A new wave of brave marine conservationists are trying to pioneer fresh approaches to tackle overfishing, climate change and raise awareness in coastal communities.
Sara Mahdi’s fascination for wildlife began during her childhood—which was filled with bedtime stories of seahorses, memorable trips to national parks and tireless hours of swimming in the pool where she imagined herself as a fish! “While a career in marine conservation never occurred to me at that point in my life, I did think it would be cool to be in the water all the time,” she laughs.
It was when she began pursuing Masters in Fashion Management, that she started questioning the environmental and human cost of the fashion industry. But, it was diving that brought her face-to-face with reality in the form of a desecrated coral reef system. “I decided to move forward with coastal and ocean exploration to really understand the lacunas in a system designed to benefit only a select few while leaving irreparable damage in its wake,” says Mahdi.
She has since been involved in coral restoration projects around the world, in Australia, New Zealand, southern Vietnam and most recently in the Andamans. She’s led fundraising efforts and has designed public awareness campaigns with several organisations like Sanctuary Nature Foundation.
While there is growing stress around water as a resource and its overexploitation, she feels that “ocean mindedness” is still missing. “Many people don’t realise the ginormous job our oceans do to cushion us from climate change. But now, the youth are leading the fight. They’re inheriting an active crisis, and contrary to the adults, they have understood that they have to stick together,” she says.
Having grown up along the coast in Chennai, Divya Karnad forged a connection with marine life very early in life. She went on to volunteer with local wildlife conservation organisations, like the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network, which gave her a peek into the world of marine conservation. “Even as a student, I realised that conservation only meant forests and tigers to most people. Diving, back then wasn’t a common activity and apart from the fishing communities, no one really cared about the marine ecosystem,” she says.
Starting with the Young Women in Conservation programme for protection of sea turtles to launching InSeason Fish, a sustainable initiative to tackle the challenge of hunting of sharks as by catch, Karnad has been working her way into the lives of local communities to spread awareness about marine conservation. She’s also the first Indian woman to win the Global Future For Nature Award for marine conservation. “It is easy for people to see plastic pollution in the sea with scuba diving and surfing gaining popularity. But, what they choose not to see is how the delicious seafood on their plate is the result of an ecologically wasteful process,” she says.