When Kurt Lieber started California’s Ocean Defenders Alliance in 2000, he could barely find anyone who knew about “ghost gear” — equipment lost or abandoned by commercial fishermen — and its hazardous effects on marine life and divers.
“The Internet still wasn’t a tool widely used to gather or share information,” says Lieber, recipient of Scuba Diving’s November/December Sea Hero award, sponsored by Oris Watches USA. “Marine debris is a dismaying example of the old saying, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ as far as public
“Fast forward 15 years, and the tide is changing,” Lieber says. “There is now a great deal of scientific information available. The problem is that every year the commercial fishing industry loses a staggering amount of gearlines, nets and traps. Consequently, our work is never done.”
Never done, perhaps, but now maybe just a little bit easier. As Sea Hero of the Year, Lieber will receive a $5,000 cash award on behalf of ODA from Oris, which also awards each of Scuba Diving’s Sea Heroes an Aquis Date watch.
“This is very exciting for me because I’ve grown up reading Scuba Diving,” Lieber says. “It has always inspired me not only to get into diving but also turn that energy into a positive force for change. I’m in awe of each of this year’s Sea Heroes — it humbles me to think that I was selected out of such a dedicated group of individuals.”
ODA combines the efforts of hundreds of dedicated volunteers — more than 200 divers working underwater along with hundreds of topside deckhands — to pull 21,000 pounds of nets from the seas around California to date, along with 290 traps, 28,000 feet of trap lines, and 10,000 pounds of debris. “Computers, batteries, boat masts, rudders, space heaters, metal stairs, refrigerators, the list goes on and on,” Lieber says.
Last year, ODA purchased a used boat and has been working on upgrades and repairs to that vessel, berthed in San Pedro. “As anyone who has ever owned or been around a boat knows: Things are always needing maintenance, repair or replacement,” says Lieber. “We have the manpower and know-how, but we are constantly working to keep our boats running well and fueled up.”
Lieber intends to put the Oris cash award directly into the recently acquired boat in order to launch additional debris-removal expeditions. “This award allows us to travel farther from our home port and get to sites we haven’t been able to reach because of the high costs of fuel, oil and boat maintenance,” he says.
Why does the work of ODA matter so much? “Scientists have estimated that nylon nets can last 650 years in the ocean,” Lieber explains. “A net that is in the water for that long does no one any good. Animals are dying continuously — needlessly — and divers are losing what we all want to see: live fish! The fishing community loses as well because of decreased populations. I’ve been diving since the mid-’70s, and have seen a drastic decline in biodiversity, water quality and wildlife sightings and interactions. Having witnessed this loss firsthand is what drives me to do what I can, in my lifetime, to defend ocean life
Celebrating and encouraging engaged, committed communities like Ocean Defenders Alliance is at the heart of the Sea Hero awards.
“We are excited to present this award to Ocean Defenders Alliance and its founder, Kurt Lieber,” says V.J. Geronimo, CEO, North America, at Oris Watches USA. “Each year, it’s difficult to single out just one Sea Hero of the Year, when all are doing such important work, from educators who have led the way for decades in assessing worldwide fish populations to videographers shining a spotlight on the work of scientists and volunteers alike to rangers defending the integrity of marine-protected areas and shark habitats. These heroes are real people who inspire everyday divers to get involved in protecting the marine environment, and for that we salute them all.”