Project Ocean: From designer handbags to marine conservation

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

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Even though I had been part of the planning process, walking up to Selfridges on the day of the launch of Project Ocean was a jaw-dropping experience. Situated on one of the busiest shopping streets in the world – Oxford Street in London — Selfridges is an iconic department store known for its trend-setting, high-end fashion. I found myself faced with a giant activist-style banner covering the front of the building with the message ‘No more fish in the sea?’The shop windows — each one a bold and thought-provoking tableau — were also attracting considerable attention, with people stopping and taking photos with their smartphones.

What made me grin was that the attention was focused not on a piece of jewellery, designer dress or expensive handbag, but on our oceans: All these windows creatively and simply presented marine conservation issues, translating ‘heavy’ topics that include bycatch and overfishing into striking statements: ‘Jellyfish and chips’ on offer from a van in one window, ‘Would you eat a panda?’ in another, with a bluefin tuna swimming next to a panda. And — hooray — ‘Save our seahorses’! Had we achieved our goal of making fish fashionable and marine conservation mainstream?

Project Ocean is a partnership between Selfridges and the Zoological Society of London, but it is a truly collaborative initiative involving Project Seahorse and 21 other conservation NGOs, as well as many artists, musicians, celebrities, chefs, fishers, industry representatives and more. Beyond the windows and facade, Project Ocean is about promoting the sustainable consumption of marine resources.

Selfridges has switched to sustainable seafood, produced a seafood guide and iPhone app, and is running fun and educational activities in its restaurants and foodhalls. We’ve been working with Fish2Fork (founded by Charles Clover from the ‘End of the Line’) to encourage all of the 148 cafes and restaurants along Oxford Street to become sustainable too — a marine protected area (MPA) in the heart of London!

As part of a series of launch events, Project Seahorse hosted a day of presentations and activities on May 25th. We introduced a brand-new short film about our work and I gave a series of talks throughout the day on the weird and wonderful world of seahorses. Guylian Belgian Chocolate, our longtime donor, provided free chocolate tastings and a series of prize draws. They certainly managed to pull shoppers away from the bucking bronco whale and the people walking around dressed in plankton-like balloon sculptures.

Our event proved a great way to reach new audiences. I fielded questions such as ‘What, seahorses are fish?’, ’Corals aren’t plants?’, ‘Why do people catch seahorses?’, and ‘Why can’t we have more protected areas in UK waters like they do in the Philippines?’. Good questions, all of them....

It was great to see so many people, including donors and supporters, collaborators and former team members, friends and family and people who had heard about us through Project Ocean. Not to mention people who just happened to be shopping there at the time: stunning seahorse imagery combined with yummy chocolates seemed to be a winning combination!

With financial support from Selfridges, the Project Seahorse Foundation (PSF) team in the Philippines has established a new MPA in Matabao near Tubigon, the 34th we have helped to implement in the region. Last week, PSF team member Angie Nellas did a live video link from the Philippines where shoppers at Selfridges were able to ask her questions about our work there. That evening, UK TV celebrity Kate Humble explained with passion her experience of our community-based MPA successes in the Philippines as part of the Thursday evening talks series.

Project Ocean is raising funds for more marine reserves, meaning more fish in the sea and a more positive response to that enormous and daunting slogan, ‘No fish in the sea?’ And hopefully we’ll have a whole new set of ambassadors — complete with designer suits, heels and handbags — for our oceans.

The Project Ocean launch runs until June 12th. For more information visit www.selfridges.com/projectocean

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Associate Director of Project Seahorse and Programme Manager, International Marine and Freshwater Conservation, at the Zoological Society of London.