The Ocean Festival splashed down in the beautiful Bristol suburb of Clifton last weekend. The venue was fitting. The beautiful Georgian buildings that surround Clifton High School were built more than two-hundred years ago with money from the burgeoning trade in tobacco and slaves. They serve as a reminder of the same greed that now threatens the oceans which bore that trade. Oceans Festival, like its precursor, Shark Fest, is a response to that greed; an attempt to inform and to galvanise us all into the action required to protect the marine ecosystem.
These days, any environmental campaign has a tough job finding the balance between fostering hope and telling it like it is. There is no getting away from the seriousness of the threats to the ocean. While populations of large fish such as sharks, swordfish and tuna are ravaged by overfishing, climate change threatens to destroy the fragile but incredibly biodiverse reef ecosystems. But there are reasons to be hopeful too. According to the UN there has been a surge in the creation of ‘marine protected areas’ which now cover 27 million square kilometres of ocean (around 7% of the total).
These contrasting approaches both found voice at Ocean Festival. Wandering around the stalls that filled the Main Hall, my attention was initially grabbed by the range of shark-shaped soft toys that lined the Sharks4Kids desk. Having taken the bait, my friend and I were drawn into an interesting game of matching shark to habitat and prey. I felt very pleased with myself when I correctly matched the juvenile lemon shark to the mangrove forest – proving the worth of all those hours marvelling in front of Attenborough’s Blue Planet.
As we drifted on, the current took us toward the Earth Protector’s stall. We learnt about the work of the late Polly Higgins, a barrister who devoted her life to the criminalisation of deliberate environmental damage. I had not heard of the campaign but was fascinated by the idea and moved by the enthusiasm of the campaign’s representative. Having been plied with stickers (now proudly adorning my friend’s van) and leaflets we bobbed along towards the Basking Shark Scotland stall. Earlier in the day we had caught the end of Shane Wasik’s talk about his work studying these amazing creatures but we were still hungry for more information. “Could you ever be accidentally swallowed by a basking shark?”, I asked. A valid concern, I felt, especially given my pathological fear of sharks in general.
Apparently these wonderful creatures are very keen to avoid such accidental swallowings and are very adept at turning away from annoying humans who are in their way. Sadly, as Shane had explained earlier, they are not so good at avoiding all the plastic rubbish that is now almost everywhere in our oceans. It is still unknown what the long term effect of this will be on basking sharks but it is unlikely to be good.
Our next port of call took us upstairs to a room that, in ordinary circumstances, must have been an English classroom. Surrounded by the work of the Clifton High School students and posters encouraging us to use full-stops correctly, a representative of Extinction Rebellion explained the movements two-pronged focus on telling truth and action. I am instinctively wary of the movement. Is it just a way of shrinking genuine concern into an instagrammable show of macho rebellion with a scary logo? For me, the jury is still out, but the intelligence and careful manner of the workshop leader has inspired me to look into the campaign with a more open mind.