Douglas Woodring

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am


SECOND NATURE I grew up in California. I thought of myself as half fish, half boy. In the ocean I felt most at one with nature and totally relaxed. I lived to swim, play water polo and windsurf and spend time in the mountains with my family. If you don't spend time in nature, it's hard to feel any need or desire to protect it. If we care about the future, it's imperative children spend time in nature, engaging with it, so it becomes second nature for them to want to protect it. Still, I've been around for less time than plastic - it was introduced to consumers more than 50 years ago. Through initiatives with Ocean Recovery Alliance [which Woodring co-founded], Project Kaisei and the Clinton Global Initiative, I've been trying to ease the impact of plastic on the environment - both here and further afield.

CAST IRONY I suppose it's ironic that I moved to Japan to work for a large fishing company straight after college. I was the first foreigner they'd hired. This experience showed me how much the big fishing countries take from the ocean, basically without regulation. The Earth's surface is 70 per cent ocean, yet less than 1 per cent is protected. Some scientists say at least 10 per cent of the ocean needs to be protected to enable the long-term survival of many species. Of all the big fish in the ocean, 80 to 90 per cent of species are estimated to be overfished. Extinction of many species is likely within our lifetimes. Some sharks alone take 15 years to reproduce. There is also the problem of acidification - due to the absorption of the increasing amount of carbon dioxide we are producing. Because of this, some scientists think shellfish will have difficulty creating shells within 20 years.

TRASH TALK More than 70 per cent of trash in the ocean comes from the land, not boats. And, of all the debris that flows into the ocean, 70 per cent sinks. What we see is only the tip of the iceberg. Plastic doesn't biodegrade - it just gets broken into tiny pieces. In 2009, our study of the North Pacific Gyre [home to a massive collection of marine debris known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch] with Project Kaisei and Scripps Oceanography found that almost 10 per cent of fish had plastic in them. Scientists calculated the amount of plastic mistaken for food by fish in that part of the ocean every year was between 12,000 to 24,000 tonnes. Plastic can last for hundreds of years, but half of it is made for one-time use. We need to change our habits and treat today's plastic as a secondary raw material, not as waste. We just have to change our mindset.

SILVER SCREENINGS One way we try to stem the tide of destruction is to create awareness of the oceans through film festivals. In March, Hong Kong will be the first city in Asia to host an Ocean Film Festival. The launch of the Hong Kong and San Francisco festivals will be done simultaneously, across the Pacific Ocean. The screenings will be at various locations from March 9 to 22. Another way we can protect the ocean is by swimming in it. Hong Kong's South Side is relatively clean, which led to the creation of the Ocean Recovery Alliance's Clean Half, a 15-kilometre open-water race for relay teams and solo swimmers, from Stanley to Deep Water Bay - now ranked as Asia's top ocean swim. Also, the success of last year's first cross-harbour swim in 33 years shows the public is eager for more sporting events, and a better environment in which to swim and breathe.

CHANGING TIDE Visitors often ask why I choose to live in such a polluted city. Hong Kong is like New York and Hawaii put together. Once they see the city's natural beauty, they under- stand why. We have the ocean, the mountains and the city so close toge- ther. That's what makes this place unique. The typical tourist images reveal little of what's on offer, ignoring our outdoor assets. One reason I helped put together the bilingual ocean book Water Margin: Hong Kong's Link to the Sea, was so people could learn to appreciate the city's biggest asset: the ocean. Without the sea, the city would never have become the success it is today. So it's significant that Hong Kong, in January, instituted a ban on trawling in local waters. Trawling is like dragging a bulldozer through your garden every day, yet we allow it to happen all around the world. Nothing can survive this indiscriminate destruction. I often speak at international conferences, such as The Economist's World Oceans Summit and the China Maritime Exhibition. We're planning something exciting for the Rio+20 Earth Summit this June. There is also a TEDx video on YouTube.

ON THE TRAIL I found myself back in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami struck last March. The Ocean Recovery Alliance is now part of a small group, including scientists from the University of Hawaii and Scripps Oceanography, which is tracking debris from the tsunami with 11 satellite buoys. This will let us know where the debris is heading, so the shipping industry and coastlines can be alerted. This also lets us draw attention to the issue of plastic pollution, as the debris will eventually end up in the Gyre.

TAKING THE INITIATIVE We announced two projects with the Clinton Global Initiative to help bring about a reduction in plastic waste. The Plastic Disclosure Project is a business-to-business programme based on accountability. The Global Alert-Floating Trash platform will use community reporting to track trash hot spots. As any time spent raising funds reduces our ability to implement our initiatives, donations make a huge difference. As each generation grows up with less and less of an ecosystem, their perception about what's 'normal' becomes different from that of the previous generation. This is called 'shifting baselines'. Through these initiatives, I hope to follow the adage: 'Tomorrow's mighty oak is just today's nut that held its ground.'

For more information on the Hong Kong-San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, visit