Data-driven activism

Hugo Tagholm has previously led the ocean campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage and is the executive director and vice president of Oceana in the UK. In this column, he emphasises the importance of data-driven activism to protect the ocean.

Words by Hugo Tagholm
Photograph by PickPik


We have all seen the placards, sloganed surfboards, loudhailers, chanting, and marches in major capital cities, on coastlines, and in our seas. The frontline of ocean activism that so often makes the news headlines. The passion, the outrage, the energy and the optimism that drives so many environmentalists spilling out noisily onto the streets to challenge policymakers, businesses, failing legislation and corporate blue-wash. Demonstrations and actions unite an authentic and growing community that recognises the urgent need to protect Planet Ocean. A community that understands that a prosperous and stable future depends on protecting nature. People who recognise that our choice cannot be protecting the environment or protecting the economy and jobs. One that recognises that to protect the economy we must protect the environment we depend on, in every corner of the world.

Some sections of society try to dismiss these demonstrations as a radical and underinformed fringe of society – out of touch with science, out of touch with politics and policy, and misrepresenting reality. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the real dangerous radicals exist in institutions and businesses consistently ignoring the latest data, undermining ironclad science, and trying to maintain the profitability of the status quo at the expense of the health of people and planet. There is more evidence than ever before spotlighting the need for both progressive environmental policy and action.

It is emerging science and data that they are increasingly scared of. Irrefutable evidence of the need for another way. We see this growing trend across myriad ocean issues. Real-time data on sewage spills into UK rivers and seas is being used to drive the highly charged campaign to reform the water industry. Hundreds of thousands of sewage spills have been exposed by technology, leaving no place to hide for industry fat cats and ineffective regulators. New data on water user health has also added pressure – including the potentially terrifying risks of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria. It was relatively recent technology and science that has helped expose this scandal, and it was the relentless pursuit of this evidence by ocean campaigners that revealed the water industry scam. Hidden for decades, the sewage scandal is a powerful example of data-driven ocean activism.

Technology is also evolving exponentially, helping deliver ever more innovative and inspiring ways to tackle ocean issues and environmental crime. Satellite technology and artificial intelligence are being applied at ever greater speed to solve some of our biggest challenges. From climate change to destructive fishing, from industrial methane releases to oil spills, new technology is providing the irrefutable evidence that supports the position and passion of the activists. Big Industry is weak in the face of the facts. There are fewer and fewer places for corporations to hide the impact they have on people and the planet.

Satellite technology revealed the extent of destructive industrial fishing taking place within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Last year, UK offshore MPAs were subjected to over 33,000 hours of suspected bottom trawling, according to analysis of satellite tracks by Oceana. Bottom-trawl nets can be as large as a football field and weigh several tonnes, and the practice can decimate UK habitats vital for marine health, such as kelp forests and seagrass meadows. It also has an extremely high rate of bycatch. Despite this, it is permitted in almost all of the UK’s MPAs even many of those designated specifically to protect rare and important seabed species. It is new technology, science, and data that is driving public anger and front-line ocean activism on this issue in countries around Europe.

Satellite technology is also exposing the devastation Big Oil is inflicting on marine ecosystems – routine oil spills and pollution that were previously hidden out of sight, far offshore, are now being systematically tracked and reported. No longer out of site and out of mind. Illegal and unregulated fishing will also find the long tentacles of technology will end their devastating trade.

The high seas are no longer a refuge for the polluter or the plunderer. The ocean should not be a refuge for bad businesses. It should be a refuge for thriving marine life.

I am inspired by this new technology and data that is equipping ocean activists and campaigners globally. Solving plastic pollution, overfishing, climate change, oil pollution, sewage pollution and so much more depends on the innovators, scientists, and activists. Data driven activism is driving the ocean revolution we need to change our society for the better.

Photograph by PickPik
Issue 37
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

This column appears in ISSUE 37: WILD ALASKA of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 37
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

Printed editions

Current issue

Back issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.