Sea Change – The hope, resilience & impact of Ocean Activism in 2020

Image: Sally Low

As we started 2020, little did we know what the year had in store for the world. As the global pandemic swept the globe in March bringing so much anxiety, fear, sadness and financial challenges, we were all dramatically thrust into new ways of working, new ways of being and new ways of living on Planet Ocean. As with all organisations, the health and wellbeing of our incredible team, supporters and volunteers was paramount in our mind. Our community is what makes successful ocean campaigns happen.

The environmental crisis didn’t stop when the pandemic hit, in fact the two crises are inextricably linked. One crisis also doesn’t negate another. The ocean crisis remained ever present with the multiple stresses of habitat loss, plastic pollution, sewage pollution and climate. We were determined not to deviate from our campaign course.

As the pandemic unfolded so too did new tales of ocean recovery – dolphins returning to the coastline, water quality improving in rivers, less plastic on our beaches – the world seemingly breathing a sigh of relief. It showed that where nature has the space to recover, it can, and particularly in our ocean. The ocean, just like our communities, is resilient, and given the chance will fill itself with life, sustain and nourish us in myriad ways.

During the lockdown, we saw just how important the connection to wild nature to us all – how people missed the beach, the briny sea, the waves, the forests and our green spaces. We saw how important and finite these spaces are, and that they need to be protected more than ever. Their wild existence is non-negotiable.

So, in March, we quickly kicked into action, with social distancing and digital connectivity, to deliver our campaigns and support our community in what has been a remarkable year of ocean activism.

Amongst the maelstrom of change we are proud of the impact we have been able to deliver together. We’ve set a new bar of ambition on water quality, for our ocean and rivers. We’ve called out the biggest plastic polluters and won ground-breaking new legislation. We’ve empowered hundreds of thousands of digital ocean activists. We’ve engaged almost a million students. We’ve taken the new issue of ocean rewilding, collaborating with specialists and experts in the field. And we’ve set ourselves up for a big year on the ocean & climate agenda in 2021.

“Whilst the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds, we must also not forget that 2020 marked the start of the ocean decade. Despite the challenges we have all faced, I’m so proud of how the community has come together to accelerate ocean activism this year. We’ve seen record interest and engagement with the campaigns, and I’d like to thank you all – every voice – in helping us keep the ocean at the top of the agenda. We must continue to expand our efforts, collaborate, bring diverse voices in and help shape the future of the ocean together. United our voices truly create change.” Hugo Tagholm, CEO SAS.

Highlights of 2020


Here’s to you.

We couldn’t do any of this without you – thank you. Without your grit, energy and dedication to protect the ocean, we wouldn’t have achieved such a record-breaking year of petitions, government action, digital ocean activism, education, youth engagement and community empowerment. Together we are #GenerationSea and we are rising.

We turned 30.

Three decades of ocean activism and counting. Sure, the hair styles and fashion may have changed but the passion to end sewage pollution and protect the UK’s blue spaces from being overrun with plastic is stronger than ever.

Exposed the dirty secrets of water companies.

There is no love lost between Surfers Against Sewage and UK water companies. For too long they have gotten away with dangerous and damaging behaviour that sees stakeholders profit whilst the public, fragile eco-systems and wildlife are put at risk. This year, our Water Quality report shouted these facts louder than ever and the response from our supporters and mainstream media shows that public awareness and outrage is growing. Watch this space for more action in 2021.

Took the fight to government.

Together we pushed the need to end sewage pollution up the political agenda. The pressure you have put on MPs to change the law is incredible and, finally, they’re listening. You submitted hundreds of health and water reports via the Safer Seas Service app, organised protests by local Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), and helped us to expose the failings of water industry through our Water Quality report. This action culminated in the Secretary of State, George Eustice, taking receipt of our 44,691 signature-strong petition and we’ve 100 MPs (and counting) backing our demands when the Sewage (Inland) Water Bill is tabled in parliament next year.

‘Despite all odds, we have had one of the most impactful years we have seen at SAS. We have been shouting even louder this year and have really rattled the cages of big business and government. I am so incredibility proud of what our Ocean Activist community has achieved and the change we are driving together for a bluer and more beautiful world. I can’t wait to see our impact grow in 2021 and beyond’. Amy Slack, Head of Campaigns & Policy.

 Got ourselves a Royal patron.

His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, became our first patron. With his continued support, we believe our mission to tackle ocean pollution and build a thriving community of ocean activists will reach new heights. We’re looking forward to working closely with him over the coming years, and will always be ready should he fancy a quick surf on the royal board.

Rallied young activists.

Are you ready? Big inhale….

10,000 pupils attended our Pupil Power Assembly this November; almost one million primary school children are now enrolled in our Plastic Free Schools program; we invited young activists to challenge the Secretary of State on plastic waste issues in our All Party Parliamentary Group meeting; thousands of students, parents and teachers, took part in our Digital Ocean School during lockdown.

The future looks bright for the ocean and we’re only just getting started.

“A huge thank you to everyone who has engaged with our education work this year. We are inspired by the waves our youngest ocean activists have created. Power to the pupils!” Emily van de Geer, Education Manager.

Continued to call out the biggest plastic pollution offenders.

Plastic pollution is on the rise and the main offenders are still at it. With our Return to Offender, Mass Unwrap and Plastic Protest activations, we highlighted and targeted the culprits who continue to pollute our environment will pointless plastic and raw sewage dumps. Despite restrictions over 14,400 of you took part in (COVID-safe) beach and community clean-ups, filled out brand audits, and emailed MPs and supermarkets demanding change. A whopping 17,606.3KG of plastic was kept out of the ocean thanks to your efforts.

Championed the voice of the Ocean in Westminster.

We are committed to representing you at the highest level, uniting the voices of a vast and diverse network of ocean activists in the quest for change. We have had a year of collaboration and creativity, helping bring together MPs, ministers, NGOs, academics, environmental experts and campaigns to explore the changes needed to truly deliver sustainable seas through the Ocean Conservation APPG. We were delighted to work with the Wildlife & Countryside link on the Ocean Recovery Manifesto – a blueprint of the radical action needed to revitalise our seas.

United even more communities to take up the fight.

We weren’t expecting to hit our target of 125 accredited Plastic Free communities a year early, but we did. That brings the total number of locations signed up to the program to 730 and means 1,000s more are taking up the fight to end plastic pollution. This year we’ve started work on a new phase of activity, deepening the relationship with our communities to achieve even more. From motivating people in their areas to use plastic-free alternatives to lobbying businesses and local government to stop the reliance on pointless plastic, we’re rallying the troops for big action. Special mention to all of those who helped clean-up the container spill that saw the West coast plastered with single-use nappies and diapers.

“Every time I speak to a Plastic Free Community or spot something that they’ve got going locally to reduce single use plastic, I’m just totally inspired. This year in particular, in the face of such challenging circumstances, the passion and determination of our community leads has really shone through. And all of these leads are volunteers!” Rachel Yates, Plastic Free Communities Manager.

Announced big wins and laid out our demands.

See ya 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million drink stirrers and 1.8 billion cotton buds. You’re not getting into our water systems and destroying wildlife anymore! Down to the collective effort of SAS supporters and other organisations, the government finally confirmed that these items are now banned from England (unless medically required). We hope this is the start of the government’s strategy to phase-out single-use plastic.

Gained more support than ever before.

Without in-person events this year, we feared activities and engagement in the cause would slow down. We were wrong. Very wrong. From financial donations, to raising awareness, to becoming a fully-fledged SAS Members, you’ve continued to support the ocean, through the most challenging of years.

“This year you’ve run virtual marathons, trekked the coast path, paddle boarded, cycled, swam, sold apples from your garden and even went on an expedition to the North Pole! All to help save the ocean. You’re awesome.” Franka Fueller, Head of Individual Giving.

Pic: Jayne Riggers

Marvelled at the ocean.

This picture says it all. We’re continually amazed by what the ocean provides for us, mentally, physically, socially and economically. For some, our connection to the big blue in 2020 has been distanced. For others, our closeness to it comes hand in hand with a feeling of immense gratitude. Either way, we’ve all faced an understanding of the ocean’s impact on our sense of wellbeing and freedom.

As we look to 2021, we know just how important it is to keep working towards a thriving ocean, one everyone can experience and enjoy safely. See you in Jan!

Pic: Megan Hemsworth, Surf Sistas