A minor revolution is underway in the wildlife conservation arena. It is one that could put a spring back into the weary gait of many a battle-scarred eco warrior. The creation of a new charity, Sea Life Trust.
There is one man for whom it has already brought about a noticeable lift of the shoulders and slowed the rate of hair loss. This is 47-year-old professional fundraiser Andy Bool (above left with Shark Trust’s Ali Hood).
Andy has spent a decade of trying to part individuals and businesses from their cash. This was to help finance the work of leading marine conservation charities. However, those same charities and many others are now hammering on Andy’s own door.
The Sea Life Trust, a Brand New Charity
That is because, a little over 18 months ago, he was handed a metaphorical honey pot. He was appointed head of a brand new charity The Sea Life Trust.
After scrapping for every penny in his former fundraising roles with WDC (Whale & Dolphin Conservation) and the Marine Conservation Society…now he is gleefully signing cheques.
(Above: Chris Brown from Weymouth Sealife Park who is working with the cyanide fishing testing scheme.)
The biggest donation so far was £50, 000 to help WDC fire devastating salvos at the remnants of the whaling industry. The Shark Trust’s ‘No Limits’ campaign called for an end to unlimited shark fishing in EU waters. It benefited to the tune of £10, 000.
There have been sizeable donations too, for a German project to combat marine litter (€15k); a US marine sanctuary project ($25k), flatback sea turtle conservation efforts in Australia ($10k); a project to help eradicate the use of cyanide in fish collection in Asia (€8, 697) …and many more.
Like any other charity, The Sea Life Trust depends on donations.
Unlike any other however, it has the world’s leading aquarium chain and its owner Merlin Entertainments – the second biggest operator in the leisure industry – squarely behind it.
Merlin Makes the Difference
Merlin has already chipped in a full day’s income from its UK Sea Life chain – more than £60, 000. Staff costs have also been covered by a Sea Life donation.
The company has gone further, and funded special interactive exhibitions showcasing the Trust’s campaigns at its centres in Brighton and Berlin.
Visitors happily make donations to the Sea Life Trust by attempting to steer their coins past a gauntlet of fishing nets in one of the exhibits. In another have their pictures taken as they make a pledge to stop using plastic bags. They pledge to only buy sustainably caught fish or to alter their habits in some other way to the benefit of the marine world.
“In cash resource terms the Sea Life Trust is still relatively small. This is when compared to some of the giants of the conservation world like WWF and Greenpeace, ” said Andy.
“But while cash is important, the Sea Life Trust’s greatest asset is its access to a huge audience of people. These people are inspired by seeing what lies underneath the surface of the sea on their visit to a Sea Life Centre.
“I want to take this inspiration and engagement and turn it into positive action to protect our marine environment for future generations.
“In Sea Life visitors we have a potential movement of more than 20 million activists to mobilise in support of our campaigns.”
20 Million Potential Supporters
This would be music to the ears of the entrepreneurial marine biologists who opened the first Sea Life centre in Oban, Scotland, in 1979. They were motivated at least as much by their love of the marine world and a desire to share that passion as they were by a desire for profit.
Successive management teams did their best. The network gradually expanded to its current strength of 50 centres across the world. The teams tried to honour that heritage by giving something back to the seas.
Under a succession of banners – SeaWatch; the Conservation and Welfare Bureau; Save our Seas – Sea Life campaigned to improve the prospects of sharks, sea turtles, seahorses, whales and more.
In the process it notched up real, tangible achievements to compliment the educational and awareness-raising aspects of its aquarium businesses.
Real, tangible achievements
It raised the funds to build a sea turtle conservation centre in Zakynthos, Greece (above). A film-crew was sent to Nova Scotia to gather damning evidence on the brutality of the harp seal cull. It helped block a move to overturn the moratorium on whaling. It successfully petitioned the EU to reduce fishing quotas on threatened species. Also to improve protective measures for sea turtle nest beaches and to outlaw shark-finning on boats in EU waters. The list goes on and on.
Some of its attractions have rescue and rehab’ operations. These care for and return to the wild more than 200 injured, sick or orphaned seals and sea turtles each year.
When Sea Life took over the old Brighton Aquarium in 1990, it swiftly entered into partnership with a national newspaper and the Born Free Foundation to send the Aquarium’s resident dolphins Missie and Silver (below) back to the wild in the Caribbean.
Bridging the Credibility Gap
“Many NGOs acknowledge the value of Sea Life’s environmental work. However, the more cynical incline to the view that attaining more respectability for its commercial side is the real motive, ” said Andy.
“It was partly to bridge that credibility gap that Merlin and Sea Life took the unprecedented step of launching a separate conservation charity, ” he added.
Though working for another well-known marine NGO at the time, Andy was quick to spot the potential.
“I am sure I was not alone in recognising the opportunity that access to Sea Life’s 20-million-plus visitors presented, ” he said.
Strengthening the Trust’s Supporter Network
In his short time at the helm Andy’s endeavours to grow and strengthen the Trust’s supporter network have had an embarrassingly adverse impact on his carbon footprint.
“In the longer term I will be keeping travel to minimum, ” he said. “But winning over hearts and minds from the outset means meeting people face to face.”
Hence one expedition to Australia and New Zealand to review a host of conservation and rescue projects championed by Sea Life’s antipodean outposts.
(Left: Rescuing hooked and net entangled grey nurse sharks is one of the activities supported by the Trust in Australia.)
He has also been to Germany to hear funding appeals from green charities there. Whilst there he was also able to inspire the teams at Germany’s eight Sea Life centres.
Similar missions have taken him to Greece and France. In time he will visit more than 10 other countries which host Sea Life centres.
The Sea Life Trust and Local Conservation
Many of those centres already run their own local conservation initiatives. One example is the rearing of captive bred European pond turtles for re-introduction to Germany’s famous River Rhine. Another is cleaning up Birmingham’s canals to encourage the return of otters.
Andy has just announced £75, 000 of Trust funds that Centres can apply for. This will support more local habitat and wildlife protection projects.
As he sifts through the applications he often recalls the day 12 years ago when he and his wife were off the coast of the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina. They watched spellbound, as mother and calf Southern right whales surfaced and passed by within 20 feet of them.
It was literally a life-changing encounter. Prior to the trip Andy had been with children’s charity Unicef for four years, but soon after his return he joined instead the ‘major giving team’ at WDC (now known simply as Whale & Dolphin Conservation).
The Need to Act Now
The die was cast.
Andy’s and the Trust’s big project for 2016 is to help pave the way for more areas of our seas and oceans to be designated ‘protected areas.’
“It’s a perfect example of how the Trust can be more effective by utilising the willing support of the Sea Life network, ” he said.
“At the moment less than 2% of the world’s ocean is protected. A recent WWF report highlighted that populations of marine species have halved since the 1970s.
“Increased exploitation of our seas coupled with inadequate protection means that if we don’t act now we stand to lose so much more.”
Protecting the Marine Environment for Future Generations
In the UK each coastal Sea Life centre will champion the marine area nominated for protected status that is closest to them.
“They can appeal directly to their visitors to support the nomination. They can also be a hub for gatherings of all the relevant stakeholders from yacht owners and fishermen to marine industries.
“The Government meets to decide how many of the 34 new proposed protected areas to approve in 2017. By then we will have generated such a groundswell of support they will be less inclined to refuse any of them.”
In the US meanwhile, the Sea Life Trust – with the help of the American Sea Life centres – will lobby Obama to designate one more significant marine protected area in US waters before he leaves office.
Its Australian arm is targeting a national network of 25 marine reserves and a new marine protected area off New South Wales.
In his role as Head of the Sea Life Trust, Andy is now more confident than ever that his eight-year-old daughter will have the chance to enjoy exciting marine wildlife discoveries in years to come…and with luck, her own children too.
Images kind courtesy The Sea Life Trust and Sea Life/Merlin Entertainments