported by the EU. It brings together different organisations, projects and people who are looking for new ways to raise public awareness, develop educational programmes, put ocean literacy at the top of the political agenda and into the public debate.
The most important lesson is to involve people and to make them aware at an early stage what the sea means for our livelihoods and our future, agrees Malta's Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia. Former EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritimes and Fisheries Karmenu Vella asks: "How can it be that we are not knowledgeable enough and not committed enough to stand up for the greatest good on the planet that we all depend on, children, students , media people, politicians, decision makers, everyone?
#MakeEUBlue – preserving the beauty of the seas
Local festivals like Coastal Days are a way to reach people – especially children, who enjoy learning about marine food chains through play. At the European level, EU4Ocean promotes sea literacy in schools, supports youth projects and engages the general public with the #MakeEUBlue campaign. Exhibitions in museums, art centers and aquariums can also draw attention to the issue.
"There is nothing in the world that actually breaks down plastic. It becomes small, tiny particles, so it becomes microplastics. Because fishing nets are made of plastic, they stay there forever, so they will continue fishing forever," said Thais Amaral of the Malta National Aquarium.
"The sea is in trouble and unfortunately people are not aware of it. One of the most important messages that I think aquariums and zoos should spread is to raise awareness about the sea. You can see all the beauty there, the amazing animals . But at the same time we have to do something about it, especially for the younger generations. Love it or find it amazing – if you don't fight for it, it will all be over very, very soon."
Dream job: Sailing on the sea and helping the environment at the same time
In Den Helder in the Netherlands, a social enterprise offers motivated young women and men a maritime career: have the opportunity to gain sailing experience for a whole year – and still earn a salary.
The Sea Ranger Service was founded in 2016 by Dutch conservationist Wietse Van Der Werf. "The maritime industry has a problem finding young people, young talent. How can we inspire and motivate young people to choose a maritime career? One possibility is that they start as sea rangers."
The Sea Rangers are all under the age of 30 and spend around half of each month on board. For a year, they learn theory—from marine cartography to operating engines—while working on marine conservation tasks. "They take on all the tasks related to research, management and the restoration of nature at sea," says Wietse Van Der Werf.
"My friend told me about the Sea Ranger service and I was thrilled. The team is really special, it feels a bit like family. And I'm learning a lot because sailing was completely new to me," reports the young Sea Ranger Nina Hubers.
With only a few spots available each year, becoming a Sea Ranger is quite a challenge. Candidates must pass a boot camp led by military veterans. Team building, personal development and survival techniques are on the program.
Sea Rangers want to expand, jobs are to be created in several countries
The sea rangers provide paid services for Dutch authorities, surveying protected areas or taking water samples to monitor the state of the sea. The company has built its business model to be sustainable, reducing youth unemployment while helping the environment. It plans to grow internationally with a franchising model and aims to train 20,000 young people to work in the maritime sector by 2040, according to CEO Wietse Van Der Werf.
"People from some countries, mainly France, Spain and Greece around the Mediterranean, but also Estonia, Finland and Poland around the Baltic Sea, are saying, 'Hey, there's a model that can potentially make a difference here.' We are in advanced discussions with some to see if we can implement the model there.”
The sea is facing growing challenges – from pollution and overexploitation of resources to climate change. The hope is that the more people know about these issues, the more they will take matters into their own hands to change them.