The High Seas of Switzerland

IUCN WCPA High Seas Specialist Group Research Fellow

This summer I am working with the future implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the high seas. So ~ naturally ~ I found myself up in the Swiss Alps.

I was asked to attend a workshop on the high seas at the IUCN Headquarters in Switzerland and jumped at the opportunity. After a cancelled flight and a bout of jet lag, I rode the SBB train from Nyon to Gland and found myself in a room amongst an international group of high seas experts and specialists. The workshop was centered on area-based management tools in areas beyond national jurisdiction (or ABMT in ABNJ). For two days, we discussed the joint proposal process for future ABMTs, how to ensure the engagement of all stakeholders in these proposals, and the eventual implementation of ABMTs in ABNJ. I quickly picked up the jargon, such as IFBs standing for “institutions, frameworks, and bodies,” and pretty soon I was speaking a vegetable soup of acronyms with the rest of the attendees.

Our workshop took place at the Holcim Think Tank on the top floor of IUCN HQ.
The conference room had beautiful views of the French Alps beyond Lake Geneva and a constant supply of coffee to keep everyone awake amidst the jet lag.

I was able to contribute to the workshop by working with the IUCN team as a notetaker for the workshop report they will be publishing. After engaging with presentations in the main room, we would break out into two different discussion groups to put our heads together answering key questions. For example, we debated on how the High Seas (BBNJ) Treaty should interact with other IFBs and if it should use its own language for ABMTs or adopt the language of other frameworks. After our discussions, I quickly condensed the notes and got the chance to present them to the larger group. Not only did I learn an exponential amount on the future landscape of the high seas when it comes to protected areas, but I was able to meet incredible people who I hope to work alongside in the future.

I presented alongside my colleague, Guillermo, in the High Seas Specialist Group.
We had our final dinner on the IUCN patio – Here I am with Aurelie and Clemente who work with the IUCN.

After the workshop ended, I got to travel around Switzerland for a bit of hiking and spent the night in different mountain huts (see below for some very Swiss photos). Since coming back, I have started interviewing managers of large-scale MPAs for my report and am headed to Oahu soon to meet some of these experts in person. I am incredibly grateful to have had this experience at IUCN in Switzerland and am looking forward to this next phase of interviews!

The first mountain hut I stayed in, nestled under a glacier outside of Grindelwald.
The quintessential Swiss photo featuring a cow with a swinging bell, little yellow flowers, and incredibly stunning views.
The second mountain hut I spent the night at, all the way at the top of Alpstein in the Appenzell Alps.

Sailing for the Sea with Sailors for the Sea

So far, my CBE fellowship with Sailors for the Sea Powered by Oceana (SfS) has been nothing less than amazing. I am working remotely with the team in Newport, Rhode Island, USA, on developing sustainability best practices for sailors and boaters who go offshore.

While I’ve been working remotely, my project has been very hands-on. I’ve been collaborating with the SfS team via video calls to discuss sustainability challenges for offshore sailors. I have been working with SfS on drafting a best practices document for offshore mariners to use while preparing for their crossings and while in transit. The document addresses concerns such as black water disposal, gray water disposal, provisioning to minimize plastic and trash, garbage disposal guidance, recycling and composting practices in different ports, managing oil and fuel leaks, etc.

As an offshore sailor myself, I’ve witnessed the struggles of being sustainable while offshore. I’ve found that while sailors have a deep love for the ocean and a desire to protect it, the strain of being offshore makes it difficult to always adhere to strong sustainability practices. While racing offshore, sailors are often hungry (living off freeze dried food) and exhausted (running on almost no sleep.) We’re battling the elements and survival comes first. When you’re in a situation like that, you won’t pause to think about how to dispose of the apple you just ate, you’ll just throw it overboard. If your boat is filling with water because you’re in heavy seas, you’re not going to think about how to properly dispose of your bilge water, you’ll just throw it overboard.

We want to create sustainability standards that are realistic, effective, and achievable for offshore sailors. If the sustainability standards are too difficult to reasonably adhere to while in the actual situation, there’s always the chance that sailors won’t even bother to try.

In order to make sustainability best practices realistic, we need to evaluate how they actually work in the field. We need to understand what difficulties offshore sailors are facing and what roadblocks exist so we can preempt problems and create effective standards. So, in June, I was captain of a boat in the Annapolis to Newport race and we used the boat as a research platform to evaluate the effectiveness of the first round of our draft of the sustainability best practices.

At the helm during the Annapolis to Newport race with the Sailors for the Sea flag.

We were an all-women, primarily youth team called Leading the Change! Our goal was to be competitive while being as sustainable as we could possibly be based off the sustainability best practices guidelines we’ve been developing at Sailors for the Sea. We provisioned our boat sustainably, buying in bulk to minimize single-use packaging, using silicone bags instead of Ziplocs, minimizing the amount of trash that came on the boat so we could have space to dispose of everything sustainably. We reported which practices were simple and which were difficult to adhere to during the actual race, among other things.

We also wanted to see if offshore sailors could contribute to our understandings of the ocean. We’re trying to determine the best channels for sailors to report marine mammal sightings safely and efficiently, so we can add those channels to the best practices document. We also wanted to determine strategies to document marine debris we see offshore.

The race didn’t go as planned. There was a bad gale sitting just outside the Chesapeake Bay. My team raced 100 nautical miles down the Chesapeake Bay, then I made the call to retire from the race out of safety concerns for the worsening weather conditions. However, it was enough to achieve a lot of sustainability “lessons learned” that I have been working through with Sailors for the Sea to ameliorate our sustainability best practices document. We are currently working on the next draft. We are also working on determining methods to present “what if scenarios” that I have faced in the field to other sailors so they can think and plan accordingly.

I’ve also been informally interviewing sailors on the boats and at the ports to see how they view sustainability, and what challenges they face in being sustainable. One interesting finding I’ve uncovered so far is that there appears to be a myth about aluminum disposal while offshore – many sailors are operating under a shared belief that it’s legal and unharmful to throw aluminum (tinfoil or cans) overboard while offshore. Part of what I’m working on at this moment is researching the laws on this front and the environmental consequences of aluminum in the ocean to raise awareness and educate sailors to the realities of the situation.

I love my work so far and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity. Everyone at Sailors for the Sea has been warm and welcoming. I see the enthusiasm sailors have for wanting to be sustainable, and their fierce desire for guidance on that front. So, I’m excited to see the results of all our work this summer.

A Trip to Costa Rica: Sloths, Sunshine, and Shipping

Three weeks ago, I arrived in San José, Costa Rica, with a backpack full of bug repellant, SPF 50 sunscreen, my SCUBA mask, and a feeling of excitement at the possibility of engaging in a professionally rewarding experience in a beautiful place. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I spent my time doing the background research necessary to travel solo down Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, stopping at coastal towns along the way. My google searches consisted of things like: What are the traffic laws in Costa Rica? How do I ask to fill my car with gas? and Where is the best place to see a sloth? Meanwhile, I was preparing to write a qualitative research paper on the involvement of the shipping sector in the designation of a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) in a biodiversity hotspot off the coast called the “Thermal Dome.” I conducted a literature review, wrote interview questions, and spent weeks thinking about my methodology and data analysis.

The first two weeks of my trip were spent traveling around and enjoying all of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. I stayed at eco-hostels, explored local national parks, met other travelers from around the world, and perfected my concise explanation of “what I was doing in Costa Rica.” Safe to say my reasoning for being there strayed from the average response of “I’m just here to surf” or “I’m just backpacking around Central and South America because…why not?” During those first weeks, I was tested in more ways than one. Driving solo in a foreign country proved intimidating at first, but I soon learned that stop signs are merely a suggestion (as are speed limits), four-wheel-drive is an absolute necessity, and if needed there is always someone willing to help point you in the right direction. My spanish-speaking abilities were tested as well, and I found myself extremely grateful for the months of spanish classes taken at Middlebury College and MIIS.

Dominical Beach

While I had visited Costa Rica in high school, I was still in complete awe of the biodiversity I experienced over those two weeks. I saw sloths (multiple!), monkeys, intimidatingly-large spiders, giant fluorescent butterflies, sea turtles, caimans, toucans, and scarlet macaws. I witnessed firsthand how conscious and appreciative Costa Ricans are toward their wildlife, and how it is considered the country’s greatest resource both for the tourism it generates and its inherent value. On a whale-watching tour, I spoke to the tour guide about the importance of cetaceans in the area and how he has dedicated his life to their protection. My last weekend before returning to San José, I joined a SCUBA trip to Caño Island and within 15 minutes spotted multiple species of tropical fish, an octopus, and several hawksbill turtles. The divemaster explained in detail how to dive without disturbing the wildlife, and once again I could sense why Costa Rica is a world leader in ecotourism and environmental protection.

A three-toed sloth having a snack

At the beginning of my third and final week, I returned to San José and started preparing for the main event of my trip, a conference hosted by MarViva, the organization I am working for. The goal of the conference was to invite stakeholders in the shipping sector from different countries in the region and involve them in the process of designating the Thermal Dome as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) under the jurisdiction of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Representatives from the ministries of transportation from Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala attended the conference to discuss the designation process, provide insight into the shipping sector in their respective country, and discuss the importance of prioritizing environmental protection for a biologically significant area such as the Thermal Dome. By the end of the day, each representative had committed to supporting the initiative of designating the Thermal Dome as a PSSA and spreading awareness of its importance within their countries. While the process could take years, it was clear that this was a necessary first step.

Now back in California, the work of combing through direct observations and transcripts from the conference, interviewing participants, and sending out questionnaires has begun. I will eventually be analyzing all of this data to assess the success of the conference when involving stakeholders in the designation of a PSSA in the Thermal Dome, and these insights will (hopefully) provide guidance for future PSSA designation. Feeling rejuvenated by the Costa Rican sunshine and only partly covered in mosquito bites, I am looking forward to continuing this project.

NbS: Nature-based Solutions alternatively, Notta-bad Summer

Ha noi means between rivers. That was clear when crossing over the bridge from Noi Bai International Airport into the capital of Viet Nam, Hanoi. While the location name of my fellowship was clear, the work I would be doing was less well-defined.

The Terms of Reference outlining the details of the project I would be working on were broad, though intentionally, as the project was just beginning. After a few days of UN onboarding modules, I got settled into a scoping project for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to submit to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) 8.

Read more: NbS: Nature-based Solutions alternatively, Notta-bad Summer

GEF finances projects aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. The UNDP’s GEF8 proposal is looking to harness nature-based solutions (NbS) in the Mekong Delta. These NbS use “soft” or “green” infrastructure to leverage the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people and safeguard a stable and biodiverse future. It has been fun having the time to deep dive and focus on a project that has the potential to become a reality; accessing the tradeoffs and feasibility of different “blue carbon,” coastal and ocean ecosystems, such as mangroves, corals, seagrasses, and mudflats which are all endemic to the region and then synthesizing that information into reports. The proposal feels like the perfect intersection of my Environmental Science bachelors, my International Environmental Policy masters, and past research. In addition to the work, everyone is incredibly welcoming and supportive. It has also been exciting that, in Viet Nam, all of the various UN agencies are in the same office, so stepping into the elevator one can speak (briefly) to someone from UNICEF, UNESCO, FOA, etc. Being in this amalgam has allowed me to participate in UN-wide learning programs, webinars, and events.

I haven’t had too much free time; people here work late! But I’ve explored a bit of Hanoi’s food scene, become obsessed with <3 coconut coffee <3, and last weekend took a trip up to the northern region of Sa Pa. I stayed in a homestay and the two sisters (Mau and Sou) took me trekking through the rice paddies where we saw water buffalo, views of other villages, and some agroforestry with green tea!

All in all the CBE fellowship with the UNDP working on NbS has felt surreal. I’m so grateful that I have this opportunity and look forward to what I will learn the rest of summer. 

Eleanor Bent: Protecting a High-Seas Biodiversity Hotspot

Working remotely from Pacific Grove, California, USA and in-person with teams in El Salvador and Costa Rica
June 1st – August 1st, 2023

Eleanor will join the SARGADOM Project at MarViva this summer in the Costa Rican office. She will further Marviva’s efforts to implement conservation and sustainable management actions for the Thermal Dome, a marine biodiversity hotspot in the high seas —by completing a research project on shipping routes in the context of the new high seas treaty. Her project will consist of interviewing members of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and Comisión Centroamericana de Transporte Marítimo (COCATRAM) to determine perceptions and understanding of how the high seas treaty will influence maritime shipping activities, as well as how these organizations plan to adapt their activities and collaborate. Eleanor will travel to El Salvador and Costa Rica in mid-June to identify stakeholders in both organizations, begin the interview process, and meet with members of Marviva. At the end of her internship, Eleanor will write a research paper summarizing her findings and submit it to be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Hannah Ditty: Blue Carbon and Nature-based Solutions in the Mekong Delta

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Hanoi, Vietnam
June 5th – September 1st, 2023

Coastal ecosystems – mangroves, coral reefs, seagrasses, and tidal marshes – are some of the most productive on Earth. In recent years, their significant role in sequestering and storing ‘blue carbon’ is also increasingly being recognized by policymakers. In addition to mitigation benefits, these coastal ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems are home to a wealth of biodiversity and provide communities with essential ecosystem services, such as coastal protection from storms and land erosion, and nursery grounds for fish. As such, they provide a full spectrum of mitigation, adaptation, and protection benefits. The conservation, protection, restoration, and sustainable management of these important ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems are therefore valuable climate actions, which can be achieved from the application of nature-based solutions (NbS).

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Maya Hoffman: Sailors for the Sea

Sailors for the Sea
Working remotely from Monterey, California, USA with team in Newport, Rhode Island, USA
June 8th – August 24th, 2023

Maya will be working with Sailors for the Sea Powered by Oceana to develop and test sustainability best practices for offshore sailors, including racers, delivery crews, and cruisers. She will be speaking with sailors to determine effective and realistic sustainability practices that will be achievable for sailors, regardless of boat differences, offshore conditions, and port capabilities. She will help sailors test these practices on the water to ultimately develop an official guidance document for boaters everywhere.

Maya is an accomplished sailor herself, check out her “Skippers Corner” blog on the Sailors for the Sea website:

Libby Mohn: High Seas Marine Protected Areas

High Seas Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA)
Working remotely from Monterey, California, USA with teams in San Diego, California & Gland, Switzerland
In-person team meeting in Gland, Switzerland
June 12th – August 11th, 2023

Libby Mohn will be working with the IUCN WCPA’s High Seas Specialist Group (HSSG) this summer to write a report on high seas marine protected areas (MPAs). The purpose of this report will be to aggregate lessons learned from big ocean MPA managers to inform the future establishment of MPAs in the high seas. To complete this, Libby will interview experts in the field regarding three specific case study areas: the Ross Sea MPA in Antarctic waters, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and the Papahānaumokuākea MPA off the coast of Hawaii. Ultimately, the report will focus on the implementation stage of large-scale MPAs (LSMPAs) to help the IUCN WCPA roll out support for MPAs in the high seas and ensure their effectiveness in these large spaces lacking logical governance structures.

Diego Tabilo: Ocean Risk and Resilience

Oceans Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA)
Working remotely from Monterey, California, USA with team in Washington, DC, USA
In-person team meeting in Poole, UK
June 15th – September 15th, 2023

A resilient, Net-Zero, and economically secure world is not possible without a healthy, regenerating ocean. However, one of the planet’s greatest assets is in crisis. Because immediate and scaled action is needed to build resilience to change, the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA) , a multi-stakeholder platform working in ocean finance, aims to drive at least USD$500 million of investment into coastal and ocean nature, positively impacting the resilience of at least 250 million climate vulnerable people in coastal areas around the world. ORRAA is actively engaged in the development and scaling of tools and initiatives that fill this gap.

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