Earlier this month the School of Life Sciences were delighted to welcome Will McCallum, Head of the Greenpeace Ocean Campaigns, to give a talk as part of our School Seminar series. As well as giving an insight into the current Greenpeace campaigns to protect the oceans Will also highlighted the important role that academic research plays in the work Greenpeace does. 

Protecting the Oceans

In their 50 years, Greenpeace has had a long history of working on the oceans, beginning with their anti-nuclear campaigns which were often focused on naval vessels and their popular 'Save the Whales' movement in the mid-70s. The organisation are currently working on the goal of protecting at least 30% of our oceans by 2030 (30X30), which involves a focus on improving ocean governance as well as consolidating various areas of marine research which they are either directly involved in or support universities to carry out. 

Working with other campaign groups, global governments and scientists, Greenpeace is looking to establish a Global Ocean Treaty to create a collective response and governance of the oceans which are currently managed by various entities in a piecemeal manner. The status quo allows for a wealth of illegal activities to take place, produces an incoherent response to problems and leaves some areas of the oceans with no representation at all.  

As Will stated in his talk, the Global Ocean Treaty will help produce a “global commons” of the oceans which everyone can access fairly and equally, as well as addressing global issues, in particular the climate crisis. The treaty has wide support across governments and cross-country bodies, such as the UN, but still faces obstacles particularly from powerful lobbying groups.

The role of research

To achieve their goals Greenpeace works closely with scientists from around the world. Research science is a backbone to Greenpeace's work, providing a basis for their campaigns and highlighting areas that need attention. 

Greenpeace is also actively involved in conducting its own research. Recently, they completed the Marine Research Program, designed with the University of Exeter, which collected data during an expedition between the Arctic and Antarctic. This research involved acoustic monitoring for whale and dolphin populations and molecular monitoring for high profile vertebrate species, helping to demonstrate the connectivity of oceans and support the need for the Global Ocean Treaty.

Science for change

Greenpeace often use the results of such research programmes to promote change, lobbying governments to highlight the urgency of the underlying problems. Often the programmes are selected for their attractiveness to the media to help broadcast the issues more widely. 

Recent areas Greenpeace has focused on have included microplastics in the Sargasso Sea, biodiversity of the Amazon Reef and the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins. They are currently targeting the prevalence of illegal fishing in the Northern Indian Ocean, where largescale unregulated fishing is taking place. 

By monitoring and documenting the scale of the issue, Greenpeace strengthen their argument for the need to address the critical gaps in ocean governance which their Treaty looks to answer. 

Controversial actions

Greenpeace is primarily a campaign group and sometimes feel they need to choose to resort to methods which are more immediate, rather than relying solely on scientific research which can be a slow process. Often these actions will prompt intense criticism, not only from the industries it effects but from the wider scientific community. 

Recently, Greenpeace resorted to direct action by dropping boulders in the North Sea which was claimed to deter illegal fishing or fishing in areas they felt should be protected. The environmental group have insisted it will cause no damage to wildlife but will stop trawlers fishing the seabed, for example in the Dogger Bank area. 

However, many have strongly disagreed with this action and its purposes, asserting that in some of the areas fishing was not yet illegal and Greenpeace were believed to be acting against the OSPAR convention, an international convention to protect the environment. The organisation are now under investigation by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) for this action. Furthermore, marine biologists have raised concerns that these actions make it more difficult to develop trust with coastal and fishing communities for co-production of lasting marine conservation measures which our seas so desperately need.

The need for young scientists

While acknowledging that these controversial activities may deter many early career scientists, Will encouraged any young scientists interested in the work Greenpeace does to get in touch with them to help further the research needed to protect the environment. 

Will was keen to emphasise the space for youth in the organisation. Youth involvement is needed for their Ocean Governance campaign and there is an important role that early career scientists could play in Greenpeace's research. The group are keen to attract more young scientists to work with them and diversify their voice in this period of massive environmental change. 

The School of Life Sciences provides a number of courses in Marine Biology, at all levels, for anyone interested in pursuing study in this field. If you'd like to hear more about ocean management, and research working to protect them, on April 15th we will be joined by Dr Bryce Stewart from the University of York to discuss his research into turning the tide on threats to the oceans.