An entrepreneur's fight to save the seas

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 17 December 2015

CTC volunteers move a Biorock reef to a site. Photo by: The Coral Triangle Conservancy

A number of businesses — like consulting firms that have created dedicated teams to offer advisory services on securing clean technology financing — are cashing in on the renewable energy and clean technology boom fueled by climate change.

But Scott Countryman is doing the opposite. He’s investing his own money in piloting a technology and pioneering a business model he hopes will save what he loves most — the world’s oceans.

The links between climate change and the health of oceans aren’t always apparent to the naked eye, but a vicious cycle connects the two closely. Oceans are natural carbon absorbers, taking in gases that would otherwise go to the Earth’s atmosphere. Too much of these pollutants have made oceans warmer and more acidic, leading to a chain reaction of weakened coral, an endangered marine species population, a threatened livelihood for humans living in coastal areas as well as more exposure to storm surges and rising sea levels.

The Coral Triangle Conservancy aims to end overfishing and to establish networks of areas where no fishing zones are strictly enforced and managed by the people in the coastal communities.

Countryman grew up with a love for the ocean. He’s visited some of the world’s most pristine beaches, from French Polynesia to the Azores, Hawaii to Fiji, engaged in fishing, diving and surfing. When not working, he would set sail, finding new surfing hotspots.

He explored the Philippines for a full two years after leaving in 2003 the business process outsourcing company he founded and helped grow. But in 2013, he decided he wanted to devote all his time to saving the Philippines’ marine ecosystem — one of the most diverse in the world, and one that is fast deteriorating.

“I realized there’s no way [I can save the oceans] with a part-time effort, with the size of the challenges and the scope of the problems and the seriousness of the issues that we’re facing,” Countryman told Devex.

He sold his last company doing digital content licensing and publishing, and traveled for eight months to study some of the most successful marine protected areas around the world, hoping to find that magic bullet.

What he found depressed him, he confessed. Most of the artificial reef building technologies he saw were made of old tires and sunken ships, or were too expensive and impractical. Others appeared unable to blend naturally with the environment underwater or to withstand strong typhoons.

But his trip to Northern Bali changed things. In the small fishing village of Pemuteran, he saw 70 Biorock structures and was “blown away.” The Biorock artificial reef doesn’t easily die thanks to the higher level of alkaline that forms around the domes during mineral accretion — or the process where minerals in the sea crystallize and form layers of calcium carbonate that grow on the metal structure following the release of electricity. It is in these layers where corals will eventually grow.

“I don’t have a stock in Biorock … [or any] vested interests. I just want to do something that works,” he said.

So the self-confessed biophiliac spent time training under Thomas Goreau, the marine biologist who’s been working on the technology for years, to learn more about the science behind it. He then returned to the Philippines to get his philanthropic foundation moving: The Coral Triangle Conservancy, whose two main aims are to end overfishing and to establish networks of areas where no fishing zones are strictly enforced and managed by the people in the coastal communities.

Countryman launched projects in Busuanga, Palawan and the Caramoan Islands in Camarines Sur, but CTC’s big focus area is the “ecosystem sized” marine sanctuaries in the municipality of Nasugbu in Batangas, which serves as the entrance to the Verde Island Passage, dubbed by marine conservationists as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity,” but it is threatened by a combination of destructive fishing practices, pollution, unsustainable coastal development and climate change.

Countryman however faced “crippling bureaucracy” at the local government level, corruption, mistrust, threats of violence and “ignorance and greed” fueled by poverty.

“They say a hungry stomach has no conscience, and when you’re looking at villages of thousands of fishermen who aren’t able to catch fish, it’s like looking at the faces of zombies,” he said.

So Countryman, with the help of a few volunteers willing to donate their time and effort, devised different interventions, among them a coral reef farming program in which fishermen learn of the importance of maintaining healthy marine ecosystems and abandon their illegal fishing practices.

Each of the fishermen is put in charge of an individual reef, and Countryman plans to find sponsors who’d be willing to forgo a real fish tank and pay money for a virtual aquarium instead. The idea is for the fishermen to take videos of their reefs and upload it in a platform where the sponsors can watch them, complete with updates from CTC’s local marine biologist on new species of fish that have settled on the reefs, for example.

At present, the concept is in its test phase with nine IT professionals, including the former president of game development at Zynga, helping provide feedback to refine the service, but Countryman hopes in due course it would incentivize more fishermen to change course and join CTC’s conservation efforts.

Scott Countryman with staff on Emanta, CTC's solar catamaran. Photo by: The Coral Triangle Conservancy

The team also worked with the municipality of Nasugbu on an ordinance that would compel land developers doing projects within a kilometer of the coast to pay a certain amount of money to a mitigation fund, which in turn would help build Biorock reefs in the area.

Today, Scott estimates the building of the Biorock structure, not including power cost and payout to fishermen turned reef caretakers, can cost around $300 — a far cry from the original $1,700 the CTC spent on their first dome. He said they are working to bring the cost down to under $100.

To cut costs and become more environmentally friendly, Countryman also transformed his 114-foot trimaran — which he bought from the sale of his BPO company — to a solar-powered catamaran that now works as a research station for CTC’s coral reef projects, a charger of small fishing boats and to power Biorock domes.

Now CTC is spending just $5 to power each Biorock dome, a 94 percent decrease from the usual $87.

But to really get to scale, Countryman is working to standardize the technology. That means ensuring the size and shapes of the structure are the same — and in which case he thinks a dome or pyramid structure has a better chance of withstanding the waves — and the amount and types of materials used are the same.

He believes this would allow coral reef restoration project in coastal municipalities around the Philippines to achieve what he calls “highway parity” — the process in which the local government has a dedicated line item in its annual budget where the cost of restoring a kilometer of coral reef, for example, is about the same as building a kilometer of paved road.

Finding sustainability in an unsustainable environment

Countryman did not invent the Biorock technology, nor is he the only marine conservationist out there.

But he sees things with a business perspective. When he met Goreau, he said he saw a “brilliant scientist talking about all these amazing innovations.” The whole time, all he could think of was creating coral reefs the size of shopping centers, and making them affordable.

There is, however, one problem: Countryman and his bank account are stretched — almost to the limit. He has started looking into climate change funding grants, but he learned early it requires significant time and effort, and even then there’s no guarantee. The world of aid is not a welcoming place for someone lacking manpower and in need of immediate cash, he found.

“The sad thing is when you say you’re doing environmental work, people expect you to do it for free,” he said “And If you say you’re going to charge money for it, they think you’re being greedy.”

With an entrepreneurial spirit, Countryman is thinking of ways to continue financing the young organization’s work. CTC is now running outdoor educational programs with university students from some of Manila’s elite schools and corporate employees, in the hopes of raising awareness of the ocean’s importance and attracting sponsorship for the monitoring and safekeeping of one of the nine coves in the Hamilo Coast Marine Sanctuary.

Just last week, a group of 35 students from the International School of Manila came to Nasugbu and helped build four coral reef domes. The school has also expressed interest in handling the cost of managing one of the coves, which could amount to as much as $50,000 per year for 20 to 200 hectares of coral reef.

Countryman aims to get 50,000 students by the end of the year to experience the ocean, with the hopes that in the process it would lead them to love and care for it as he does.

It’s unclear how he’ll do it. To accomplish all this will require patience. But what comes across from Countryman is restlessness, to get things done and move along. He cannot afford patience, perhaps because what he sees in the ocean tells him he is running out of time.

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About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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