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Environmental protection – it’s that unpopular word that is inevitably associated with uncomfortable work. Ultimately, we have to get things moving so that existing grievances can be changed. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs for short) have dedicated themselves to this challenging task and are tackling it wherever they are needed. From nature conservation to animal welfare, the areas of activity of the various associations are huge. Depending on the communication channel, they take us with them on their journey and report on their successes as well as their failures. Among the multitude of organizations, one of them has committed itself to nothing less than the protection of the largest ecosystem on our planet: the oceans.

Activists, pirates or guardians of the seas?

Around 71 percent of the earth is covered with water, which is what makes life on it possible in the first place. But while the peaceful idyll on the surface of the sea is deceptive, serious problems lurk hidden in the depths. Climate change and overfishing are contributing to the massive extinction of species. Our oceans are getting emptier and emptier. At the same time, around 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic end up in the sea every year, which corresponds to around one truckload per minute. If we carry on as before, we will have as much waste as fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

This is why the marine conservation organization Sea Shepherd has been campaigning for the preservation of the oceans and against the exploitation of the seas since 1977. Founded by former Greenpeace co-founder Captain Paul Watson, the association initially pursued a rather radical path, which at times earned its members a reputation as pirates. Today, the organization has adopted a diplomatic course that has proven to be much more efficient. In many places, it works together with the respective authorities of a country and various scientific institutes.

In the fight against illegal fishing, increasing pollution and the killing of numerous marine creatures, Sea Shepherd documents abuses worldwide and directly protects species where necessary. Their campaigns take the international teams around the world. But just a glance at the waters of Germany from your own front door is enough to gain an impression of the NGO’s work.

With the Baltic Sea Campaign, the German branch of the association has dedicated itself to the Baltic Sea. Since 2021, the team led by campaign manager Florian Stadler has been clearing the Baltic Sea of old fishing gear and recovering so-called ghost nets. These abandoned fishing nets sometimes drift in the water for decades and are a threat to all marine life and seabirds.

However, the harbor porpoises living in the Baltic Sea in particular are massively endangered by the death traps left behind and their populations have already declined sharply. Cleanups along the coast and at lakes throughout Germany are another component of the annual campaign. Such clean-up campaigns prevent even more waste and plastic from entering the sea.

image - Sea Shepherd Close-up: Why active marine conservation needs storytelling

Although porpoises are similar to dolphins, they differ in their anatomy. Talia Cohen

Visual storytelling – letting actions speak louder than words

The social media journey of the Sea Shepherd crew shows that storytelling for NGOs does not always have to involve elaborately produced accompanying videos or documentaries. Throughout the course of the campaign, the organization’s followers were informed about the latest developments via reels, videos or images and the message was conveyed. Campaign manager Florian explains why communication via social networks is so important for the work of Sea Shepherd and NGOs in general:

Images courtesy of Sea Shepherd.

But it is not only transparency and direct contact with supporters that is guaranteed through the use of social media.

Sea Shepherd quickly declared its followers heroes and let them become part of the story. A call via social networks for volunteers with an affinity for diving to help with underwater rescue operations was the first step. But anyone thinking of literally jumping in at the deep end is mistaken.

Volunteers who were brave enough to break out of their familiar world first had to be prepared and trained accordingly. After all, the conditions in the rough Baltic Sea are anything but easy – poor visibility and freezing cold included. There is a high risk of getting caught in the nets themselves, as they are not static in the water and do not move. The diving team must therefore not only physically fight against the constant current, but also be 100 percent focused at all times. After the preparations, the Baltic Sea Campaign finally got underway for another season at the end of June.

Hand in hand, the first successes were quickly achieved. The positive outcome: several kilograms of fishing equipment, plastic waste and a 1,500-meter-long gillnet were recovered. More weeks and many more meters of ghost nets were to follow. However, in addition to several hundred marine animals rescued, more than 1,100 creatures were killed.

Sea Shepherd Storytelling NGO Florian - Sea Shepherd Close-up: Why active marine conservation needs storytelling

A stroke of luck: This crab was rescued alive from a ghost net. | Sea Shepherd

Reaching common sense with data storytelling

Pure numbers usually seem too abstract to us. Dry facts, on the other hand, are too boring. We have already written in the past about the need to change the narrative in climate communication. This is another reason why platforms such as Instagram and the like are an ideal tool for NGOs, as they let the images speak for themselves. Only when the effects of our actions become visible will people perhaps be persuaded to rethink. Florian shares this view and explains that, in addition to the visual language, objectivity is also important:

Images courtesy of Sea Shepherd.

Every story – whether real or fictional – has ups and downs. After numerous challenging dives in which shipwrecks were freed from hundreds of kilos of nets, the Baltic Sea Campaign takes the crew to Travemünde at the end of July. There, the discovery of a dead seal marked the sad high, or rather low, point of the operation. The animal got caught in the net and drowned miserably. Seals are excellent divers, but even they have to surface for air after 30 minutes at the latest. Such shocking discoveries are unfortunately not isolated cases.

Images courtesy of Sea Shepherd.

And yet they do exist: the moments that remind the team what makes all this effort worthwhile.

Images courtesy of Sea Shepherd.

Sea Shepherd’s vision: The end is just the beginning

On November 2, 2023, the Baltic Sea Campaign was officially concluded and the ship – the Triton – returned to its home port. It patrolled the Baltic Sea for four months. On the surface, nothing has changed. But below the surface, the team was able to retrieve more than 10 tons of fishing gear from the Baltic Sea. Nets that would have meant death for many marine creatures and claimed further victims if they had not been recovered.

For the past three years, the Baltic Sea Campaign has focused on recovering ghost nets. Many more are sure to follow, because as long as fisheries do not use our planet’s finite resources responsibly, the work of Sea Shepherd and its many volunteers will be necessary. How does Florian manage not to lose confidence in the face of this seemingly mammoth task?

Images courtesy of Sea Shepherd.

There are still a few (sea) miles and a lot of hard work ahead of us. But it’s worth it. Even if the changes only become visible slowly and the processes take time, people have recently started to rethink. More and more consumers are opting for a diet that is lower in meat or even vegan.

More and more people are recognizing the interplay between their own actions and their direct influence on nature. Issues such as sustainability, climate protection and animal ethics are becoming increasingly important, especially for the younger generation. Perhaps environmental protection is not such an unpopular word after all, but rather a ray of hope and a reminder that each and every one of us can make a contribution.