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Sailing towards Sustainability: A Conversation with Theresa Zabell on Marine Protection and Conservation

In the vast ocean of environmental commitment, Theresa Zabell emerges as a beacon of inspiration and leadership. As the only Spanish woman to hold two Olympic gold medals, her name is engraved in sports history, but her legacy far transcends the sporting field. Beyond the podiums, Zabell has dedicated his life to promoting sustainability and marine conservation. Her career as an MEP in the European Parliament and her role as vice president of the Spanish Olympic Committee demonstrate her commitment to defending the environment in all areas of life.


Photo: Alba Mariné via Diari de Tarragona

At the heart of her work is ECOMAR , the foundation she created, where she fuses her passion for sports with her commitment to the preservation of the oceans. Through effort, sacrifice and perseverance, Zabell has shown that caring for the planet is not an unattainable goal, but rather a shared responsibility that we must all embrace. In this exclusive interview, we will explore the depths of his vision on marine protection and conservation, and how we can come together to protect both places: our bodies and our planet.



Olympic athlete and marine conservation advocate

Theresa Zabell's experience as a successful sailor has had a profound influence on her commitment to protecting the oceans. As she herself explains, "Every day I went sailing for 20 years and it gave me a vision of the situation that unfortunately those who do not go to sea do not have." This direct contact with the sea gave her a unique understanding of its current fragility and the urgency of its protection.


Zabell points out that "The sea is the playing field..., but the terrain is threatened, something had to be done." This awareness led her to wonder why no one was taking action on the matter, and in the absence of a response, she decided to act on her own. She founded ECOMAR 25 years ago with the purpose of raising awareness and educating about the importance of caring for our oceans.


In the context of ECOMAR , Zabell highlights the importance of integrating athletes into the cause, so that they can transmit the conservation message to new generations. This strategy seeks to harness the power of sport as a tool to inspire and motivate change, creating an emotional connection with the ocean and fostering an active commitment to its conservation.



Collaborations with other organizations, governments or companies and the SDGs

In the field of marine conservation, ECOMAR actively seeks to collaborate with other organizations, governments and companies to maximize its impact and address broader challenges. As Theresa Zabell points out, "The most important SDG is 14, more than half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea, the water cycle begins in the sea,... Without the sea there is no life. If we do not take care of the sea and ensure our permanence on the planet, the rest doesn't matter". This perspective highlights the crucial importance of protecting the oceans to ensure the sustainability of life on Earth.


In this sense, ECOMAR adopts a stance of active collaboration, as Zabell highlights by stating: "We like to collaborate and be a team." The foundation recognizes that addressing marine conservation challenges requires a collective effort, and this is reflected: "We are a team. We all sail in a boat in which we all fit." She invites other organizations, governments and companies to join his cause, recognizing the value that the sea brings to our lives and the shared responsibility to protect it.

"We are a team. We all sail in a boat in which we all fit."

After asking her about the reason for the lack of attention of Spanish companies towards SDGs 14 and 15, Zabell explains: "Because of lack of knowledge, that is why we want to educate in this area, especially children who are more receptive. With adults it is more complicated for them to change their way of thinking. Spain has always lived with its back to the sea, both at a sporting and environmental level. That in the end results in us not seeing the sea as the lung of the planet that it is." The foundation focuses on educate younger generations about the importance of caring for the oceans, recognizing that changing adult mindsets may be more difficult.


Zabell emphasizes the urgency of action, pointing to concrete examples of how environmental degradation is affecting marine ecosystems, such as the loss of posidonia in the Mediterranean. “In the Mediterranean, we have Posidonia, a marine plant that lived outside of water and learned to live in it. Posidonia absorbs 17 times the CO2 on the surface of the Amazon. A third of this species is no longer there, and if we continue like this the Mediterranean will no longer have transparent waters. You still have time to solve these problems, we have been doing it for 25 years”

"Spain has always lived with its back to the sea, both at a sporting and environmental level"

What do you think should be the number one priority in protecting the oceans?

  • Increase surveillance and enforcement of maritime laws.

  • Implement marine protected areas.

  • Develop innovative technologies to clean the oceans

  • Educate communities about marine conservation.



Ecomar's challenges in its fight against pollution

Given the growing concern about ocean pollution, ECOMAR faces various challenges in its fight against this problem and seeks to actively involve the community in this effort through a series of concrete activities. One of the organization's main educational activities is its educational platform aimed at schools, which offers 10 classes, each one hour long, focused on caring for the oceans. Through this program, students have the opportunity to learn about the importance of preserving the oceans and the actions they can take to contribute to their protection.


Additionally, during the summer months, ECOMAR operates a nature center where participating children have the opportunity to learn to value and care for the environment through hands-on activities and nature experiences. This hands-on approach helps reinforce concepts learned in the classroom and fosters a deeper sense of connection with the natural environment.


Another key initiative is coastal cleanups, in which companies, schools and nautical centers participate. These activities aim to address waste pollution and promote appreciation of the oceans. Theresa Zabell highlights the importance of these cleanups by stating: "The most important thing is what they learn during the day about the materials collected and the footprint they have." In addition, she points out that it is crucial to raise awareness in the community about the diversity of challenges facing the oceans, beyond the plastic problem, such as overfishing.


Regarding the involvement of companies, Zabell highlights that "companies have received this type of phenomenal activity." With more than 90% of its funding coming from the private sector, ECOMAR recognizes the importance of providing a tangible return to its sponsors: “Before it was a return of I'll give you your logo, now you have to give them something that they can live with.” The organization seeks to offer meaningful experiences that allow companies to see the positive impact of their investment in the community and environment.


ECOMAR faces significant challenges in its fight against ocean pollution, but through education, community engagement, and engagement with the private sector, the organization continues to work to protect and preserve the oceans for future generations.


“Before it was a return of I'll give you your logo, now you have to give them something that they can live with.”



The future of Ecomar

ECOMAR has ambitious plans for the near future in terms of marine conservation and environmental education, with specific projects and goals that aim to make a significant difference in the protection of the oceans.


In the field of education, the organization has been working on the development of an educational platform for the last few years. The objective is to scale this project so that it reaches all schools in Spain. As Theresa Zabell notes, "the ball now needs to get bigger," signaling a push toward expansion and nationwide coverage. This initiative seeks to raise awareness about the importance of marine conservation from an early age, educating new generations about how they can contribute to protecting the oceans.


In addition, ECOMAR is carrying out a scientific project to replant posidonia, a marine plant crucial for Mediterranean ecosystems. Zabell highlights that there are many similar projects with little scientific rigor, but ECOMAR is committed to a rigorous and effective approach. The project involves collecting seeds and planting them, with the participation of volunteers. This effort aims to recover the posidonia that has been lost in the Mediterranean due to human activity and this project is expected to be underway by May or June, with an implementation period of 18 months. The long-term vision involves the implementation of similar projects in each autonomous community bordering the Mediterranean, underscoring ECOMAR's commitment to the restoration of marine ecosystems throughout the region.



If tomorrow you were given control of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, what would be your first action to advance marine conservation?

If she was given control of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition, Theresa Zabell would focus her first action on ensuring that all children in all schools had the opportunity to enjoy the sea. As she herself highlights, "The sea is something fun and educational." For Zabell, connecting new generations with the marine environment from an early age is crucial to promoting awareness and respect for the oceans.


In addition, she would emphasize the importance of strengthening the relationship between sport and the environment. Zabell firmly believes in the potential of sport as a tool to inspire and motivate caring for the planet. Therefore, it would seek to promote initiatives that integrate sport and marine conservation, thus cultivating a culture of appreciation and protection of the oceans among athletes and society in general.


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