“Every second breath we take comes from the ocean,” says Karen Sack. She is speaking to me from an office in Fort Lauderdale, where she’s just about to take a peek at some of the new ways that Virgin Voyages plans to navigate its way forward.
“If we want to breathe we need a healthy ocean. And it’s not just about breathing. Two million people rely on the ocean for jobs, and three million get primary protein from the ocean. There’s also no better place to splash about in than the waves. Economic, personal, or food – we need it. It’s home to 80 percent of life on earth, and we need it for our planet to be healthy.”
Sack grew up in South Africa, and spent her youth campaigning against apartheid before she moved abroad to study. Her masters in international politics led her to work on trade and the environment. “My eyes were opened to the ocean. I realised how much the ocean was being totally pillaged, and began to understand the laws around illegal fishing.”
When she was introduced to Richard Branson by former Costa Rican President José María Figueres, they and several other partners agreed to set up Ocean Unite.
We assume the ocean is bountiful and limitless. “It’s so vast and so big, but we’re quickly learning that’s not the case,” says Sack. “In 2019, by far the most enormous impact right now is climate. Warming seas, shipping, fish populations, dying corals, mangroves forests wiped out – there are plenty of things that impact all of us.
“By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Overfishing is taking out a lot of life. We speak of the ocean as amazing source of life for all of us and we need to maintain that, and come up with ways to sustain that too.”
At Ocean Unite, Sack’s main goal is to mobilise the ocean community, amplify the issues, and then engage with new audiences to get across just how vital the ocean is. Sack explains that Ocean Unite is currently working on two projects. “We’re trying to get more seas protected. Currently, three to four percent of seas are fully protected national parks. We’re working with partners to fully protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.”
She explains that Ocean Unite works along the principle that if we invest in nature, it gives back to us. “Creating National Parks in the Ocean is crucial.” This is so we can control over-fishing and protect corals and water quality. It provides the opportunity to repopulate the waters and allow species to grow and bloom once again.
Within 200km of a country’s coastline, the government has control over what happens to the seas. Countries need to pick up speed and make sustainable decisions. She highlights Palau which is a big ocean state. “Their government has decided to protect 85 per cent of their waters, and Chile over 40 per cent. There’s a lot of catching up to do by other countries.”
What do we need to do?
To mobilise, we need to act as quickly as possible, says Sack. It isn’t too late to turn around the ocean’s fortunes. Accelerating change is top of the list for Sack.
“We try to work with Ocean Unite network leaders to unlock action in government. Grassroots campaigning doesn’t always work in every country, so we also need what we call ‘grasstops’ campaigning – we have to work quickly. We must, for example, get China and Russia on board with protecting huge areas of the Antarctic.”
Karen Sack is influenced by so many women. “Women have encouraged me to speak truth to power and not be afraid. In South Africa, we had a saying: “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”, and that is embedded in the way I think.
“I think what’s inspiring to me is just how many female leaders there are in the ocean space. It’s just brilliant and I would even go as far to say it’s quite unusual. It’s so exciting to see the next generation of women coming up.”
She adds this is especially important when we think who is mostly impacted by climate change. “Women and girls are most at risk of ocean change, and we want to work with them and help empower them.”
©cover image PALAU WEH, INDONESIA CREDIT: YEN-YI LEE /CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK