Ocean Activism – In Conversation With Hugo Tagholm

  • 1 year ago
  • 6 Minutes to Read

The ocean does so much for us—it helps regulate the climate, sequesters carbon, gives us oxygen, makes us more resilient, keeps biodiversity thriving, and lets us manage resources sustainably. By protecting and restoring the ocean, we can make a difference in tackling the challenges of climate change.

World Oceans Day aims to inspire people worldwide to become responsible stewards of the oceans and work towards a sustainable and healthy future for our blue planet.

A few weeks ago, we picked up the phone and spoke with fellow surfer and ocean activist Hugo Tagholm. We discussed Hugo’s journey working in the grassroots campaigning at Surfers Against Sewage and his new role in global policy advocacy at Oceana, as well as some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Photo Credit: Nick Pumphrey

Can you share your experience as an ocean activist who started in grassroots activism at Surfers Against Sewage and advanced to policy advocacy on a global scale at Oceana?

Hugo: When I started at Surfers Against Sewage in the 1990s, there were just three of us in a chaotic office with very little money. The grassroots movement started small on the beaches of Cornwall, but over the last couple of decades, the community has grown to have regional reps and volunteers across the entire coastline of the U.K. and beyond!

With the teams’ passion and professionalism, we built a great brand and empowered coastal communities to campaign in their local area. Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) reps and volunteers began organising beach cleans and contributing to citizen science on plastic pollution. People began petitioning for cleaner coasts, which built into the work SAS did around water quality.

We’re now seeing a sharp focus on water quality in mainstream media, which came from the data we pioneered – it’s making headlines daily.

Here are a few headlines that made the news in the last two weeks: 

It all started with the sewage text alert service, which advanced to a full-service app with hundreds of features. The Safer Seas & Rivers app has provided people with power not just to protect themselves from pollution but also to lobby the government.

There was a pivotal year in 2015 when I brought together scientists, oceanographers, and pro surfers from around the world for the Global Wave Conference. We came together for two days of conferencing in Cornwall and then headed to Parliament. This was around the time we started a parliamentary group to pressure the government on plastic pollution and water quality.

Running the Global Wave Conference made me hungry to do more with our colleagues worldwide. I started speaking more and more at a high-level platform to take advocacy forward. So it was a natural journey for me to transition into a global organisation with Oceana.

I haven’t set down my campaigning tools. In fact, they’re sharper than ever.

I’m using my campaigning experience to help Oceana lift its game; in particular, I’m focussing on this massively important position that we’re in with politics in the UK and worldwide. With the political uncertainty, we must ensure that people put nature and the environment first. I believe that the grassroots movement is essential in lifting the political interests of people and engaging them in standing up for the cause. When it comes to an election, the public will then consider voting for the administrations that will put the right policies in place to change the frameworks we operate in. We need those frameworks to be sustainable for the ocean, people, and planet.

Although I’m no longer at Surfers Against Sewage, I still work on water quality issues. Water quality has gained momentum in the last couple of years thanks to the multiple organisations, charities and community groups campaigning for cleaner seas.

The outrage people feel about these private monopolies being able to print money whilst pumping pollution into the environment hits a nerve with people. It’s created a microcosm for perfect campaign territory. Water quality is something that no one can argue against in terms of its direction and travel. There’s radical change on the horizon; in fact, I’m taking the government to the High Court in July with the Good Law Project! We’ve got a few irons in the fire, and I like to keep it that way!


What are the key challenges in ocean conservation?

Hugo: We’re stripping nature away with this industrialisation of the sea, and I think that is the real challenge. These actions are destroying and reducing our ocean’s resilience, resulting in the loss of ocean biodiversity.

The industrial trawling and dredging happening in our marine protected areas and on the broader sea are some of the most destructive methods that indiscriminately kill sea life and destroy ocean ecosystems.

Marine life is under threat due to the offshore expansion of oil and gas, the daily pollution released from oil wells and the risk of a catastrophic oil spill. We all know that one of the products from oil is plastic. This oil is drilled out of the ocean floor, taken on shore, made into products and then ends up back offshore as plastic pollution floating in our sea.

We’ve seen studies about plastic found in our bloodstream, air, and lungs. It’s found at the top of mountains and the bottom of ocean trenches.

And finally, we’ve got the overarching climate crisis. The government has this rhetoric of being an ocean leader, but they’re not necessarily delivering that. If we continue to allow the expansion of offshore oil and gas, we’re never going to be able to reach the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement if we don’t preserve our marine protected areas properly. We need to ensure that this administration’s rhetoric or future administrations matches with action. We’ve got to turn all this discussion on social media and promotional hyperbole around the ocean and ocean activism into something that makes a difference now.

We’ve got some huge challenges: The climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and a new Zeitgeist in the room: the restoration agenda. We must be cautious as we look at this because they shouldn’t allow business as usual to carry on. The biggest thing we need to do is stop business as usual. Business as usual, is destroying the planet. It’s controversial, but I believe we have to end some companies. The problem is that some businesses need to go out of business for the future to be bright for everyone. I know it will mean that some people don’t have the jobs they used to do. But ultimately, we need to give them new, greener, better jobs for the future.


 Photo by Howard Wood of an area of seabed damaged by trawling – Bottom trawling by fishing boats pumps out 1 gigaton of carbon every year.

Are ocean restoration projects effectively addressing environmental concerns, or are they just a new trendy term associated with sustainability?

Hugo: Offsetting and blue carbon are worrying because we’ve already failed with that on land. So many projects have failed, and carbon credits have yet to really be what people thought they were. What framework will allow us to do it in the ocean if we fail to manage it properly on land? Of course, people are working on certifications and standards, but even those didn’t work on land, so we’ve got to be extremely careful. We need to work on protecting the wild oceans and do our best to stop big industries from damaging them.

We must work hard to protect the wild and intact parts of our ocean and ensure that big industry does no further damage. 

How can we continue to be ocean activists with the new protest bill in place?

Hugo: I’m an activist, and I love taking to the streets or the beaches with people and watching the grassroots movements grow. We see many good examples of community activism, such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. We have even witnessed the rise of Ocean Rebellion!

But it’s important to remember that campaigning happens at every level, and we need to use all of the activist tools to create change. You’ve got the activists that take to the streets with their banners, and you’ve also got people campaigning in the boardroom, in one-to-one meetings, and in the media. You can be a campaigner in many different forms because, ultimately, it’s about winning hearts and minds and delivering change.

One of the most potent activist tools is our vote; we’re in the run-up to the 2024 general election, and if we vote the right people in with the right policies, we can create a lot of positive change. We need our politicians to have radical and progressive thinking, and we need to help push them in that direction. But it’s not just about how you vote; it’s about how you hold your politicians to account when they come into power. If our elected leaders know that they won based on good policies for both people and planet, then they’re likely to keep pushing on that agenda.

Another one you can show up as an activist is by supporting the organisations and charities doing great work on the ground. I would urge everyone to find the organisations they love. Find the one that feels right for you and support them. Whether it’s a financial donation, volunteering, giving your expertise, giving your time, signing petitions, etc.

Photo by Mat Arney from a paddle out in May calling for an end to sewage pollution. 

What do you feel optimistic about for our ocean future?

Hugo: There’s no denying that we are tackling radical challenges, but I think we’ve got to give people radical hope and equip them to take radical action. We live in a beautiful world with lots to save.

We’ve seen updates from Jeff Bezos and others who are out there building rockets to go to space to try and find life or even a water source on another planet. Now imagine if they arrived on a planet that looks as our world does today. Even with all the disruption we’ve caused, it would be an absolute revelation, an eden with a whole feast of options. While billionaires are out exploring space, searching for other planets to inhabit, we’ve got everything we need right here on this one. If we change course, we can protect and restore this planet. I’m looking out the window, and the sun is shining, and the sea looks amazing, we mustn’t forget what we’ve got right in front of us – This should be the biggest motivator to create the change we want to see. 


To follow more of Hugo’s work at the frontline of ocean activism, you can find him on Twitter @HugoSAS or Linked In at Hugo Tagholm.

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Written by
Bonnie Middleton