The following is a conversation between Nick Wise, co-founder and CEO of OceanMind, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: OceanMind is a nonprofit organization that powers marine enforcement and compliance to protect the ocean’s ability to provide for human wellbeing. Using satellites and artificial intelligence, they help authorities enforce more effectively and industry to work more responsibly. And here to explain in more detail how this work is done and the difference that it is making is Nick Wise, the co-founder and CEO of OceanMind.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Nick.
Nick: Hi, Denver. Great to be here. Thank you.
Denver: So OceanMind was founded in 2016. What was your impetus for starting it?
Nick: Well, I’ve been a diver for a number of years, and I have a real connection to the ocean. I love being under it and perhaps at my most peaceful under there, and seeing all of the life that the ocean contains that you simply can’t see when you’re outside, and above the ocean looking down. And there’s so much beauty and variation, diversity, and just being able to observe that in its natural environment, it’s so peaceful and calming. So I have this connection.
And really, it was coming to learn about and understand the changes that we’re seeing in the ocean that really drove me more to thinking what should we do. And also chance meetings, so between the work we were doing– myself, then the Satellite Applications Catapult, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, that really kick-started things, perhaps a few years before that then gave rise to OceanMind’s beginnings.
Denver: The ocean is so important to the health of the planet. Not to mention those whose livelihood depends upon it, or those who derive protein from its seafood. Let’s start with the planet. What role does the ocean play in maintaining the health of humanity?
Nick: I think it does a number of really important things for us. Obviously, it provides us with food and is perhaps one of the most sustainable food sources if we manage it correctly to support the growing population. It’s also the primary source of protein for a lot of the developing world. So many poor nations… seafood is critical for their protein source.
It’s also vital to their livelihood. Coastal fishers really fully depend on the ocean to continue to survive, but then you’ve got the big picture and what matters to all of us. The ocean produces about half of the oxygen we breathe through its geological processes and the biology within it, and particularly deriving that from plankton.
Also, the ocean is responsible for managing most of the systems on earth. So the weather systems, the carbon systems, the climate systems. And so a lot of the problems that we’re seeing perhaps from climate change are derived from the impact on the ocean first and the way it manages those systems. So it’s a huge important driver to keep us able to survive on the planet.
Denver: Let me pick up on seafood. I think about 3 billion people derive their protein from seafood, and overfishing is a real problem right now. I believe that the period of peak fishing supply was around, I don’t know, 1995, 1996. Nick, what’s happened since then that they have become so depleted and that many of the world’s fisheries are on the verge of collapse?
Nick: The challenge we face is, I think, according to United Nations’ most recent assessments, about 30% of all fisheries are overfished. And that means that their stocks are declining. They’re on the path to collapse or maybe have collapsed, and perhaps another 60%… so accounting for 90% of the total there, are fished to the limits of sustainability. So more is going over.
So we’ve only got about 10% of stocks that are not yet to that level. So we as humanity have fished the ocean to the edge of its capacity for us to maintain and manage that, and certainly not leaving it any capacity left to grow as we needed to feed the population. And this has only increased. So the trends are only getting worse. We haven’t addressed the problem. We haven’t turned the corner. This is getting worse year on year.
Denver: What is the difference between legal fishing and illegal fishing?
Nick: The primary difference is whether you have the license or not to do the fishing. The illegal fishing in the main is not roving bandits of criminals stealing fish. It is the general fishing community. And within that, there being just a bit more and a bit more. That is the bulk of the major problem that we face. So it’s a global problem. Everyone everywhere faces it. It’s not the West is better and other people are worse and so forth. Everyone faces this problem. And it’s a compliance theory problem. It is competition on the ocean. It is a tragedy of the commons. It’s this common shared space, and each individual is trying to maximize their return, and together, they’re not able to manage that so that they can keep things sustainable. Hence, the need for regulation. So regulation is, in my view, the key way that we will return the ocean to sustainability.
Denver: And when you think about regulation, I always thought with the oceans, it’s got to be more of these federated international organizations, but so much of the regulation is country by country, correct?
Nick: Absolutely. So most of the fishing, and therefore most of our opportunity to do something about it, is happening in national waters. And it’s actually happening relatively close to a big continuum out to the edge of countries, maritime borders. And the challenge is that each country will have its regulations, but everyone will have adopted something slightly different.
It’s not like there’s a stamp, and so there’s inconsistencies country to country, and then also inconsistencies and overlaps with these international agreements that you mentioned. So a particular major fish stock like tuna, there are international agreements, member countries coming together around waters to try and protect things.
But the benefit of it being in national waters, it’s one country, one set of rules, one set of responsibilities. When you start getting out into international waters, it’s essentially consensus management and everyone having to come to a full agreement about things, which is clearly much more challenging.
But given the bulk of the problem is in national waters, and the bulk of the opportunity to do something about it is in national waters, I think that is really the key aim of focus for us.
Denver: For us, OceanMind is the hub of a global compliance ecosystem, and it powers your enforcement partners. Give us a flavor of the work you do and how you go about approaching it.
Nick: Absolutely. So the idea is there are existing regulations, and if they were all being followed, we would have a much more sustainable interaction with the ocean. But sadly, they’re not being followed, either due to diminished enforcement, or lack of capacity, lack of capability.
So what we have done is we have looked at this problem of enforcement and try to understand what are the drivers of those things. And there are a number of issues…it really does come down to capacity and capability. So we’ve built a technological solution that takes a global view of vessels and vessel movements, tracking data, satellite data observation, or data from satellites, drones, any information we can find that tells us what vessels are doing.
And we analyze that using machine learning to indicate where fishing is happening, compare that with program rules and regulations and highlight non-compliance. The purpose of this is to make the regulators, those officials that are responsible for enforcing the regulations, more productive, more effective at finding issues.
So they don’t have to trawl through all that data by hand. It’s just far too much of it for any human to be able to fully grasp and understand it, and be able to do something that really finds the issues. So it focuses them down and allows them to do what really is the important part of their job, that building of evidence, building of cases, and therefore taking things to prosecution and compliance.
So being able to power that process is step one towards increasing capability. And then with capacity, we have a range of options to both do work on behalf of these officials. So we will take some of the analysis load off the mark team. We’ll do that. We will provide them with intelligence so that they can immediately take action on things.
And we will provide training and capacity building, knowledge transfer, so they come to be able to do that themselves more effectively over time. So we’re essentially bringing up the world’s ability to enforce so those regulations can become meaningful and actually help reduce human activity on the ocean.
Denver: I can imagine when you started this work, you were probably saying, “We don’t have enough information. We don’t have enough information.” And now you’re saying, “Oh my gosh, we have too much information. How do I winnow it down to be able to really let people know what’s worthwhile here?”
Nick: That’s exactly it. So it very quickly became a problem of: you just can’t understand everything that’s happening everywhere at the scale you need to make a difference. And so while people could very effectively work on small fleets, working on small cases, they really can’t manage the scale of the global fishing fleet without automation, without the machine giving some indication of where to focus your time and attention. It’s not the case that the machine is doing the work for them, it is helping their people be more effective, focus their time better.
Denver: Give us an example of actionable intelligence, because again, that’s the bottom line of what you’re trying to do. Take all these reams and put them down, and give the regulators something that they can act on and make a difference. Cite us an example of that.
Nick: Yep. A good example would be observing fishing in a marine protected area. And doing that is the first part of a process to do something about it. So we would be able to inform the regulators that this has taken place. We will be able to inform them of exactly what regulation might’ve been breached.
So if there are variations of fishing allowed there; then which breach has taken place? which regulation? And then give them recommendations on the best course of action. Now most people think that the course of action is to take a patrol boat, go there, and arrest someone. But really, out on the open ocean, that is the worst thing you want to do.
It’s the most dangerous, most expensive. It’s really difficult. Entirely possible, and we will work with various countries to get them directing patrol boats to the right places at the right time. But actually, there are much more effective ways of doing enforcement that you can use without those sorts of assets.
So there are things like the Port State Measures Agreement, which is an international treaty where the signatories are working together to combat illegal fishing. These members can ask each other to inspect vessels to come into their ports. And port inspection is really good because you get full access to the vessel.
You can look at everything. You can understand what’s happened. You can download the vessel’s own navigation logs. You can interview the crew. And you can find a whole range of potential violations, being there and knowing that there is intelligence to suggest there’s an issue with the vessel. So you can’t really do that for every vessel, but if you know the ones that matter, then you can really focus in on those.
Denver: That makes a lot of sense. The evolution of your work has really been fascinating because here you’re looking at fishing… and that’s your focus, and you’re addressing it. But then you begin to get some people from fisheries who become part of your organization, who begin to analyze what some of these vessels are doing. And the next thing you know, you’re morphing into human rights and labor laws. Tell us a little bit about that.
Nick: But yes, for me, this was quite a surprise. And so we’ve been developing the algorithms to increase accuracy and increase granularity because for enforcement, it’s really important that you know exactly where the fishing is happening and exactly what type of fishing. So being able to tell the difference between different types of gear.
And what we started to learn, putting the experts in the room with the data scientists and looking at the data together, was that the machine was being able to flag the different phases of fishing… so laying the gear, soaking it, retrieving it. And these different phases, the crew would be doing different things on board.
So we conducted a range of crew interviews just to confirm what we were thinking, but you can, roughly speaking, tell what the crew are doing on board at any particular time by analyzing the data. And the machine learning now can throw up what these crew are working beyond the labor laws, the working hours for that region. Or “I’m not being given enough rest periods, or not being allowed off the vessel or in port frequently enough,” et cetera.
So the analysis now is starting to indicate things about the people on board, as well as the fishing activities being undertaken. So it’s really exciting because what this means is you can now do multipurpose inspections that are targeted, based on the outputs of the machine. And you don’t just look at these fishing violations. You can interview the crew and look for labor violations as well. So that’s sort of a next phase of development to really work out how that is going to be applied, just how accurate it is, what it means for using it in the real world.
Denver: And another next phase is the work you’re doing to protect cultural heritage. Tell us about that.
Nick: Yeah. So we’ve entered into a partnership with the Maritime Archeology Sea Trust here in the UK, and their focus is on undersea cultural heritage, particularly the archeology aspects and looking at wreck sites and making sure that they’re protected.
And we met a few years ago, coincidentally, and realized that there were some great synergies between our work, because they were having challenges understanding what vessels were doing over wreck sites, and whether their work was authorized or not. And this is a growing problem because wrecks are increasingly being salvaged, particularly World War I and World War II wrecks for their metal.
But these wrecks, they’re valuable heritage. And when they’re raised and not raised correctly, the fuel and the ordnance, they can leak and damage the environment. But worst of all, these are the final resting places of the service men and women, and they’re desecrating the war graves of these sites.
So this a real problem that doesn’t have much visibility, and there’s very few folks who are actually addressing it. So in this partnership, we started working together and are now adapting the algorithms, adapting the way we look at these vessels– not for fishing now, but for salvage activity. And we’re starting to look at wreck sites around the world for this sort of illegal salvaging, trying to protect sites before they disappear entirely.
Denver: Another arena you have your fingers in is in climate. I believe you are part of the Climate TRACE coalition, which is being spearheaded by Al Gore. What kind of work are you doing over there?
Nick: So this is another fabulous use of the data, but in a completely different direction. So we’ve been working with the team at Climate TRACE for some time. And the ambition there is to monitor and track the entirety of all human-caused emissions, greenhouse gas emissions in real time. And so real time is really a key part of this new inventory of emissions.
And so our part in it is to build an inventory of the emissions of the shipping industry, using all of the same sort of data sets we have about vessels, but now then the analysis and the machine learning is estimating the greenhouse gas emissions from the vessels around the world and building an inventory that we’re refreshing every few weeks in order to get a near real-time assessment of the output of those vessels.
The interesting thing about this is it means that now experimentation can happen across all the different industries, and you can get results really quickly. You can see whether you’ve started to reduce emissions through some of these investments. And if things are not working, you can try something else; whereas before you’d have to wait months, if not years, to get feedback and get new inventories of emissions to act and work with.
Denver: That’s fantastic. Nick, how do you go about measuring your impact? And what have been some of your achievements over the six or so years that you’ve been in existence?
Nick: Excellent question… and a complicated one because the ultimate outcome, the ultimate impact is improved health on the ocean. And obviously that’s really difficult to measure and obviously something that changes over a slower time period than much of the work that we’re doing. But in terms of monitoring our sort of direct impacts, there are some key metrics that we look to.
For example, we are currently monitoring actively over 5 million square kilometers of marine protected area. So helping to make sure that those are robust and fully enforced marine protected areas, and therefore delivering the benefits to humanity that they’re designed to create. As part of that and as part of overall activities, we’ve analyzed in the past five years around 460 million square kilometers of satellite imagery.
So that’s more than 1.2 times the entire ocean surface worth in these areas and others where we’ve been focused on detecting the vessels that aren’t transmitting. So vessels that do transmit are fairly straightforward to analyze and understand their behavior, but where vessels aren’t transmitting, trying to detect where they are and whether they are a threat to these marine protected areas requires observations.
So satellite imagery and satellite radar are the key aspects to use there, particularly since many of these sites are large and remote and in the middle of the ocean, such as, for example, Ascension Island, one of the British Overseas Territories, right out there in the middle of the Atlantic. And satellite imagery is about the only way we’re going to see what’s happening in and out of the waters.
Denver: Absolutely. As an organization who essentially helps regulators regulate, what would your business model mean? What would your business model be? What are your sources of revenue?
Nick: Severalfold. So when working with governments, many of our projects are either philanthropic-grant-funded projects or government-grant-funded projects. So we’re working with the government agencies’ overseas aid usually, and fulfilling a part of a broader program doing the enforcement capacity building.
When we’re talking about the seafood industry, interestingly, there’s a revenue stream we can get from the seafood industry where we use all of the same information, but we’re essentially doing third-party validation for that industry on the seafood that they’re buying, or on the supply chain due diligence that they need to undertake.
And so using that data and that information that on one hand helps the regulators to enforce against illegal fishing and other violations, we can help the seafood industry ensure that they don’t have any of that in their supply chain. And so that side really helps balance off against some of the grant-funded projects. And then on top of that, we also receive gifts and donations as well to help us support the overall mission and try and do more.
“…I think the technology is a key part of that future theory of change because the work that we do with individual governments at the moment, and the projects that we have are all effective and important, but we have to be able to do more. We have to get to that global scale if we’re going to make the difference that needs to be made to keep the ocean performing, keep it helping support humanity.”
Denver: Nick, what do you find to be most distinctive and advantageous about leading a tech non-profit where technology is at the core of your theory of change? And how does the culture differ from, let’s say, a more traditional nonprofit organization?
Nick: Well, I think the key thing about technology… and certainly our technology… is the real and genuine potential to scale to the planetary scale, to be able to look at the whole world and analyze data for the whole world and find those meaningful hotspots and cases.
So I think the technology is a key part of that future theory of change because the work that we do with individual governments at the moment, and the projects that we have are all effective and important, but we have to be able to do more. We have to get to that global scale if we’re going to make the difference that needs to be made to keep the ocean performing, keep it helping support humanity.
And most importantly, that you mentioned earlier, that the carbon absorption of the ocean, that all of the figures that we have for emissions reduction trying to limit global warming, they all assumed that the ocean carries on absorbing at the current rates. And that’s not a given if we don’t look after it.
Denver: I love problems like this which are just so large and so significant that you don’t even know where to begin sometimes. So I’d be curious, how do you identify the real problem, and then what is your approach to going about solving it?
Nick: Oh, great question. I think there are many real problems that stand up and demand attention. So at the top level, climate change, biodiversity crisis, pollution– there are huge humanity crisis-facing problems that are standing there and needing attention.
I think problem solving involves really understanding the systems involved: What is the system, and how is it being impacted? And therefore, where are the interventions? And I think that’s really important because it’s very easy to start at the bottom and find a symptom, an observed issue, and try and solve the symptom. But then you’re just poking a piece of a system, and often that just results in another problem arising elsewhere.
You need to start with a top-down systems review because you want to understand how your actions are going to affect the overall system, and then how you’re going to deal with those what otherwise would be unforeseen consequences. And of course, unforeseen consequences are exactly how we got into the problems we face, that we’re currently in.
“Organizations are coming together. We’re starting to see a trend towards not just funding a project, but trying to fund an outcome. And this is something that for me is actually quite new.”
Denver: Absolutely. This has not been an easy time to be in charge of an organization, any kind of organization, much less a multifaceted NGO like OceanMind. How do you believe the nature of leadership is changing, and what have you done over the course of the last couple of years, as this world changes around us, to change the way you lead your organization?
Nick: I think the key change, the key driver change I’ve observed over the past couple of years is really a genuine drive towards collaboration and partnership. In the past, a lot of NGOs, a lot of philanthropic organizations had their areas of focus, and they were driving down very particular pathways.
But that meant sometimes there was overlap, competition, and people solving the same problem again and again in different ways; whereas I’m seeing now a much stronger drive towards understanding these broader activities, working together, bringing unique characteristics to a bigger partnership, much like the Climate TRACE coalition. Similar things are happening in the ocean space.
Organizations are coming together. We’re starting to see a trend towards not just funding a project, but trying to fund an outcome. And this is something that for me is actually quite new. Although it may have been talked about as outcome funding in the past, oftentimes it is projects… You have this project, you do these things, and then the funding ends, and the outcome may or may not follow.
But most of these system level outcomes we’re trying to change, they’re not one to five-year projects. They are an ongoing endeavor. And so broad partnerships, long-term thinking, and longer-term funding, I think, are the key activities, the key leadership activities that are coming together at the moment.
“Climate change is a bigger problem. It is a harder problem. We need to mobilize a much bigger scale of action. We need much larger directed funding.”
Denver: Yeah. That’s really encouraging to hear. And it also suggests that philanthropy is going to have to change the way it operates, because so often they’re trying to operate for what’s going to happen in the next quarter, the next year. But with that longer time horizon, you have to get a whole new set of metrics in terms of what your philanthropy is doing and have that ability to look out five, 10, or even many more years than that.
Nick: This is a really interesting point and one that I’m talking to people constantly about. This move from sort of project funding to something bigger, some bigger vision. This is the hurdle I think philanthropy has to get over. And I think currently, it isn’t clear on how it’s going to do it collectively. We saw humanity come together around the pandemic, and we saw the sorts of things we could achieve in short order. And we saw the scale of the funding and effort needed to achieve it.
Climate change is a bigger problem. It is a harder problem. We need to mobilize a much bigger scale of action. We need much larger directed funding. And of course, some of that funding is private investment; and in this business, that can be made; the people can change the economics of the situation. But there’s also a huge amount of bootstrapping and philanthropy needed to actually get us over this hurdle, and it needs to have almost already happened. We’ve got very little time left to take action, so we need to get things moving really quickly.
Denver: Right. And we have to have a longer attention span. We just go from crisis to crisis, and then we move on to another one, and it’s going to take a lot more concerted effort in a longer timeframe.
Finally, Nick, there are fisheries, there are human and labor rights, there’s cultural heritage, there’s climate. What might be next on the horizon for OceanMind?
Nick: The key really is in that mission statement of powering enforcement and compliance to protect the ocean’s ability to provide for human wellbeing. So we are looking for what we know, what we’ve learned, to power more regulation, more protection for the ocean. How can we reduce human activity by creating sustainable options, sustainable outcomes? How can we work and get the markets working together with the regulators?
So they’re together in a virtuous cycle improving the sustainability values of the ocean, rather than working against one another, trying to catch each other out, so to speak. So not just the sort of specific industry areas, but more generally, how can we partner with others who have the expertise to provide these technological capabilities, to provide this bigger view on what’s happening on the oceans? That’s really where we’re going.
Denver: Fantastic. For listeners who want to learn more about OceanMind or financially support this work, tell us about your website and maybe some of the stuff that we’ll find on it.
Nick: Sure. So the website is www.oceanmind.global and on there, you’ll see all the sorts of work that we undertake. You’ll see how we go about it and the sorts of tools we use…. Some of the places we’re working on, some of the activities we’ve undertaken. So you’ll see support for capacity building and enforcement in the fisheries industry. You’ll see the work that we’re doing, particularly some of the research we’re doing in Thailand on our human rights work.
You’ll be able to look into the cultural heritage aspects, some of the Climate TRACE work. Climate TRACE itself is a huge initiative that you’ll find a vast amount of information on at climatetrace.org. And on Climate TRACE, you will be able to download data for any sector, any industry anywhere in the world, emissions data to help with decision-making, all open; all available for free.
Denver: You sure have a lot going on. Thanks, Nick, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Nick: Oh, thanks, Denver. It’s great to be here.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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