During the 6th Annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards at the Carnegie Institution for Science last week, the word excellence was not used lightly. From the bold actions of Senegalese President Macky Sall expelling foreign fishing vessels for over-exploiting Senegal’s waters to young Sean Russell’s work to mobilize youths over marine plastic pollution, the ocean conservation efforts celebrated Wednesday night were truly exceptional.
Noting that until recently there were no high profile awards to celebrate achievements specifically within the ocean and coastal community, the Blue Frontier Campaign began honoring ocean leaders at its 2004 Blue Vision Conference in Washington, D.C. After Peter Benchley – author of Jaws and keynote speaker at that initial event – passed away, his widow and fellow grassroots environmental activist Wendy Benchley agreed to let the Blue Frontier Campaign title the annual awards in his honor. The “Benchleys” have become a premier award to celebrate outstanding achievements that “lead to the protection of our coasts, oceans, and the communities that depend on them.” They also serve as an opportunity for ocean leaders to acknowledge one another’s work in disparate fields of marine conservation, research and awareness and to unite in celebrating the wonders of our blue planet.
As Master of Ceremonies, Dr. Sylvia Earle introduced a series of noteworthy presenters who granted awards to nine recipients in six categories on behalf of co-chairs Wendy Benchley and Blue Frontier Campaign founder David Helvarg. As previously mentioned, President Macky Sall of Senegal received the award for Excellence in National Stewardship for rescinding all foreign fishing permits in his nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and working to restore a sustainable domestic fishery for his people. His successful efforts are creating a marine resource management model for West Africa and the world.
The award for Excellence in Science went to Dr. Boris Worm and Dr. Heike Lotze for their discoveries regarding the shifting abundance and diversity of marine wildlife. Both associate professors at Dalhousie University in Canada, this husband and wife team has made scientific contributions in the fields of marine ecology and fisheries conservation, particularly regarding human impacts on biological diversity and community structure in the ocean.
U.S. Representative Ed Markey (D-MA 5th District) received the award for Excellence in Policy for his extensive efforts to protect the ocean from the impacts of climate change, overfishing and pollution. Congressman Markey has a strong record as an outspoken critic of offshore drilling, particularly during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. As the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, he is a strong defender of the National Ocean Policy, the Clean Water Act, and legislation to address climate change, ocean acidification and overfishing.
The Excellence in Media award went to Nancy Baron and COMPASS for improving the ability of marine scientists to communicate their findings to the media and the public. Baron is the Ocean Science Outreach Coordinator for COMPASS and the lead communications trainer for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. Through these positions, she holds communications training workshops for governmental and nongovernmental scientists as well as graduate and postdoctoral students around the world. Baron has played a key role in enabling scientists and journalists to form strong relationships, ensuring that discoveries in marine science and climate research make it into the news and raise public awareness. As a testament to the importance of these partnerships, scientists and communications professionals founded COMPASS in 1999 to train marine researchers to effectively communicate to the media, the public and policymakers. Comprised of a team of science-based communications professionals, COMPASS works at the intersection of science, policy and communications to help scientists share their findings with society without advocating for particular policies or practices.
Sean Russell of “Stow It-Don’t Throw It” received the Christopher Benchley Youth Award for his exceptional work to address the issue of marine plastic pollution and mobilize young people for ocean conservation. Russell became aware of plastic pollution as a problem while a high school intern at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida and founded his aforementioned statewide monofilament fishing line recycling program – a collaborative effort between youth and environmental groups that has since become a national endeavor. He also worked with Mote Marine Laboratory to lead the first annual Youth Ocean Conservation Summit in 2011.
Finally, the Hero of the Seas award went to Karen Garrison of the NRDC’s ocean program and Kaitilin Gaffney of the Resources Law Group for their joint work for over a decade that has helped lead to the creation of a world-class network of ocean wilderness parks off the coast of California. This particular award is intended to raise the profile of a grassroots leader, and this year’s recipients couldn’t be more deserving. Garrison’s work involves promoting state legislation, administrative advocacy and citizen action to improve fishery management and strengthened marine ecosystem protection along the West Coast. She is also a founding member of Save Our Wild Salmon and a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Marine Protected Areas. Ms. Gaffney works to develop and manage projects for ocean, coasts and fisheries programs through the Resources Law Group. Her previous position as Pacific Program Director at the Ocean Conservancy involved managing ocean governance, fisheries, marine protected areas and water quality activities throughout the West Coast.
Each of these awards represents a career of hard work and deep caring for the ocean. By encouraging the work of such an impassioned group of experts, the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards are keeping the bar set high for future leaders in ocean conservation.
Featured image (above): Benchley Awards recipients gather after the ceremony (© Courtney Mattison)