If this were a far Eastern legend, we would tell the story of a little panda in love with the ocean. A panda in love, and also worried. Worried about the evil we humans do to the ocean and how she could convince us to help her beloved sea recover. But, although it was her love for the ocean that made her join the Panda Club as a child and later become a marine biologist, this is not a legend and Nina Jensen, CEO of REV Ocean, is not just a real person, she is a very realistic one as well.
Also in love with the sea, also a realistic person, there is a moment in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ in which Hemingway’s sailor muses: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is”. This is how we imagine Nina when, after a lifetime of being that panda, she decided to accept Kjell Inge Røkke’s offer to set sail aboard REV Ocean and captain his project. Embarking on a new adventure, facing the usual limits of an environmental activist, and looking for her best chance to make a real difference or, as their ambitious purpose states: “To make the ocean healthy again”.
You have said that protecting ocean life is “a 24/7 job”, a mission to which you have dedicated most of your life. But what led you to the ocean? How did it all begin?
Well, I think everyone has a natural tendency to be drawn to the ocean. That’s where we all came from. Life in the ocean has existed more than seven times longer than life on land and, at some point, we all crawled out of it. For me, I think it started from a very early age, just loving to be in and around the ocean, extremely fascinated by all the life that was in the ocean. It was like a safe haven and a place unlike anything else, where I would escape on the weekends from everyday life. So, when I was seven years old, I decided to become a member of the Panda Club, which was a youth club in WWF for environmentally engaged kids and, I think from a very early age, I both had a love for the ocean, but also a desire to become a marine biologist and work to protect it.
You spent most of your professional career at WWF Norway, where you ended up as Secretary General. For outsiders, changing career from a well-known environmental organization for a new one “based on” a huge vessel, can sound strange. What made you make the final decision? How was the jump into REV Ocean?
It was a very difficult decision to make. When I was initially given the offer, I turned it down immediately. Working for WWF was always my life goal, and when people would ask me “What will you do if you’re not working for WWF?”, I would almost have a panic attack because it wasn’t possible for me to think that there would be life outside of WWF. And that’s where I thought I would have the biggest impact. But, of course, working for the organization for 15 years, I also saw that there are limits to what environmental activists can do on their own, and unless we’re able to get the big industrial players, capitalists, philanthropists on board, we will never have a chance to save life in the ocean.
So, I worked with Kjell Inge Røkke for the broader part of a year before I made the final decision to jump ship, so to speak. During that year, it became very clear to me that he was equally as passionate as I am in terms of making a difference for the ocean. He is also a businessman who’s pretty much always succeeded at the business ventures he’s set forth and he’s a billionaire, with the capital and the means to make a difference. So, at the end of the day, the decision became quite easy, because then I could combine my conservation skills and passion, with his industrial skills, and passion, and capital, and hopefully be able to make a real difference for the ocean.
REV Ocean’s mission is “To make the ocean healthy again” and, to achieve it, your Science Strategy is focused on three main points: Plastic pollution + Climate change + Overfishing and environmental impacts of fishing. How do you manage each of them? Do you put more effort into any of them or are all three equals?
All three are equally important, but of course, they will be prioritized differently depending on the different ocean areas that we go to. Unfortunately, the REV Ocean vessel is delayed and the best estimate at this point is that it will be ready in two to three years’ time. We will dedicate our science missions and expeditions, according to our science program where these three are our priorities, and unfortunately, most of these problems are equally big in all the different ocean areas around the world. But of course, we may want to target plastic pollution, for example, at a bigger scale, when we go to the Arctic, rather than overfishing because it will probably have a bigger positive impact. And similarly, for other ocean areas, we may be prioritizing differently depending on what the major environmental problems are in the areas that we’re visiting. So, when we do our call for proposals, it will be very targeted towards those specific areas. And then, selecting people and organizations that are best placed to find solutions to these, and that pretty much are the best in the world when it comes to the scientific knowledge, generating new knowledge, and covering the knowledge gaps that we currently have, and contributing to scaling up the solutions.
The vessel is undoubtedly the most remarkable part of a project that goes much further. We could say that it is its heart, but at the same time, it is also its main front. You have told us it is delayed, but when do you think it will be operating at 100%?
We’re still waiting for an updated timeline from the yard, but, as I said, the best estimate is probably around three years. We were supposed to be out sailing from May 2021, so we’re very impatient in terms of “getting on with it”. But the good news is that we have several pieces of scientific equipment that we’re already putting to good use. We have an ROV [Remotely Operated underwater Vehicle], that has already been on scientific missions to the Arctic to look at various deep-sea habitats and found new species that have never been discovered before, just as an example. And our submarine will be ready at the end of May and put into operation from June. Both of these two pieces of scientific equipment will be offered to the scientific community to contribute to knowledge gathering, mapping the seafloor, and finding solutions to our three priorities, plastics, climate change, and overfishing.
The vessel has three operational modes: Research mode, Expedition mode, and Charter mode. Can you explain each of them and how they are going to coexist? How do you organize it?
We have specialized people for all three modes of operation, and we’ll be closely collaborating with organizations in each area. 2/3 of the time of the vessel will be spent on research and expeditions based on our science program and the three priorities that we have discussed, but the expeditions will also include, for example, finding shipwrecks, finding new species that haven’t been discovered before, or bringing philanthropists and other key influential stakeholders to key parts of the ocean, so that they can see firsthand what is actually happening.
You can imagine being able to bring the key decision-makers for tuna management, for example, down to the tuna spawning grounds in a submarine so that they can actually see firsthand how amazing the tuna is, how the spawning is taking place, hear from the scientists about the current challenges related to the management, and then have a more intimate dialogue and conversation around how this can be resolved. Similarly, you know, bringing philanthropists, investors, solutions providers, down to coral reefs to explore those that are most resilient, how they can be better protected, how they can be used to restore and better manage other coral reefs, is another example. We will also have workshops or small convenings of different groups of people on the vessel so that they can discuss and be presented with various types of solutions from innovators and tech experts from all over the world, and then matching them with funding and the right partners so that they can more quickly scale their solutions.
In terms of charter, this is a way of operating the vessel to get some of the costs covered. Our owner has graciously said that he will cover the full cost of operating the initiative but trying to have some form of cost recovery is, of course, important. And by renting out the vessel to high-net-worth individuals from all over the world will be a key part of our operations. The important thing that will hopefully also follow from this is an increasing engagement and dedication for the ocean so that the philanthropy towards the ocean will increase.
Regarding, not the substance, but the form of the project. Is the vessel operation going to be sustainable in the same way in all these three modes?
It will be operating in the same way in all three modes, but of course, a different service level is expected whether you are in charter mode or in science mode. That will be very different, but sustainability will be an integral part throughout all three modes of operation. This includes all the equipment and products that we will have onboard, that they will need to be responsibly and sustainably sourced, eliminating waste, trying to as best possible be a plastic-free ship, reducing our energy consumption, and having all sorts of mechanisms for energy reuse and regeneration. We also expect a certain kind of behavior from people on board in terms of managing their own footprint, of course, and everything from the water to the foods, to various types of activities that we will undertake, everything will be done to reduce our footprint.
Initially, we wanted it to be a fully electric ship, but when we’re intending to be out to sea for 120 days consecutively, it’s simply not feasible. There are no charging stations in the middle of the Southern Ocean, so, at this point in time, it’s just not possible. It’s inevitable that we will have a big footprint, and fuel consumption will be the biggest footprint that we have. So, in addition to having all sorts of energy recovery systems onboard, large battery packs, solar panels, and all types of green and renewable energy that we can possibly integrate, we will offset for the footprint that we cannot reduce. That means investing in various types of blue carbon projects, and the one that we’ve been investing in up until now is a mangrove restoration project in Myanmar.
Although it is not the most striking aspect of the whole project, its main mission is to collect data, and you have said that “it’s time for an ocean data revolution”. What will that revolution consist of?
There is an incredible amount of data already out there connected with the ocean. I think there are more than 200 data portals or databases linked to the ocean, but there isn’t one place that combines them all and enables us to make meaningful analyses based on all of this data. That’s why we launched the Ocean Data Platform that will combine all of the open ocean data sources that are out there in one place and provide scientists, decision-makers, and others to be able to use this data in more meaningful ways.
The Ocean Data Platform has since been merged with Hub Ocean, which is an ocean technology and data initiative, launched together with the Aker Group and the World Economic Forum, and the intention is to onboard the world’s major ocean data sets including closed data sources from various types of industries and public data. HUB Ocean is now a separate initiative, headed up by Kimberly Lein-Mathisen, previous head of Microsoft in Norway, and doing an incredible job to gather and upload all of the existing ocean data sources that are out there, and exploring what relevant data sources that are currently closed should be opened up and be made available over the next few years.
In your project, you fight against overfishing and environmental impacts of fishing, but also put your eyes on marine aquaculture or fish processing, as far as they are part of that sustainable blue economy. In terms of sustainability, what challenges do you think our industry will face in the coming years? And how can REV Ocean help overcome them?
First of all, if we are to be able to sustainably feed a growing population, we need to drastically change our food system. We need to reduce the food waste that we currently have on a global scale, but we also need to produce more food from the ocean. Currently, seafood only consists of a very small percentage of the total food consumption in the world, and we really need to change that, and a large proportion of course will need to also come from aquaculture. The current industry, at least in Norway, is riddled with problems, and these need to be resolved if we are to grow the industry going forward. The key problems are linked to sea lice, escapes that are influencing on the wild salmon, and, of course, all the emissions and pollution that are resulting from the aquaculture. For example, fish being transported by air to China for further processing and then transported back, doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
Also, the industry has some major challenges with fish welfare. A recent report that just came out from The Norwegian Veterinary Institute indicates that 130 million fish died in 2021, which is an incredible waste. We simply cannot afford to have this kind of waste and a production system that allows for animals being treated this way. All of these issues need to be addressed to continue to grow the industry.
We also need to expand the scope of the species that we’re looking at farming. It shouldn’t just be the top of the food chain, like salmon, but we should be exploring in a lot more detail the lower trophic levels, and how we can have multi-trophic or integrated aquaculture, where you have multiple species being farmed at the same time. If you can also look at regenerative or restorative aquaculture, where you’re rebuilding damaged habitats, such as kelp or seaweed habitats, and you can integrate different types of aquaculture in addition to that, I think that is something that holds great promise for the future.
REV Ocean will of course be sourcing solutions from all over the world, bringing together the right organizations, scientists, innovators, investors, and tech experts to scale up some of these solutions, making sure that the great ideas find the industry, and that the solutions are invested in and scaled. We will be using the REV Ocean vessel as a test platform for some of these technologies, as well, and hopefully, bring philanthropists to the table to make sure that the solutions that are already out there are scaled.
Although the REV Ocean vessel is still in the shipyard, it has already been put out to sea and the CEO, Nina Jensen, is assembling the best team for the voyage ahead. Like Hemingway’s sailor knew “no man was ever alone on the sea”, and neither is this woman. In her logbook, there is a course set: to bring together the right people so that science and funds go hand in hand and, together, provide the solutions the ocean needs. The people who will make the ocean healthy again.
About REV Ocean
Established in Fornebu, Norway in 2017, REV Ocean is a not-for-profit company funded by Norwegian business-man Kjell Inge Røkke, after he signed the Giving Pledge in 2017, vowing to donate more than 50% of his fortune to philanthropic causes. Its objective is to enable a new generation of ocean solutions and raise awareness of global impacts on the marine environment, with the overarching purpose and ambition of “To make the ocean healthy again”. Any profit generated from its projects will be reinvested into its work for a healthier ocean.