Jeff Stoike: Blue Action Lab

As the winter chill of February continues to prickle the skin, the warm tides of the Bahamas may sound particularly appealing. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with someone working to preserve the Bahamas’ pristine ocean ecosystem. Our guest today is the co-founder of Blue Action Lab, Jeff Stoike, who is with us to describe his organization’s efforts to protect fragile aquatic environments, discuss the legacy of colonization in the Bahamas, and talk about the new blue economy.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:25 JS – How do we address these issues? It’s really for us about stakeholder engagement and nothing works in the Bahamas and I dare say the work that I did in Panama, Brazil or anywhere else, even in the Middle East, nothing works if you don’t have buy in from the community.

00:43 Narrator – As the winter chill of February continues to prickle the skin, the warm tides of the Bahamas may sound particularly appealing. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with someone working to preserve the Bahamas’ pristine ocean ecosystem. Our guest today is the co-founder of Blue Action Lab, Jeff Stoike, who is with us to describe his organization’s efforts to protect fragile aquatic environments, discuss the legacy of colonization in the Bahamas, and talk about the new blue economy.

01:38 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the co-founder of the Blue Action Lab, Jeff Stoike. Jeff, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:46 Jeff Stoike (JS) – It’s great to be here. Thanks so much for having me and giving me an opportunity to share our Blue Action Lab story.

01:52 AW – Why don’t you first explain the mission of Blue Action Lab? Give us an idea of the organization’s genesis and what problems you’re trying to solve.

02:03 JS – Sure, sure. Well, we have multiple missions because we have multiple entities that sort of work under our umbrella of the Blue Action Lab. And in short, it’s to promote the sustainable blue economy now that term itself has various definitions, but in effect we’re looking to promote sustainability, ie climate resilience and climate mitigation through the ocean, and in doing so, protect the communities and ecologies. That live in and around the ocean rely on the ocean as a source of food and as a tremendous element in the global climate equation.

02:52 AW – So when the green economy applies to oceanic pursuits, we call it the blue economy. Is that fair to say?

03:00 JS – That is a fair assertion, yes.

03:02 AW – OK, before we dive into some of the work that the Blue Action Lab is involved in it, I’d like to take a step back and why don’t you tell us a little bit of your personal journey in into where we are now, you are a cancer survivor and you’ve been all over some very interesting places around the world. So why don’t you kind of give us a quick recap of of what you’ve done the last 8-10 years or so.

03:29 JS – Sounds good. Well, going back a little bit further than the last decade, I’m a California native, born and raised in San Diego with, with the love of the ocean sort of built into my formative years and then went upstate to university at UC Berkeley and there I think really had some strong social and environmental values instilled in me and such that immediately after graduating, went to the Middle East and had my first real experience in environmental projects in sustainable development, as it’s now called. Working with a Goldman Environmental prize winner in based in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula. Her name is Doctor Leila Escandar and these really innovative social environmental sustainability projects with respect to marginalized populations in Egypt and the Sinai around solid waste management. And so I saw how this work could really be done thought about how I could bring that back to my home environment, did some community development work in the Bay Area, San Francisco, Bayview/Hunters Point. Really, some of these communities that have been environmentally dispossessed and economically dispossessed trying to reverse that. That phenomenon did some sustainable agricultural projects in the southeast started a sustainable AG network in the state of Georgia and then fell backwards into graduate school, got a Masters degree in ecology at the University of Georgia, and through that ended up really getting into food and farming in Latin America. Starting in Panama, working with the Globe Indigenous Group on the border of Costa Rica, looking at their agroforestry traditions and how we’re getting incorporated into large scale sort of multinational development plans and then got my PhD at the what is now called the Yale School of the Environment working in Brazil, again looking at high diversity, native species, forest restoration in the Atlantic Forest on the coast there – sort of the cousin to the Amazon – about a very heavily-populated area. Lots of subsistence farmers and then after finishing graduate school did a did a tour of duty in a jungle of a different sort. Washington, DC spent some time at the Urban Institute developing climate, philanthropy and place-based impact investing initiatives there and then did a stint at the State Department, working in the Office of Foreign Assistance Resources. Looking at how our $40 billion foreign assistance budget flows out into the world and to what effect and and how to optimize that and it was in DC that I got what I thought was just burnt out. But it turns out I was much, much sicker than that spent a year in the hospital, found out. I had been diagnosed with leukemia and so spent the bulk of 2018. Fighting for my life and after which I’m I moved back to the home state of California, started my family and took a little bit of time off to figure out where I was going to take my experience, take my value set how it could best be applied, you know, really had a new lease on life and while taking a few months to just sort of surf and contemplate these questions. I had a really impactful conversation with a grad school colleague that had just started his coral reef restoration company in the Bahamas. And I thought, hmm, interesting. Don’t know much about the Bahamas. Certainly don’t know much about Grand Bahama, where he had landed and as I learned more and we exchanged some ideas some of what I had developed in the waves off the coast of Ventura, I decided to head down to to Grand Bahama and it was February of 2020 to meet with my former grad school colleague and his business partner. That had actually brought him down, landed him and his coral reef restoration company on the island of Grand Bahama. And this gentleman’s name is Rupert Hayward. He’s very central to this story. He’s a fifth generation Bahamian, and he’s been wanting to take his family business, which is the Grand Bahama Port Authority, and use it as a vehicle for not just supporting Grand Bahama, especially in the wake of what was the most devastating hurricane in the history of the island, at least modern history of the island, Hurricane Dorian in 2019, he was looking to bring companies down to rebuild the island but also put the island, on a new development trajectory. Right, not just go back to business as usual. Oil and gas and cruise lines and but to diversify the economy and to use the resources of the island infrastructure wise commercially and and in terms of natural resources use the island as a responsible, living laboratory for what we hope would be the innovations and industries and ultimately economies of the future of the 21st century have built on regeneration, built on restoration, built on resilience. So it was in February 2020, as I said that I wound up on Grand Bahama and not only saw my friend’s coral reef restoration company Coral Vita, but met with Rupert and discussed this. This larger idea of how to really use the island after Hurricane Durian after that major wake-up call as an engine for industries that really soften what is often seen as a conflict between economic development and environmental sustainability.

09:20 AW – And so what’s your model? Are you a consulting company? How do you get paid?

09:25 JS – Well, our model as I think one must be in times like these a bit flexible, we originally started as a nonprofit that was working with foundations. UNDP was a grantor for us.

09:40 AW – Wait, what does UNDP stand for? I don’t think most people know that one.

09:43 JS – Oh, the United Nations development program. Sorry, I actually have a strong aversion to just throwing acronyms around, so forgive me for that. Yes, the United Nations Development Program gave us an early stage grant. To help us develop a socioeconomic impact assessment for the Blue Action Lab model. What would a sustainability economy on Grand Bahama look like on Grand Bahama, but also what sort of an impact could it have for other low lying island nations, other vulnerable coastal areas? So we originally started our nonprofit with sort of a membership model that would allow companies to come down and take advantage of the underutilized resources on the island, provided that they embodied the values of a regenerative economy or resiliency economy as as we described it, and that was all fine and good. We were chugging along, maybe on-boarding five companies a year, but not really having the impact that we hoped to. At least at the scale that we had hoped to, that we think that the urgency of of global climate change really requires. And so we had a fateful conversation about a year and a half in with a gentleman named George Northcott at an outfit called Founders Factory, based in London. George is actually now in New York, but his company is based in London, where they’re very interested in moving into sustainability and moving into climate. They are basically a venture firm. They’ve got offices in 15 countries but have not really worked in climate and sustainability. And they saw us as an incredible partner on the ground. We’re doing just that. And so we were looking for a commercial model. They were looking founders, factory was looking to get into climate and sustainability issues. And so we, we created this marriage of our two entities, created a joint venture just over a year ago. If I’ve got the dates correct where we decided to launch a formal accelerator program. With all of the embedded benefits of the Blue Action Lab. A world class port in Grand Bahama, a free trade zone where we can stimulate and accelerate the kinds of companies that we think will meet the mission of the Blue Action Lab and meet the challenge of climate change. We have a very strong partnership with the Grand Bahama Port Authority and the Bahamian government, and we have tremendous natural resources that can be accessed. In the name of research and innovation for environmental and social sustainability.

12:33 (Music Break)

13:44 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the Co-founder of Blue Action Labs, Jeff Stoike. So Jeff, we’re talking about Grand Bahama and the work that your organization is engaged in there. What are some of the biggest challenges? Serving and raising awareness of the ecosystem there and it’s very fragile coral reef structure.

14:07 JS – Sure, sure. And just to be clear, coral reefs are a a central part of of the work that we do, but our only one component, I mean we’re working across various verticals. We’re really taking a sort of whole of society approach, a systemic approach to the issues of climate mitigation and climate. And so, I mean, we’re working in areas of renewable energy. We’re working on tidal and wave and Gulf Stream derived renewable energy. We’re working in aquaculture and mariculture. We’re working in coastal carbon capture and ocean alkalinity enhancement. We’re working in green shipping and reducing the environmental footprint. And climate footprint of one of the most polluting industries in the history of mankind, the shipping industry. And we’re even working on desalinating water issues. So coral reefs and coral restoration, especially with a acidifying and warming ocean, is a vital component of this sort of fabric. This matrix of of efforts of ours and was, I should mention, sort of the pioneering effort the 1st. Real work that the Blue Action Lab did even before it was called the Blue Action Lab. Was to support Coral Vita and Coral Vita is now the largest coral reef restoration company in the world. They were the inaugural Earth Shot prize winner, the prize given out by Prince William and Princess Kate. So really considered a premier entity worldwide in the field of coral reef restoration. And that’s after I should note that’s after having their coral reef farm washed away into the ocean by Hurricane Dorian, so they had just had a ribbon cutting a couple months prior to Hurricane Dorian, literally watched their restoration tanks get washed into the ocean, and they’ve built themselves back. You know what a story of resilience now on Earth, shot prize winner and looking at national level contracts in the Middle East and in Latin America. So quite a quite an impressive story for Coral Vita, and I think quite a testament to what the Blue Action Lab is doing and can do. But you asked about the real challenges one is lack of patient capital by patient capital, I mean investors that are willing to either concede on traditional investment returns, not looking for to make so much money on their money, but also willing to wait because the impact investment is getting stronger, getting more robust, and is promising greater returns, but it takes a little bit longer, especially in the field of climate where you’re talking about infrastructure. You’re not just talking about software as a service, right? The thing that has underpinned Silicon Valley’s tremendous growth over the past decade.

17:08 AW – So give us an example of climate impact investing. Would a potential investor know that this is a climate oriented investment solely or is it more just an innovation that is also good for the climate?

17:21 JS – Right. It is a difficult question to answer because the field is both nascent and moving so quickly, right? So I think what’s important is that everybody talks about sustainability metrics. Well, that works fine and good. But in and of itself is a is a simplifying practice right? You’re reducing a very complex system or endeavor to an objective set of metrics that can be checked off, and that is inherently a little bit tricky, right? I think it’s an important practice because it provides some sort of guidance, but I think ultimately it boils down to processes of real, robust due diligence on the front. End so you. Know we’re we’ve got multiple calls and investment committee reviews and looking in the data rooms of these companies that are coming through really robust due diligence on the front end of working with a company and promoting an innovative and a very robust impact assessment on the back end, making sure that there’s a research apparatus built in around any particular innovation that you’re working with and now that’s not easy to do. I admit, right, So what everyone asks us. Well, who are your experts in renewable energy and in aquaculture and in coastal carbon capture. And it’s going to vary we are we do not have a university’s research apparatus behind us. We need to use our network of experts at various research institutions and bring them on board for the particular companies and innovations that we’re working on, so. It’s a little bit of an unsatisfying answer that there’s not a sort of quick and easy. Checklist that you can point to for something that is considered impact, innovation or sustainability innovation, but it’s really about building the mechanism of research and diligence and impact assessment around your investment and your your input.

19:25 AW – So a lot of the work that you’ve done has been in these ecosystems that have been challenged by the onslaught of colonization. And one of the issues that a lot of the philanthropy space focuses on is decolonizing that wealth decoupling or unbundling, the legacy of colonization from some of these. Countries now your partner, Rupert Hayward, I assume, is the grandson of Jack Hayward, who’s his big industrialist. And you said that they own like the Port Authority of the Bahamas. So how is Rupert and how are Blue Action Lab kind of squaring that legacy of industrialization and colonization in an island like Grand Bahamas? How are you squaring that legacy with moving forward and trying to clean up a lot of the mess that the industrialists? And the age of industrialization and colonization created in places like the Grand Bahamas.

20:23 JS – That’s a tremendous question that we confront every day, so I’m really glad that you asked. And I don’t want to speak for Rupert. He would be a fantastic subsequent guest for your show.

20:39 AW – I’m assuming he was the grandson of Sir Jack Hayward. Is that true?

20:43 JS – You’re right, you’re right.

20:44 AW – OK.

20:44 JS – Yes, and and Jack was responsible for the establishment of of the free trade zone and the Hawksbill Creek Agreement that that established the Port Authority. Well, certainly one of these Titans of industry and and Rupert and myself and the team that we’ve assembled, we are acutely aware. The not only the sort of undesirable legacy of colonialism and industry worldwide, like you said, I’ve got a PhD that looked at the ravages of development in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, and so I’m acutely aware of that. And the question that I grapple with every day is how can you use whatever historical privilege or positions of power or levers that you might have at your disposal, or that your business partner in this case might have at his or her disposal to then correct any wrongs that have been done and put a business or an island or a nation on a trajectory that is more salutary for all of the citizens, especially those that have perhaps been disenfranchised historically, and so this is something that is very front and Center for the work that we do. I recognize Rupert as someone who is one of these scions of industry, but is not looking to just take the money and run. Enrich himself, he says first and foremost I am a Bahamian. He speaks with a British accent because he was schooled back in England. But he lives in the Bahamas. He’s raising his children on Grand Bahama, he wants to see his grandchildren frolic on the beach in Grand Bahama and enjoy the environment and the culture that has been, that has informed his worldview. But again, just to be careful not to speak for him too, too much. How do we address these issues? It’s really for us about stakeholders. Engagement and nothing works in the Bahamas and I dare say the work that I did in Panama, Brazil or anywhere else, even in the Middle East, nothing works if you don’t have buy in from the community, everybody thinks you, oh government has all of the power.Well, that’s true insofar as they have buy-in from their votership and that is the community. That those are the people, the families that we engage with every day on multiple levels. One is through our nonprofit work that we retain. We are still doing ecosystem restoration, community development, workforce training and environmental education through our nonprofit arm. And as we as we develop this for profit, this commercial. Model that everyone kept asking us for as we were chugging along as a nonprofit, and we’re we’re launching with Founders Factory. We want to make sure that we’re working closely with the University of the Bahamas, we’re working closely with Waterkeepers and other key nonprofits on the island to build a pipeline of Bahamian talent, because there’s a tremendous brain drain in the Bahamas as there is in other developing nations. As soon as there’s real talent recognized or someone has an opportunity to make real money, they will follow the money, they will go to the US or Europe or elsewhere. And so we’re trying to reverse that. How do we create value chains and economies on island? That not just retain Bahamians, particularly Afro Bahamians, but support them, support their communities and support the environments in which they live. And so we’re looking at internship programs we’re looking at having a pipeline from the Bahamas to have apprenticeship programs? And keeping these questions really front and center going forward, making sure that we’re not glossing over any of the history that comes with colonial, I mean the Bahamas has a very strong colonial legacy. We saw that when William and Kate traveled through the Caribbean as part of their Commonwealth tour, right? They received quite a rocky welcome. And so as we’re going forward and conducting our stakeholder engagement meetings, making sure that there really is buy in from the community. That representative voices are heard and built into our program. Coming it’s not only the right thing to do, but in our own self-interest as an organization, we know that no real momentum will last if there’s not buy in from the community and on that note, there’s a project that we’re very excited about working with Florida Atlantic University. We haven’t launched it yet but, working to restore conch populations in the Bahamas, the conch are an iconic species for Bahamians and other Caribbeans. It’s on the Bahamian flag. It’s what you might call a cultural keystone species. And the conf is basically a big sea snail, big mollusk and and we’re working with Meghan Davis, who is considered the world expert on the queen conch. She’s based at Florida Atlantic University and has entered what she now calls her “legacy years” where she really wants to get all of this research that she’s done on the health and ecology of conchs out into the world, put it into practice. And so we are working with Meghan Davis and a funder called Builders Vision. To start a conch hatchery where we’re effectively raising juvenile conch and then using them to restore marine protected areas and to give them to members of the conch fishing community, which is effectively going out into the ocean on a skiff and and looking for conch and bringing it back onto land, giving those conquerors an opportunity to grow out, juvenile conch to mature size and either eat it themselves. Sell it to market or sell it to government or nonprofits that are doing conch restoration in these marine protected areas. So this is not only something that’s culturally very important for the Bahamian population, but also for, as we talked about communities that historically have have been economically marginalized. Conch is a critical what we call a blue food right of a subsistence in some cases, but a vital component of the diet of Bahamian communities and that’s derived from the ocean. So that’s a project that’s very near and dear to my heart because of how important it is to the communities that are themselves important to our project.

27:55 AW – He’s the co-founder of Blue Action Labs, Jeff Stoike. Jeff, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 JS – Quite a pleasure. Thank you.

28:17 AW – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Bob Marley and The Wailers and David Rudder to read a transcript of this show. Go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives there to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.