Q&A with Lee Hankinson, Marine Ecologist and Conservationist

Home Business Q&A with Lee Hankinson, Marine Ecologist and Conservationist
Q&A with Lee Hankinson, Marine Ecologist and Conservationist

With science under threat, particularly in the U.S. where a growing number of people are rejecting scientific findings on climate change issues, it’s time we turn the spotlight on those on the front lines, to help you understand the work that scientists do and why they play an instrumental role in helping to build a sustainable future.

Lee Hankinson is a consultant marine ecologist and conservationist. His love of the ocean is evident on his Instagram account where he shares images of marine creatures such as the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle, pygmy sea horse and even coral reefs. But don’t let the beautiful underwater images fool you into thinking that it’s all ‘play’ for Lee – he spends most of his time doing scientific research, surveying ecosystems, analysing data and preparing reports and recommendations.

EWP: What does a typical day look like?

Lee Hankinson: Well, the nice thing about my career to date is that my work has been so varied, so a typical day is hard to say and it really depends on the projects I am working on at the time. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world with my work and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Heading to a coral monitoring site in the Seychelles. Credit: GVI. All images supplied.

For example, while I was working in Norway I spent about a third of each year offshore on research vessels or rigs in the Arctic ocean or studying the Norwegian Fjords.

I spent last year on a remote research station in the Seychelles, living in reclaimed abandoned buildings. I spent my days either conducting scientific scuba diving surveys or captaining a research boat and after dives I was giving lectures on marine ecology and marine species identification to volunteers and the public. On top of that, the late hours are spent doing the all-important data crunching and reporting. So a typical day there was around 14-16 hours work time.

Just this year I have worked as a dive guide in Montague National park, taking people to see the ‘puppy mermaid’ Fur Seals and to collect photo ID and population data on the totally harmless and critically endangered Grey nurse shark population that resides there.

I then went to Malaysia to spend three months camping in the jungle on a sea turtle conservation project called Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, where I was training the staff in sea turtle facial ID software, coral ID and monitoring and eradication of the coral eating crown-of-thorn starfish. On top of this we had beach clean campaigns and the main work of the project- patrols throughout the night along the beaches to check for nesting endangered green and critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles and protect their eggs from poachers.

Nesting hawksbill on seychelles. Credit- Lee Hankinson
Nesting Hawksbill turtle on Seychelles.

Now I am based in Melbourne working as a Senior Marine Ecologist for a consultancy firm, but at the moment I’m in Senegal, where I am undertaking some marine environmental surveys and working to train locals to undertake this type of work in the future. Somehow the majority of my time is spent in meetings or in front of my computer either crunching data, compiling tenders and reports or sending out emails, trying to find the right people to collaborate with on projects, although I would like to spend a lot more time in the water!

EWP: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing humanity’s quest for a more sustainable world?

LH: I think first and foremost, there needs to be a consensus understanding that today we are living a way that is completely unsustainable in terms of natural resource use and our lasting impact of the planet.

Green sea turtle Komodo

There is a growing disillusionment with today’s younger generations that their voices are not being heard and that they are powerless to make changes on government policies. I think the easiest way to make an impact is to vote with your wallet via consumer choices and open up dialogue and campaign on the grass roots level for the issues you are passionate about. We need to collectively tackle the issues now and not ‘kick the can down the road’ for later generations and we need to drastically cut our footprint on our planet, make smarter consumer decisions and support movements to drive sustainable industry.

EWP: Given the work you do as a marine ecologist and conservationist and all that you have seen, experienced and learned in this role, what facts and issues still shock you?

LH: I get amazed about how much we still don’t know or seem to care about the vast blue aspect of this planet, and how we neglect and ravage the resources from the oceans as though it is some infinite resource provider. Our planet is an oceanic planet. About 70% of the surface is ocean and we rely on the resources provided by the oceans for our survival. Yet still today the oceans remain relatively unexplored and mismanaged. Fishing stocks have already been so heavily impacted and our human right to have food and resource security is going to be rattled with any ecological shifts on our oceans. Understanding and mitigating the impacts from human exploitation and a changing climate will have on our oceans is fundamental for a sustainable way of life.

Underwater photography by Lee Hankinson
Underwater photo taken by Lee Hankinson

EWP: How do you handle climate change denial?

LH: It has been a very frustrating time over the last few years trying to maintain civil discourse in the shadow of the climate denial movement.
I think for the general public it’s first and foremost about effective education and successful communication of the science and about instilling in people an appropriate amount of trust in the scientific process. But when we have people’s political ideologies and vested interests clashing with the scientific consensus, then there has been a push to cherrypick or just outright dismiss science altogether. Ultimately, there was never going to be a true winner of this ‘debate’ and the climate denial movement has allowed us to keep the status quo for far too long. A knock-on effect is that scientific institutions the world over have been gutted of funding and stacked with lobbyists in order to stifle scientists as long as possible.

But now, I think the debate has already started to move on in most of the world. Now you can easily see that the economics is now driving renewable technology installation all over the world. Solar power, for example, has now become insanely cheaper than just a decade ago, even with such relatively small levels of subsidisation compared to other sources of power generation. We are seeing the market now drive the shift way faster than a lot of people predicted, and industry and political parties can either cling to the past or invest in the future.

Monitoring the sea floor w under the midnight sun in the Arctic. Credit- Lee Hankinson
Monitoring the sea floor under the midnight sun in the Arctic. All images supplied.

I see the world’s largest offshore wind turbine farm being implemented in Denmark, which will show that old offshore Oil and Gas technology and jobs can easily shift into the renewable sector (not to mention the added benefits of offshore wind farms creating no take fishing regions, which really gets me excited).

And look at the almost daily headlines of cities and regions around the world breaking records for power sourced entirely from renewables. Look at the work from Elon Musk creating battery storage technology in combination with SolarCity and solar tiles. I think we are now at the tipping point of a new green economy, which to me is a very exciting time. So instead of dwelling on how far behind we have been held, we need to be optimistic about shaping the future.

EWP: What is your opinion on the Paris Agreement? Do you think nations are doing enough or should they be doing more?

LH: As of now the one country to not sign on to the Agreement is the US. People, including conservative politicians put the notion forward that anything the world does means zilch if the US isn’t on board, so we shouldn’t do anything. I disagree and see this as a testament that the rest of the world is stating that they are now on board with trying to move forward to cut emissions and reshape their energy policies, with or without the US. The agreements come under a lot of scrutiny for being rather toothless and no penalties for countries for not meeting their targets. This is quite true and I absolutely think the targets could easily be set even higher. So, people still have to put pressure on their representatives and hold them accountable.

Environmental monitoring at the offshore oil rigs in the Norwegian sea. Credit- Lee Hankinson
Environmental monitoring at the offshore oil rigs in the Norwegian sea.

Looking closer to home in Australia, we are committed to the Paris agreement  with a very modest aim to reduce our economy-wide emissions by 28% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. I think we could have done a lot better. In Australia, we are still seeing the impact that Abbott has had on the renewable sector in Australia after he repealed the carbon tax. Confidence in the renewables sector evaporated overnight and we quickly fell behind the rest of the world in renewable investments. Australia also watered down its initial Renewable Energy Targets in 2015 by about a quarter to make the new target of 23.5% of Australia’s energy (the equivalent of 33,000 gigawatt hours) to come from clean sources such as wind, solar and hydro-electric by 2020. In a country like Australia, we have vast renewable resources available and should have been on the forefront of leading the way with renewables.

Furthermore under the Paris Agreement, we need zero net emissions by 2050, and so 28% by 2030 just doesn’t take us far enough along the path to net zero.

However, in spite of this, the Paris Agreement does give private sector certainty to invest in renewables and the private sector has in turn for the most part done just that. This is a big part of the reason why solar has dramatically increased in efficiency as well as lowered production costs so quickly. Close to two-thirds of investment in new power in 2016 was renewables and 2017 is shaping up to have investments in renewables double that of fossil fuel generation. And its coming from market responses due in part, to the Paris Agreement.

Field work in the Arctic Oil and Gas fields
Field work in the Arctic Oil and Gas fields.

EWP: Are you working on any cool projects at the moment? 

LH: Right now I’m juggling a few projects. I have my work projects, but in my spare time I am acting as a collaborator for a citizen science and research driven sea turtle conservation project. I spent a few months earlier this year implementing a sea turtle facial ID program at an NGO in Malaysia. We then had a breakthrough where another NGO, with an already established and very successful facial ID program of their own came together to share data under an agreement. The fledging facial ID program has already shown that in-water photos submitted by tourists and researchers on one area compared with the photos of nesting mother turtles at the nest monitoring program at another island uncovered that the turtles were travelling between the areas. This new understanding of habitat use for the local turtle population is fundamental for protection and management of the sea turtles vital habitats.

So now a small team I’m helping is looking to expand and implement the same methodologies in other surrounding islands with the hope to establish a network on the East Coast of Malaysia and hopefully the project should role out next year. I’m also working hard to implement the equivalent program in The Pacific islands and Indonesia, so I am working away on this project too.

Turtle conservation Project, Malaysia, cred Molly Manwill
Turtle conservation Project in Malaysia. Credit: Molly Manwill

I’m also part of a local, Melbourne-based project to recycle and hand-cut glass bottles to make organic soy wax candles, with all profits going towards marine conservation projects and research, such as The Turtle ID project. The project is called Mydas Candles (Chelonia mydas is the scientific name for Green sea turtles) and we are looking to roll out our first line of candles in time for Christmas.

Also I have just taken up a role as a Love The Sea Ambassador for the Environmental Justice Foundation, who do amazing work on the front line in third world countries. They work under the principle that environmental security is a basic human right. One big element of their work is the award winning campaigning to raise awareness about the human exploitation and environmentally destructive nature of the cotton industry in third world countries. They have a documentary called White Gold available to view [see below]. They also run amazing campaigns focusing on local capacity building, illegal fishing industry, protecting marine biodiversity and tackling human trafficking. So, I’m excited to be an ambassador for their work.

EWP: Why did you get into your line of work? What drives and motivates you to do what you do?

LH: Ultimately when I leave this place I want to think I helped make it better than when I came into it. I was always a nature boy from the time I remember, from growing up in a small farming area close to the coast. My youth was a mix of being out in the bush chasing lizards or camping along the coast where I was always knee deep in rock pools or either fishing, diving and surfing. Plus, in a lot of ways I guess I never really grew up from being that inquisitive kid.

When I have the chance to experience seeing hatching sea turtles race to the sea or whale sharks come by in the Seychelles, or taking photos of manta rays and dragons in Komodo, or finding fingernail sized pygmy sea horses in Sulawesi, or swimming with bull sharks and racing to leatherback sea turtle nests before poachers or just even spotting dolphins and whales from headlands in Australia, I know I couldn’t be doing anything else.

Critically endangered Grey Nurse shark, Montague Island
Critically endangered Grey Nurse shark, Montague Island.

I always knew I was going to be involved in environmental work in some capacity and am still looking for the best ways to drive change. I still get inspired by seeing people work together to make progress because this line of work often involves long hours and when working on multiple projects there is rarely a day off. So, being passionate and being surrounded by passionate people is absolutely key.

EWP: Besides not littering and ‘Taking 3 for the sea’ and joining other beach clean up initiatives, is there anything else the average person can do to help improve the health of our oceans?

LH: Seeing plastic reduction come to the front of our social consciousness through the work of Take 3 for the sea and other groups, is such an encouraging sign. I think Australians are amazing with their generosity in donating their time and money to support grass roots environmental initiatives.

It’s pretty easy to make simple consumer choices to reduce our impact, for one, just don’t use straws. Easy. If a restaurant gives you a drink with a straw already in place, just give it back with a smile and a ‘no thanks’ so they ask next time. Or if you have one close by, support cafes who use reusable glass or stainless steel straws.

Freediving at Montague island. Credit- Lee Hankinson
Freediving at Montague island.

If you are getting take away coffee as much as me, buy a bamboo cup. Equally so, just get a good quality reusable water bottle. When diving I regularly see plastic bags in the water even in the most remote regions. Avoid using plastic bags by just rocking a few reusable bags for getting your groceries home. Hang them on the back of your door at home or keep some in your car or desk at work so you don’t forget.

The other easy way is in our food choices. If you are going to eat seafood, all you have to do is protest with your wallet by only buying sustainable and environmentally friendly sourced products. Just do a little homework and see where fish being displayed in the markets is sourced.

And finally, just try to avoid fast fashion, including what you have on your feet. The amount of flip flops, thongs, crocs and all things in between that I have picked up on beach cleans is really devastating.

It might be easier said than done for some, but maybe it is a little easier for me as I think I’m missing the fashion gene. As a poor uni-student I was wearing a wardrobe consisting of op-shop gems or the yearly Christmas and birthday presents, but now I just buy very few clothing items but make them top quality and ethically sourced and then enjoy wearing them to death.

You can follow Lee Hankinson on Instagram here.

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