Tara Ocean Foundation – A new perspective on marine biodiversity

Publication date: 5 Jun 2023

Tara Ocean Foundation is a French TGE beneficiary introduced to the network by our partner Fondation de France. As France’s first foundation to be recognised as promoting the public interest dedicated to the ocean, they are leading a scientific revolution around the marine ecosystem. Jonathan Achard, Head of Philanthropy at the Tara Ocean Foundation, shared some insights about the organisation’s mission and current initiatives.

TGE: Could you describe your organisation’s mission and key objectives in a few words?

Since 2003, the schooner Tara has travelled the seas of the world to study and understand the Ocean. Onshore, the Tara Ocean Foundation is the first foundation in France to be recognised as promoting the public interest and devoted to the ocean. It organises scientific missions, implements educational programs for schools and conducts advocacy activities to raise awareness and educate young people, mobilise political decision-makers and enable developing countries to access this new knowledge.

Our Foundation develops an innovative and unprecedented open science which should enable prediction and better planning for the impact of climate change. Our schooner Tara is a floating laboratory that has already covered more than 570 000 kilometres since 2003, stopping off in more than 60 countries on 12 expeditions carried out in collaboration with the best international laboratories and organisations (CNRS, CEA, EMBL, PSL, MIT, NASA). Their partner laboratories have produced more than 500 publications in renowned international scientific journals.

Among our main priorities for the next year, we stand against the plastic pollution, it is one of the main challenges our planet is going to face. Thanks to its status as Special Observer at the United Nations, the Foundation works relentlessly in knowledge-sharing and advocacy. And finally, after 11 years of negotiations, the historic UN Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty was signed last month, thanks to the NGOs like ours playing an active role.

Last but not least, our Schooner, Tara, set sail last April for our new expedition: Tara EUROPA. Understanding the impact of human activities on the biodiversity of European coastal ecosystems. The main topic is One Health!

TGE: Is cross-border giving an important part of your fundraising strategy? If yes, which countries do you target?

The major part of our donors is domiciled in France. Nevertheless, the new expedition Tara EUROPA, currently in progress, brings our schooner to go along the European coasts of 15 countries. The stopovers are the occasion to mobilise prospects in these countries and to propose them to make a donation by benefitting from a local tax advantage, thanks to TGE. Also, for the duration of the expedition (18 months), we will deploy actions for their attention.

©Sacha Bollet – Fondation Tara Ocean

TGE: How can the collaboration between environmental philanthropic organisations be developed in the upcoming years?

We share the conviction that the main challenge remains the possible alliance between NGOs, funders and donors, and companies. If we are to achieve systemic transformations, it is imperative to forge new alliances both to secure long-term funding and to raise awareness among all stakeholders. In this way, we can give environmental philanthropy greater strength and impact.

TGE: How do climate change and (plastic and chemical) pollution impact the ocean? What are the consequences for human lives and marine biodiversity?

Climate change strongly impacts the Ocean in three major ways: oceanic warming, acidification and deoxygenation. These three phenomena create an unprecedented biodiversity loss and as a consequence of all the functions it sustains. The Ocean and its biodiversity have a key role in maintaining life on Earth possible.

As for pollution from plastic, it is not just a matter of waste. Plastic materials raise serious concerns all along the chain of value, from production to end of life. In the Ocean, we have a clear image of the physical threat they are, choking marine animals that ingest them, but the unseen part is at least as problematic. Plastics, when degraded in micro particles, are also toxic for many organisms, entering food chains via microscopic planktons.

TGE: How do you make scientific data user-friendly in your efforts to raise awareness of the topic?

This is a major challenge for the science we produce, first to be understood by the general public, but also for decision-makers to base their policies on the most robust knowledge we have.

Addressing the general public and students in schools is at the core of our activity since the beginning of the adventure, 20 years ago. We’re trying to give society a new perspective on the Ocean, making visible what we call “the invisible majority”, being the millions of algae, animals, viruses and bacteria that we cannot see yet represent the most important part of ocean life.

For decision-makers, the objective is to convert fundamental science into tools that could help them better manage the Ocean. Thus, for every major event we attend, we write documents called “policy briefs”, presenting what strategic decisions need to be made based on science. The role is actually quite similar to what IPCC produces for climate decisions.

Changes in our daily life are needed but are not the final step of the solution. When addressing plastic pollution and toxicity, for example, there is an urgent need for bold policies, both at an international and national level. Empowering citizens and giving them the tools to address their representatives is fundamental to our actions.

This social legitimacy helps us afterwards when presenting politicians the actions science indicates to us. Even better, the appropriation of an environmental matter by society can sometimes make decision-makers come for advice to us and other NGOs.

TGE: Have you worked on or planned to conduct research in technologies aimed at cleaning the ocean? What are the impediments to developing and utilising such technologies?

To “clean” the ocean is an illusion. It is not possible to clean it of plastic when it is already too fragmented and therefore irrecoverable. The associations and NGOs working on these issues are a great vector of awareness through beach cleanups, for example, but do not offer a permanent solution.

Our position is the following: the best way to clean up the ocean is to reduce plastic pollution at its source, i.e. on land. This starts with eliminating single-use plastic, reducing the production of other plastics, reusing plastics already produced, and recycling as the final step.

TGE: Can you briefly share your contribution to the UN Treaty for the Protection of Biodiversity in the High Seas? In your view, how can the provisions be effectively implemented after the ratification?

During the negotiations, the Tara Ocean Foundation first contributed through its logistic expertise on how to organize scientific expeditions in the high-seas, or Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). The main objective was then to make sure the Treaty wouldn’t impede fundamental science, that we deeply need, in ABNJ.

The High-Seas are a zone of unlimited resources that only rich countries can access. Thus, we also strongly advocated for genetic resources discovered in the high seas to be put on open-access databases and for actors making profits over these data to transfer part of the profits into a global fund dedicated to capacity-building in developing countries.

We will now be working on quick ratification of this Treaty and proposing science-based Area Based Management Tools, including high-seas Marine Protected Areas.

TGE: What are the next steps for your organisation? Are there any particular projects you plan to undertake?

We have recently unveiled an ambitious project: Tara Polar Station. This science station of 175 tons will embark scientists from all over the world on multiple successive drifts, until 2045, to study biodiversity and its adaptation to climate change in the Arctic.

Tara Polar Station is set to make observations and conduct experiments on-site, under temperatures ranging between -20° and -45°C in the heart of the polar night in winter. The construction has already started in France.

This will be a big step for Tara Foundation, after 20 years, to manage a second boat. And, of course, we are going to face a huge challenge to gather enough partners and donors to make our vision a reality. Hopefully, we will be able to share more soon…

You can support Tara Ocean Foundation via their TGE online donation page.