Turning the Tide: Graeme Somerville-Ryan’s Mission Against Maritime Pollution with Eyesea
Graeme Somerville-Ryan’s journey in founding Eyesea is a vivid testament to the power of combining professional expertise with a personal commitment to environmental stewardship. With his unique background in maritime sector communications and archaeology, Graeme has turned a moment of realisation on a Greek beach into a global initiative against maritime pollution. In this interview, he discusses Eyesea’s innovative approach to leveraging technology and community involvement in tackling oceanic and coastal pollution, shedding light on both the challenges and triumphs of driving environmental change.
What inspired you to establish Eyesea, and how did your background in marketing and archaeology influence your approach to addressing maritime pollution?
The idea of Eyesea started on a beach in Greece, where I truly saw the straws, bottles, and bits of plastic that now litter every beach, river, and coastline worldwide. I had never been an environmentalist, but the realisation that this situation was unacceptable – that something needed to change – kicked in.
Professionally, I’ve been in maritime sector communications for the last 13 years, and over that time, I’d met a few people and had numerous discussions with owners and managers on CSR, MARPOL, and the proposed regulation of single-use plastics onboard ships. Maritime pollution was now clearly on the agenda, and we saw that it was going to be part of much wider, environmentally focused, regulation.
But I wasn’t sure if this regulation was going to work, or just make the lives of seafarers harder. We asked what could the shipping industry do around the topic that went beyond compliance and following more and more regulation?
The archaeologist in me (my MA was in geoarchaeology), kicked in when we looked at the discussion around ocean and coastal pollution. It became clear that while there was a lot of emotion around the topic, there was actually very little data, evidence, and truly comprehensive research to chart a way forward. Without data, it’s very hard to assess the nature of the pollution problem or develop cost-effective and efficient solutions.
We took a step back and looked at what assets the industry had – 1.8m seafarers, staff, and around 70,000 commercial ships – in literally every corner of the world. This was when Eyesea was born – a maritime pollution version of Waze/Instagram that would allow the maritime industry to provide crowdsourced data on maritime pollution and possible hazards.
Phase one was about building tech to test this hypothesis, could we collect data? The answer was yes. Phase two is now about building out this tech to help communities report, analyse, organise, and recover pollution as efficiently as possible. The job has gotten bigger.
You emphasise the importance of a single photo in driving change. Can you share a specific instance where an image made a significant impact on Eyesea’s initiatives or the broader maritime community?
I believe the world is overrun with negative imagery; the shock value gets clicks but achieves little else. We have plenty of terrible images, but shaming a community, expressing outrage, and quickly moving on to the next hotspot is not valuable. Changing things is a gradual process that requires collaboration with communities, companies, and authorities.
Imagery – geolocated and timestamped – is actual evidence. Imagery and image analysis allow us to consider what actions need to be taken where: to assess where resources need to be applied and where we can make the biggest difference.
Images remove the excuses for inaction…the ‘we didn’t know it was there’ or the ‘it’s not our responsibility’ responses that people and organisations tend to give when more work is on the horizon. Imagery and other data layers (think wind, tide, currents, and the time/location of local community events) also allows us to look at the origin and the cause of pollution – there’s a lot of information that we now have access to.
But imagery alone (the data) can just blend into ‘doom scrolling’ (as the kids call it). Once we had our first 100,000 pictures, we started to reassess what was needed. First, it became clear we needed to highlight the great clean-up work that is going on, and second, we needed to use the quite incredible tech tool we’d been offered to develop insights and solutions to the problem…the ‘so what’ part of data collection.
If there’s one ‘wow’ example we have, I think it’s from rural Canada (rural like only Canada can do) where a crew recorded the collection of a single plastic bag on an isolated beach. We were able to also cross-reference/confirm the presence of this single plastic bag using satellite image spectrometry. We can now see a single plastic bag from space.
The implications of this tech are just stunning.
How do you envision the maritime industry, mariners, and recreational sailors playing a pivotal role in Eyesea’s mission to combat maritime pollution?
I feel the maritime industry seems somewhat lost or hesitant when it comes to engaging in environmental discussions. People who don’t know or understand the industry use the environmental costs of terrible accidents to make sweeping proclamations (and regulations) that ships and seafarers are the ‘bad guys’.
We now have data that shows commercial ships and cruise vessels are far less polluting than the support boats and recreational vessels that motor alongside them, or the cities and ports they call into. The reality is that commercial ships work to much higher environmental standards than the buildings that house the regulators overseeing the industry.
The oceans, harbours, and ports of the world are the maritime industry’s domain. Seafarers and sailors see things no one else does. No one else has regular access, at scale, to the oceans of the world.
Most – not all – but certainly most of the seafarers and industry people I talk to are horrified by what is happening to our oceans. They want change as much as anyone. Combined we have the skills, domain knowledge, and resources to make an enormous difference – while running global trade as well.
What have been some of the most significant challenges Eyesea has faced since its inception, and how have you overcome them?
This job is simultaneously fun, frustrating, complicated, rewarding, and, for lack of a better word, crappy. None of the people involved in Eyesea had any background in this sort of work or had done anything like this previously. In some ways that was good, but it has been a steep learning curve.
Like any volunteer-driven non-profit, the challenges are many – money, time, organisation, setting priorities, trying to give other volunteers as much of your time as you can, and realising you can’t be everywhere at once.
Like any tech development company, the challenges are many – scoping and building tech is hard, testing and refining tech is harder, building (and rebuilding) user numbers is hard, working with developers is hard – I am sure the feeling is mutual.
Our hardest/lowest point was probably the realisation that we had to rebuild our reporting app and data management system at the end of year one. But, on the flip side of this, the Eyesea membership stepped up in ways I never thought possible. ChartWorld fought in our corner hard to recover the usable data from version one, and Bernhard Schulte Ship Management and MariApps offered to cover the cost of rebuilding the reporting app. It really was unbelievable to see the industry deliver expertise, support, and patience.
I think everyone involved in a start-up type or non-profit organisation needs a degree of steel-of-purpose and resilience, but 99.9% of Eyesea data is really bad news. I treat every photo as evidence of someone trying to help, someone not accepting the status quo or the trend towards a much bleaker future. Or, being male, I bottle up my emotions and don’t talk or think about it too much. Both strategies have a place.
How important are partnerships and collaborations to Eyesea’s mission? Are there any notable partnerships that have been particularly impactful?
Diverse perspectives are essential because our current methods of addressing both maritime and terrestrial pollution simply aren’t working. And it’s not working at the regulatory, community, government, or NGO levels. If pollution is now an industrial-size problem (it is), that means we need industrial-sized solutions. We need to think differently about this and the only people with experience in industrial-sized solutions and thinking are…industry. Companies, and those who know the coasts and oceans need a place at the big kids’ table.
It is also fair to ask if the institutions and regulators who got us to this point are fit-for-purpose to now play the lead role in determining workable solutions? Policy doesn’t clean beaches or pick up rubbish. Volunteers and rubbish collectors do. Different voices are needed, and we need workable, realistic, cost-effective, and pragmatic solutions.
Q: What are your aspirations for Eyesea in the next five years? How do you see the organisation evolving and expanding its impact on maritime pollution?
On the technology front, we are advancing towards developing a comprehensive platform for pollution reporting, analysis, modelling, alerts, and clean-up support. This will be made available to anyone that wants to do good with it – ports, local governments, communities, and clean-up groups. A workable solution must involve everyone – not just those who have made this their raison d’être.
As an organisation, Eyesea needs to move beyond being a group of enthusiastic volunteers at some point. The tech potential and the size of the job mean the sky really is the limit in terms of solution delivery and action…but we cannot lose the clear focus of where we can make a difference and what role we can play that is different from others. And that’s not easy to do.
But, perhaps most importantly, this has to remain fun and it needs to channel the good things the maritime industry can deliver.