Cover Pak Nai mudflats in Yuen Long, where Marine Thomas works on habitat restoration (Photo credit: Mok Chi Kuen)

For Earth Day, Hongkonger Marine Thomas talks about her career pivot from luxury fashion to The Nature Conservancy and how motherhood has added urgency to her work in restoration and community outreach

Marine Thomas remembers vividly when she had “the lightning bolt moment” about what to do with her life.

After her father’s sudden death in 2012, she no longer felt inspired by her work in the corporate fashion world and quit to spend a year travelling and scuba diving with a friend who’d also lost a parent. Back at home in Hong Kong’s Big Wave Bay, she was watching a documentary about shark finning and found herself bawling.

It hit her that she had the opportunity to start over, so instead of falling back into the fashion industry, why not pursue her longtime passion for the environment?

“The hardest part was figuring out what I wanted to do, but once I figured it out, when I truly want something, I tend to get it,” says Thomas, citing her determination, smarts, and a bit of luck. After knocking on the doors of many organisations, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) offered to take her on as an unpaid volunteer with its youth conservation education programme. Thomas agreed and, at age 30, moved back in with her mother in Mid-Levels.

“Starting again, I put myself in a position where I was vulnerable but also excited,” says Thomas. “You can prove to yourself how much you’re capable of when you’re pushed out of those comfort zones and try something new. You’re working a third of your awake life, so that’s a pretty important piece to get right if you want a fulfilling life.”  

Thomas spent two years in night classes to complete a part-time master’s degree in environmental management in 2019—just months after her daughter’s birth—and now heads the conservation team at TNC. That means she’s often deep in the mud, doing field work to restore local shellfish habitats. She has the scars on her legs from oyster cuts to prove it and laughs that it’s a far cry from the glamour of her past life at Longchamp and Chanel.

Thomas doesn’t think twice though. “It’s so rewarding; restoration is something intrinsically hopeful and it gets a lot of people excited, including the volunteers who come out with us,” says Thomas. “It’s our mission and prerogative to connect people with nature and wildlife because it’s their right as human beings but also because it helps raise awareness... you will not protect what you don’t love and you can’t love what you don’t see.”  

Below Thomas elaborates on the importance of an inclusive conservation approach, why Hong Kong needs better marine habitat protections, and how she manages eco-anxiety.

Ensuring conservation isn’t reserved for an elite

Pak Nai is a coastal mudflat in Yuen Long that we manage with the blessing of the local community. It’s not managed by the government. Volunteers lead a lot of the work that we do, such as habitat restoration of oyster reefs and seagrass beds. We also have academic partners that assess our impact and we bring out school groups to have this immersive experience.

In Hong Kong, nature is wonderful, and it’s not OK to have half of the population living in a concrete jungle in poverty and not having access to those systems. So as part of our community conservation we reach out to NGOs that focus on underserved communities and people with disabilities. We’re starting to work with Wheel Power Challenge, for instance, to assess our site accessibility and explore special wheelchairs that could go out on the mudflats. The work that we do should not be reserved for an elite; we want it to be accessible to everyone.

 

An organisation that aligns with my progressive values

Not only do I embrace the work I do with passion, but I also found an organisation that suits me personally. TNC is fundamentally American—the best of America, as in very progressive with a culture that’s respectful of diversity and inclusion. There’s always a drive for improvement. That works for me and has allowed me to grow as a human being.

You cannot talk about environmental sustainability without it going hand in hand with social justice and access to nature. We take a non-confrontational and collaborative approach; the more stakeholders, the better, even if it makes for complicated projects. Everybody has a place at the table for discussion, and that includes empowering indigenous communities in some places where TNC operates.

In Hong Kong, when we work with local village chiefs, the gatherings will be male-dominated, and it’s important for us to include women as much as possible in these conversations because their perspective makes for better conservation.  

See also: Young Women Lead Climate Change Activism, But Who Sets the Policies?

 

Becoming a mother increased my eco-anxiety and motivation

I am very fortunate, or maybe I chose well, to have a husband who really stepped up big time for me when I was doing my master’s thesis with a newborn. He’s a very present father.

But if I had eco-anxiety to start, the birth of my daughter multiplied it by 10. I worry when I think about climate change and particularly its impact on corals. As a scuba diver, it’s very painful to me that my daughter may not be able to experience one of my great passions in this life.

In my circles in Hong Kong, I know people who tell me that they don’t even want children because they don’t trust the world that we’re leaving here. Ultimately being a mother makes me work harder. I try to stay positive because we cannot lose hope, otherwise we wouldn’t get up in the morning; we have to keep doing our bit.

See also: Being Childfree by Choice: 7 Asian Women Share Their Stories

Why we all need more time outdoors

I really believe that our wellness is linked to our connection with wildlife and the outdoors. Being outdoors is healthy for any human being, and the best I can do for my daughter at this stage is to make sure that she falls in love with this.

Any parent can tell you that a child who spent all day in front of a screen is a monster by 6pm. Whereas if they are outside at the beach or whatever, they are generally happier little beings.

We love bringing kids to our sites to show them what we do and let them feel the mud and start embracing the experience. They light up when we show them things they’ve never seen before—and this is their so-called backyard, it’s not far away. Our outreach and volunteer programmes target about 1,000 participants annually. There’s something for everybody; I can keep four-year-olds busy and I can keep a team of rugby players busy.

See also: How I Work It: A Green Developer and Single Parent on Organising Her Work Life

 

Marine habitats need better protection like country parks

The Pearl River Delta flows down on the western side of Hong Kong, and that’s where you get into muddier shellfish environments. Then we do have coral in the east and in the transition area of the southern parts of Hong Kong—we have a lot going on in a tiny space. It’s a really important ecosystem, and we’ve lost a big chunk as there is no protection. The harvesting pressure is very high in places like Tung Chung. What we call the North Lantau Highway used to be one big shellfish reef.

I’d like to see shellfish reefs recognised as a habitat, the same way that mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass are. The state of marine conservation in Hong Kong is not great compared to terrestrial conservation and a lot of NGOs are working tirelessly to change that. Why did we end up with these wonderful green country parks? It’s because of water security; they are catchment areas. It wasn’t necessarily a conservation prerogative at the time, but we are all the better for it.

An exciting restoration at Hong Kong International Airport

We are doing a pilot programme around the third runway of Hong Kong International Airport to see if we can rebuild some of the lost reefs in North Lantau. It’s a challenge because we’re working in such a degraded environment; restoration is not an easy fix. But we’re trying. I was out in a fluorescent vest and construction hat working with cranes and boats to see if we can develop shellfish habitat out of the sea walls. It’s part of the airport’s commitment to sustainability and mitigation for its impact.

We are using recycled oyster shells, which means that we also work with restaurant partners and oyster farmers in Deep Bay. There’s a whole lot of people contributing to this large-scale project. When we were on that boat in May 2021 throwing shells on top of a limestone pile it was the culmination of six months of complex planning. It’s very satisfying; it’s awesome to be doing this stuff. We’ll be going back soon to see the progress and whether there’s true potential to scale up.

See also: The Sustainability Initiatives and Ideas Reshaping Hong Kong’s F&B Industry

 

Keep checking in with yourself throughout your career

Inclusion also means educating girls and boys about potential careers in conservation. You know, you can be a restoration scientist, if you want to be covered in mud, give it a try. The beauty of conservation is that there are so many aspects that tap into different strengths, be it science, field work, marketing, fundraising. Ultimately if you feel passionate about a cause and you can make that your living, I think you’re doing pretty well.

The main message that I like to give young people is, don't expect to know what you want to do at that age. It's OK not to know; likely the majority doesn't. Be honest with yourself throughout the journey and have the courage of your convictions. If you want something, just keep going and keep trying; know that there might be failures, you might have to choose different stepping stones, and that the journey can change.

I still probably have one more big change in me. Perhaps instead of being in the mud, I can go save some corals and use my diving skills. It’s still very much going to be marine conservation work. I think that’s been my calling since a very, very young age. It’s even my name, so maybe it was part of the master plan—my destiny.


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