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Youth unite for our oceans

For as long as I can remember, it has been my calling to be a marine biologist. I love everything about the ocean, and from a young age I wanted to have a “fun” career where I got to work with marine animals. Flash forward to the present, with two degrees and working at a globally recognised conservation organisation, I am no longer in this sector for these reasons alone.

Like many other marine biologists, I find myself having to be a conservationist; taxonomists are rushing to describe species before they disappear, and it’s all hands-on deck to restore marine habitats before it’s too late. 

Though I would love to be working directly with animals, there are more urgent issues threatening all life in the ocean that I am now working to protect. For me and many other young ocean professionals, individual passion is what got us into this sector, but now we are working selflessly to protect it.  

When I was accepted as one of the 100 youth candidates from around the world invited to Greece in April 2024 for the 7th annual Our Ocean Youth Leadership Summit or OOYLS, I was thrilled. The Our Oceans conferences are known for bringing together governments and non-state actors to make concrete commitments to protect ocean health and security, and I knew that it would be a great experience for me to attend this event.

From 15–17 April 2024, the OOYLS conference in Athens was co-hosted by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) in cooperation with Our Ocean Greece and with support from the Ministry of the Environment and Energy of Greece 

I am no stranger to SOA events, as I had attended the SOA-hosted United Nations Ocean Conference Youth Innovation Forum in 2022. I arrived at the 2024 OOYLS eager to connect with old SOA delegates and meet new ones. 

Author Alexandra Azevedo and other youth representatives standing in front of signage at the Oceans Youth Summit.
Alexandra Azevedo (left) at OOYLS with youth representatives, Liz Sherr and Bodhi Patil.
Uniting youth for our shared sustainable ocean future

There is a name for what all of us attendants are known as at these youth conferences: early career ocean professionals or ECOPs.  

What ECOPs seem to have in common is our background in environmental and marine sciences studies, and a shared feeling of responsibility for our oceans and planet, coupled with passion and drive to work in the ocean space. Despite the various challenges we face in this career path – such as restricted access to funding, blockages from government bodies and limited career opportunities – us ECOPs persevere and continue to fight for a better future for our oceans.

A group of young conference attendees smile for a group shot at the Ocean Youth Summit.
© Sabrina Skelly/Sustainable Ocean Alliance
Alexandra Azevedo (back row, right) at OOYLS with youth representatives from Canada, Colombia, Puerto Rico and the United States and its territories.
A diverse group of ECOPs in Athens

Arriving at the OOYLS event in Athens, I immediately knew that I belonged. I was with like-minded individuals who are pushing for innovation, change, better protection and stewardship for the ocean. Everyone I spoke to had something that I could learn from.  

The impact that these youth events have on us ECOPs should not be taken lightly - they provide us with visibility at global conferences and grant us a space to have our voices heard.  

Among the 100 youth attendees were youth colleagues from countries as far afield as Ethiopia and American Samoa, and each one brought their own unique experiences, challenges and insights. 

As an American living in South Africa, this conference reminded me how important it is to connect with other cultures and to connect with technological developments in other countries and get perspectives on shared challenges. Ocean conservation is very different to land conservation in the sense that much of it is shared and the ocean has no borders. Each country only has control over 200 nautical miles around their coastline and after that it is what we call the ‘high seas’. It only makes sense that we must tackle these challenges together because ocean health affects us all.

A hawksbill sea turtle swimming in the South African kelp forest.
© Callum Evans/WWF
A hawksbill sea turtle swimming in the South African kelp forest.
Shared challenges, young minds and modern solutions

I work in seafood sustainability and throughout the conference I met various individuals who are also working in the seafood space and we were able to discuss shared challenges we face such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), as well as a lack of traceability and transparency in the seafood supply chain. We also realised that all of these problems will only be solved if we innovatively utilise technology. The technologies are often already available, and it is now about finding the funding, capacity and will to implement them in existing industries. One example of this is the utilisation of blockchain technology in the seafood industry, ensuring that the seafood product is what it says it is and that it wasn’t caught using IUU fishing methods. I also learned about other organisations combating this issue, like Global Fishing Watch that utilises satellite imagery to detect IUU fishing around the world and analyses the data to provide governments insight into what is happening in their waters. 

By driving technological solutions, we will revolutionise these industries, modernising them and preparing them for a future rendered uncertain by the climate crisis. This is needed to safeguard our marine resources for present and future generations so we can continue to benefit from these resources – and ensure the health of our marine ecosystems and oceans.

Exciting advances for our oceans

It was inspiring to see the collective work being done around the world to listen to indigenous voices in order to protect lands and animals. At this conference, it was announced that whales have legal ‘personhood’ by Māori and Cook Islands indigenous leaders. In New Zealand, the legal system is a blend of customary law, also known as tikanga Māori, and Crown law (based on British legal principles). This new legislation for whales is based on customary law, rather than Crown law. The declaration seeks to protect the rights of whales (tohorā) to migrate freely and to use mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge of the Māori people of New Zealand) alongside science for better protections. It also aims to develop a dedicated fund for whale conservation. A core concept of legal personhood is the idea that the “person” (in this case, whales) can sue to protect their rights as well as recognising traditional Māori and Pasifika ideas about the importance of whales as ancestral beings (The Conversation 2024). This is a great example of how long-overdue indigenous-led legislation is the new frontier of ocean conservation.

The author with a group of conference attendees from the Pacific Island in front of a branded backdrop.
Alexandra Azevedo (second from right) amongst youth delegates from Pacific Islands, as well as Dr Tiara Moore (third from the left), CEO and founder of Black in Marine Science and Sheila Babauta (far left), board chair of Friends of the Mariana Trench.

Another benefit of these in-person conferences is to meet like-minded leaders and mobilise individual efforts to be more impactful on a regional and global scale. A global “roadmap” was discussed which would be better used to direct efforts to tackle the various ocean crises on a larger scale. It was also reiterated throughout the conference that to make widespread and impactful change, more government action is needed. At the OOYLS this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced more than $103 million in funding to conserve and protect our oceans, subject to Congressional notification.  

More than ever, companies, governments and non-profits are realising the importance of having youth voices heard and are establishing youth advisory panels as well as incorporating indigenous-led knowledge into policy and conservation efforts. Organisations like SOA are at the forefront of empowering youth with diverse perspectives and giving them opportunities to contribute meaningfully on ocean issues.

Alexandra and her friend Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka with her deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle at the OOYLS.
Alexandra and her friend Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka with her deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle at the OOYLS.
Inspired by my fellow ECOPs and ocean ambassadors

As a young person, SOA has afforded me amazing opportunities and memorable moments. I previously got to meet real-life Aquaman, Jason Mamoa. This time I met her deepness, Dr Sylvia Earle, and the United States (US) Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and ex-US Secretary of State, John Kerry. 

During the 2024 OOYLS, I was also invited to attend a meeting with US government officials, such as USAID Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell and Department of State Acting Assistant Secretary Jennifer R Littlejohn, to discuss youth’s most important issues. These included the need for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, restoring damaged ecosystems and environments to help mitigate the effects of climate change and protect critical habitats for at-risk species, developing ocean literacy in schools and a ban on ‘shark killing tournaments’ in the US.

Colleagues at the WWF staff at the Ocean Youth Summit.
© Paul Merriman / WWF
Alexandra and Gretchen Lyons, Head of WWF’s Ocean Communications, at the WWF stand at OOYLS.
For the love of South Africa’s “WWF-SASSI”

At the conference I was a proud representative of WWF South Africa where I have been working since the start of 2023. And this global youth summit reminded me of the immense influence my team can inspire with our longstanding WWF-Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI), especially through our voluntary scheme for seafood retailers and suppliers. I work harmoniously along the South African seafood supply chain as the WWF-SASSI Seafood Market Transformation Officer. Our WWF-SASSI team is fortunate to have strong relationships with our local seafood sector and a unique ability to ignite change compared to other countries. 

I was particularly pleased to hear how our homegrown WWF-SASSI is very well-known around the world in marine circles, and everyone I met was encouraged that the initiative is still making innovative waves 20 years since it started. The WWF colleagues were impressed with the work we are doing across the seafood supply chain, including engaging the public in our consumer awareness outreach, the work with the small-scale and commercial fishing industries, engagement with local chefs and culinary institutes, as well as working directly with restaurants, retailers and suppliers of seafood.

A poster featuring sustainable seafood tools by WWF-SASSI.
WWF-SASSI's newly updated tools including a re-vamped website, app with integrated FishID app, poster and pocket card.

I also was delighted to be a part of the global WWF delegation at OOYLS which included 20 “pandas” from nine WWF offices around the world, including members of the WWF international Ocean Practice. To connect with them and hear about the amazing work they do in other countries was a huge inspiration. 

Upon my return to South Africa from the OOYLS, the overwhelming feeling I had was hope. The other youth who share the same passion and will to make the world a better place revitalised my sense of purpose. I was inspired by the leaders in the industry, who once were ECOPs as well, paving the way for us to do this work today.  

I reminisce fondly on why and how I became a marine biologist and I can think about the future of my career as a conservationist knowing that I will do everything I can in my career to protect what I love, the ocean and all of the species in it.

Alexandra Azevedo Photo
Alexandra Azevedo, WWF-SASSI Seafood Market Transformation Officer

Alexandra loves wildlife photography, scuba diving, travelling and surfing.

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