It’s getting harder and harder to miss 4ocean merchandise. The ocean cleanup company stamps its name and logo on all kinds of products. There’s an entire line of single‑use alternatives that includes everything from reusable shopping bags to bamboo to-go utensils and reusable straws. There are steel cups and tumblers, plus an entire line of clothing. Then there are the ubiquitous bracelets.
4Ocean’s original product, they come in different colors and styles, always with a different ocean theme. (Hot sellers include the harp seal, sea turtle and limited edition manta ray.) They’re all made from recycled plastics. And, says 4ocean, when you buy from them, every purchase pulls a pound of trash out of the ocean.
Since launching about half a decade ago, Boca Raton-based 4ocean has spread across the globe, hiring locals to clean oceans and the rivers that flow into them, and looking into technologies that do that more efficiently. The for-profit company looks to make what it does into something that’s sustainable and scalable around the world.
According to Tim Binder, 4ocean’s vice president of global brand marketing, the company, which claims to track every pound of trash it collects, will be closing in on a big milestone by the end of 2021 in terms of the trash it’s collected since it began.
“Our goal by the end of the year,” he says, “is to surpass 20 million pounds.”
Over the years, he says, they’ve gotten more efficient largely by tapping into local knowledge. From Bali to Guatemala, they hire locals – often local fishermen – to work as cleanup specialists.
“It’s efficiency, it’s understanding the regions,” he says. Thanks to locals who have been on the water all their lives “we know when to expect large amounts of trash to collect on the rivers or out on the open waters. I think that gives us an advantage.
“Each of the different regions have different things you need to be aware of. You work with that community to build programs alongside them.”
The organization, which employs around 360 people and is expanding, doesn’t use volunteers. As a for-profit, Binder says, they pay above-average wages for the areas they’re in and offer health insurance. (Here in Florida they sometimes have community beach cleanup events, but they only track the trash they pick up with their professional crews, Binder says.)
4ocean is one of the most prominent members of a sprawling community of scientists, businesspeople and educators trying to figure out solutions for our planet’s imperiled oceans. Many of those organizations are either headquartered in or have a strong presence in South Florida. What they’re up against is dire and urgent; a recent National Public Radio story about a report from the World Meteorological Organization referenced “runaway ocean warming that fuels tropical storms and drives mass die-offs of marine species,” while a National Geographic story on an ocean trash study noted that by 2040, 29 million metric tons of trash is expected to flow into the world’s oceans and that “achieving near-zero plastic waste into the seas requires new technology, significant spending, and ‘moonshot ambitions,’ among other factors.”
People are working on it. 4ocean is interested in new technologies, although Binder says straightforward, old-fashioned methods are at the heart of what they do.
“For us, boats, boots and booms is what works the best,” he says. (“Booms” are systems placed strategically in rivers to stop trash flowing into oceans in the first place.) Beyond that, he says, they’re always looking for what might be next.
They’re currently working with a European tech organization on a beach-cleaning robot system.
“We’ve been battling back and forth over different kinds of technologies,” he says. “Every day we just try to keep our eyes and ears open.”
Around South Florida and the world, so many others are doing that as well.
If you want to find a great barometer of ocean health – and look at something affected by everything from climate change to pollution, and that tends to capture the imaginations of people who love the ocean – look no farther than coral reefs.
The plight of reefs worldwide is bleak and well-documented. Increasingly heated and acidic oceans, the latter caused by human-driven carbon dioxide increases, are existential threats to coral. “Coral bleaching” events devastate reefs around the world and according to new research, it could destroy reefs altogether. One new study included research from scientists at Nova Southeastern University and the University of Miami alongside researchers in New Zealand, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as several other US locations. The view from around the globe was not good. “Ocean warming and acidification threaten the future growth of coral reefs,” the report states, adding that the findings “highlight the low likelihood that the world’s coral reefs will maintain their functional roles without near-term stabilization of atmospheric CO2 emissions.”
Part of the solution for coral reefs and the ocean at large is the same solution that scientists talk about more generally – the need to use fewer fossil fuels and at least mitigate the effects of global warming. But as with so many global warming-related issues, scientists say that for reefs, there is to a point no going back. Too much damage has been done, and now it’s time to figure out a new normal. Around the world, scientists and organizations – including a number working in South Florida – are doing just that.
For example, take the coral bank growing in the waters off Dania Beach. It’s the work of a partnership between Nova Southeastern and the Coral Restoration Foundation.
“They’ve been amazing,” says Andrew Jaroszewski, the foundation’s operations coordinator. “A great university, and especially with their coral background.”
The foundation and NSU are teaming up to expand a project that’s at the core of what the foundation does – creating a “genetic bank” of endangered coral species. “Genetic diversity is such a critical component,” Jaroszewski says. Endangered corals and houses on “coral trees” in a kind of offshore coral nursery. Eventually, they can be used to replenish depleted reefs.
The Tavernier-based foundation has already been building something like this in the Keys, but it’s important not to have everything banked in one place in case of a hurricane or other major event. Plus, NSU already had a nursery in place.
“We knew that with their nursery out there, they had staghorn corals growing,” Jaroszewski says. “They know how to do it.
“Nova’s definitely been an awesome place for us. We’re all looking for the same end goal.”
The coral trees, he notes, also provide great opportunity for research. Overall, the organization has planted about 140,000 corals on reefs. Much of the talk in reef conservation now is around scalability. Small, high-profile projects are great, but how do you roll out your reef restoration project in bigger numbers? Jaroszewski is confident projects like this will enable coral restorers to do more, faster – although more improvements are still needed.
“The methods we use, we do use some novel stuff,” he says.
“The goal is to find how can we make this a mass-produced thing. How can we share this with everyone?”
Aric Bickel sees things the same way. As director of technology and implementation for coral reef conservation and restoration organization SECORE International, he sees the need to go big and do things that are scalable around the globe.
“A lot of restoration efforts up until relatively recently have focused on really small-scale projects,” he says. “Even when they’re successful, they’re nice education pieces and they have some local impact.”
But the reef restoration community has to dramatically scale efforts and make it more affordable. That’s their goal. “We need to bring the cost down, we need to get better at it, we need to do a lot more of it,” Bickel says.
To scale it worldwide, organizations such as SECORE also need to find partners on the ground around the world. Theirs is an organization of engineers and educators, Bickel says. They run mentoring programs that identify organizations around the world they could partner with to implement restoration programs. Tiers of partnerships include research partners and tech development partners, which tend to be universities or sometimes private companies or non-profits. Partnership and implementation partners tend to be more community nonprofits and universities.
“In the past several years we have significantly increased our work in Florida, and it’s largely been through these collaborations between lots of different organizations,” Bickel says. “It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort.” They’ve also had interest from local governments, although in areas where the technology is new and the science is still developing, public bodies can get nervous.
“It’s been a bit of a journey to turn the wheels of government to do some of what would have in the past been considered risky projects,” Bickel says. People also need to be sold on the importance of actively restoring reefs. If you go back just a decade, restoration was seen as a nice idea, he says. But there was more of a view that to solve the problem, it was enough to work on the coastal stressors harming reefs in the first place and then let coral populations take care of themselves.
That can happen, but in many instances they have to do active restoration.
Classroom on the Waves
Yachts are one of South Florida’s great symbols of play. But the International SeaKeepers Society puts them to work. The society’s Discovery Yacht program connects yacht owners and crew with scientists doing research and students looking to learn about the ocean.
“A lot of times the owners come to us because they spend so much time out on the ocean and they see the issue in front of or below them,” says Maggie Winchester, SeaKeepers’ program associate. Water testing, shark tagging, student tours – there’s any number of ways a yacht owner can contribute. “They do definitely have a different perspective,” Winchester says. “And we do feel like they have an advantage most people don’t have in that they have a vessel that can go to all corners of the world and participate in research that most people cannot do. They are really excited a lot of times. One of the biggest reactions I usually get is that people just haven’t heard of SeaKeepers. If they are environmentally minded and they hear of our organization, they get very excited. It’s really cool seeing their passion for the ocean and getting them involved with the ocean.”
When it comes to saving the oceans, tapping into passions is key. The boots-on-the-ground work and the research into the best ways to do that work are what will save the day, but the people doing the work also talk about that third critical component – teaching people so they understand why this is so important in the first place and then act accordingly, both in the daily choices they make and the wider public policies they support and prioritize.
At SeaKeepers, they believe it’s not just about research, it’s about communicating research to the public.
“We have, I would call it a well-rounded approach to education,” Winchester says. She’s a former scientist who now considers herself an educator. They’re developing a curriculum; four lesson plans are on their website now. And they have those yacht-based expeditions where kids go out on the water to research and learn with real on-the-water marine science experience.
“We’re really tackling education from every angle,” Winchester says. The floating classroom programs are targeted mainly at middle and high school students. “But the beauty of the program is that it’s highly flexible.” Right now they do two main activities. In one, they measure water quality using the same instruments professionals use.
“That data is actually used by Miami Waterkeeper to inform the health of the bay,” Winchester says. “It’s really cool. From there, we usually take them to an island or a park and we do a beach cleanup.
“The beauty of the platform is that we could bring in somebody else and they could teach about seagrass, or they could teach about sharks. We are the facilitators. That’s what SeaKeepers does.
”Our goal is always to get more Discovery Yachts. The limiting factor to all of our work is the boats. We need to have boats available to offer the floating classrooms, to do all the important research. That’s what keeps SeaKeepers running.”
That education works in large part, Winchester says, because it’s so hands-on. You see the results of the water study. You fill your bag with ocean and beach trash. The Coral Reef Foundation’s Jaroszewski thinks there are different ways people can understand the world under the waves.
“I’m a huge aquarium hobbyist,” he says. “Looking at that fish tank that I have at home, I can relate a lot to what’s happening in these oceans. From there, we can relate causes to what’s happening.”
Aric Bickel of SECORE International says the need to educate while still learning about and researching coral development means sometimes doing things all at once that in a perfect world, you’d do sequentially. In an ideal world, he says, you’d complete the basic research into understanding what drives coral restoration success, then develop the technologies to do that on a large scale, then take that to the public. In the real world, he says, they’re working with lots of delicate, slow-growing species of coral at the same time, and that work does not lend itself to quick, conclusive results. So rather than doing things in order, education has to be done alongside research and implementation.
“The model that we have developed to try to do this is to split up our work into three different buckets in a way that you might normally do them sequentially,” Bickel says. “In our minds, they’re all key areas to success.”
It’s also good to find places where different organizations and specialties can come together. The coral reef researchers, the ocean trash cleaners, the water quality testers – they all have the same greater aim.
“We all have a single thing we’re focusing on,” Jaroszewski says. “They all lead to an ocean that is becoming a better environment.”