Facing Facts: Hugo Tagholm, CEO Surfers Against Sewage: "Save Our Seas"

Facing Facts: Hugo Tagholm, CEO Surfers Against Sewage: "Save Our Seas"

For our third ‘Facing Facts’ interview, Jonathan S. Bean spoke to Hugo Tagholm, who runs the national marine conservation charity, Surfers Against Sewage. They work to tackle water quality issues, plastic pollution, climate and ocean issues, and the growing movement to rewild parts of our seas and restore the natural habitats and equilibrium in our ocean.


As a young boy, I was always found in ponds and rock pools, collecting things. I was fascinated by the environment and consider myself an environmentalist, first and foremost. I also love surfing and many other sports, so Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is at the nexus of my two great passions. It is a privilege to be able to lead this organisation, create change through it, and work with innovative people at every level.

I've been struggling to switch off the last few weeks, during the coronavirus pandemic, because of the intensity of what's going on. Any business or charity, no matter the scale, has a lot of change to assimilate at the moment.

When I can, I switch off by doing sport. I surf, bodysurf, swim in the sea, mountain bike, run a bit, or swim laps of a swimming pool when I really need to. I find those things are important. They’re not just enjoyable, but put you in a sort of meditative state where you can really think about the big things and grapple with work. Often, those are the times when you come up with your best ideas and solutions, not when you’re chained to your desk.

I hang out with my twelve year old son, Darwin, and we get up to mischief at the beach, or harbour walls and piers around Cornwall together. I try to connect with nature and that fundamental ocean experience is a big driver for me personally, for SAS, and for many of our supporters. Whether it's our individual members and volunteers, brands that are committed to change, or politicians that want to see more done to protect our ocean, they tend to be people who have connected with the ocean and really care about that environment.

Planet Ocean

As a people, instead of talking about exploring other parts of the solar system, we should be celebrating and protecting this incredible green and blue planet: Planet Ocean.

2021 to 2030 is the United Nations’ Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. We want to take this decade on with a radical programme of campaigns on the four key issues we work on, and be able to look back in 2030 and say we helped contribute to the big changes during this decade.

We want no (or much, much less) pollution going into our seas from sewage and agriculture.

We want plastic pollution eradicated from our beaches.

We need urgent action on climate change. This is the big threat for our oceans as they are absorbing most of the heat of climate change, and habitats and organisms are dying due to global heating and acidification.

We want to see the re-wilding of our world, not just on land with tree planting, but the ocean, too. Effectively, our oceans have been deforested over the last 200 years. We’ve seen habitats stripped, so they’re not resilient and can’t help us thrive.

The challenge we have is that these problems are out of sight and out of mind. A lot of people, particularly in developed countries, may not feel the direct and most severe impacts of climate change. A lot of our plastic pollution is sent to other countries, brushed under the carpet, and not dealt with. We’re exporting our problems to other places and we’re not truly accountable for environmental progress.

We don’t see habitat destruction under the waves as the surface is a constant. Look out at my favourite beach, Perranporth, and the bright blue expanse of water looks the same whatever happens underneath it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy and thriving ocean. We need to create the conditions that bring back the great marine life that used to be seen around the UK, such as huge shoals of tuna, whales and dolphins. We can see all those things again if we create the right conditions through rewilding of our seas.

It’s about doing the right things in the right places, creating wildlife sanctuaries in parts of our oceans, and then having a more sustainable fishing industry that doesn’t create bycatch, doesn’t put plastic in the sea, and doesn’t over-exploit fish stocks.

We have fishing quotas as we don’t have sustainable, thriving and regenerative fish stocks. We need to put the generators of life back into the sea, that allow fish to thrive and grow before they’re caught. Otherwise, we’re just fighting over the scraps of marine life.


As an environmental campaigner, you have to be an optimist and you have to believe in the change you want to see and deliver.

I love meeting innovators and business leaders who are committed to change. I love encouraging and campaigning for politicians to drive progressive legislation and mobilise the community around that.

There are loads of people doing good work around the world, and the next decade is a huge moment for our oceans. Next year, to launch the UN ‘Ocean Decade’, we’ll see big meetings with international leaders and policymakers on these issues, the High Seas Treaty, and other processes to protect the sea. It’s an exciting time.

The global coronavirus health crisis has shown that in the face of a true crisis, governments and big businesses can make quick decisions and pivot on a dime to create change. The global climate crisis, plastic pollution crisis, and ocean crisis are just as big threats, and we should see radical and fast action from businesses and global political leaders to solve these issues. If we can find £300bn in three months to prop up a country, then we can find the money to restore nature and our oceans.

As we (hopefully) come out of this pandemic, we urge the government not to think about just ‘building, building, building’, but ‘changing, changing, changing’ and put the environmental agenda front and centre. We should put the planet first and look at the progressive emerging industries that can help us on that journey and create brilliant green jobs, new markets and a circular, regenerative system for the long term - not just short term profits.

We need radical thinking in this space, because the current economic model we have is broken. It’s not putting enough consideration into defending the actual bottom line - which is our environment and the finite resources our planet carries - not our financial bottom line.

Yes, there will be losers in industry as we reform our world, but there are industries that shouldn’t carry on operating as they are today because they’re destroying Planet Ocean. The new industries that replace them will have new ways of doing things that are much, much better for people and the planet than the current set of linear models we have.


I’ve been a fan of SAS since it started back in 1990, and took over the organisation in 2008, when it had lost its traction and momentum. We've gone from just a few hundred volunteers back in 2008, to what is now 100,000 people and ocean activists taking part in beach cleanups and citizen science programmes. We’ve rebuilt it by creating great campaigns and programmes that people can be involved with.

We've got incredible Plastic Free Communities around the coast and in our cities and rural areas, representing hundreds of thousands of people who are committed to reducing their plastic footprint. We're going to have an amazing schools programme reaching almost a million schoolchildren in every part of the country.

This month is Plastic Free July: Like-minded people coming together on plastics to look at reduction of energy use, products that lower their plastic impact, and different approaches and actions they can take to reduce their personal plastic footprint. Our Plastic Free Communities are working on this and we’re working with brands - including King of Shaves’ Code Zero - to celebrate all of this through our Plastic Free Awards.

All of these people are the combined movement we describe as Generation Sea.
In the model of change, it’s neither ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’, but both. It’s about building a community of people, and a movement, that politicians and businesses recognise and connect with until we see true, sustainable and lasting change for the planet.

I believe in leanness. Even though we’re a small organisation, we pack a big punch. We mobilise the biggest community of ocean activists in the UK and we’re proud of that. I don’t believe we need to have hundreds of people in an office in London to achieve what we achieve. It’s important that people know there’s a big bang for their buck when they donate to us, or become a member, and that they can see the impact of their donation.

We’re a practical organisation that rolls up its sleeves if we need to get our hands dirty and take action at the beach. That authenticity brings people on board. Then we mobilise and empower that community of people we work with to get through to the front benches of parliament.

We're not in ivory towers away from people; we're very accessible. We base our campaigns on scientific facts, but don't get distracted by the complexity of that language. We’re bringing real, big issues to people in the right language, with the right opportunities for them to engage and feel their voice is being represented correctly and strongly in the processes that need to happen.

Supporters could see me at a beach clean, where they could have a chat with me. They could also see me in parliament, representing them and talking strongly about the ocean.

All too often, in our sector, we see huge charities that become quite faceless. You don't know where your money's going; you don't know what impact it's creating; you don't know how you play a part in the process. I think SAS enables people to understand the part they play and how their voice and their actions really, truly count for the future of Planet Ocean.


When I go surfing in Cornwall it's quite normal to change on the streets outside the back of your car to put on your wetsuit and run into the sea. It's funny how different that feels when I'm in central London, outside the Houses of Parliament, changing into a wetsuit and putting a board under my arm, to talk about environmental protection.

I often find myself changing from jeans and a shirt into a wetsuit for a demonstration, and then into a suit and tie to go into the Houses of Parliament. Just because you change how you look, it doesn't mean you change your campaigning voice. You're still representing the same principles, and you're still representing the same cause. You’re just doing it in slightly different ways, with a different tone. That's an important part of modern day campaigning and a big part of how we operate.

You have to be able to demonstrate on the street and call people out, but you also need to be able to be diplomatic and collaborative where necessary. You can't have a one speed machine, because it doesn't lead to the right results. You need to be able to do both things. Celebrate innovation and progress and collaborate to help deliver that, but also call things out where they're wrong and we need faster progress.

We're often demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament with wetsuits, gas masks, inflatable turds, giant ships made out of plastic bottles, and life-size replica whales. We can also be found inside parliament, in suits and ties, talking to politicians about the political and legislative processes that are going on to create the change we need - as that is ultimately where our laws are made.

For anyone who wants to make a positive change to something they care about, I would always recommend that you find the issue that ignites your passion. Find the organisation, or other like minded souls that are doing that thing and connect with those people. Find the stuff that floats your boat and get out there and do it.
It’s passion that drives us at SAS. I do it because I love beaches, the ocean, surfing and marine life. That makes me committed and dedicated to this beyond my nine-to-five work contract.

That’s what everyone should do and they can do it in their own way. Whether you live in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh, or wherever you live, you can find the thing that motivates you and create change.

Thank you for talking to us, Hugo.

To find out more about Surfers Against Sewage, visit www.sas.org.uk or follow @surfersagainstsewage on Instagram or Facebook, or @sascampaigns on Twitter.
You can sign their End Sewage Pollution petition here  and please follow Hugo on Twitter, @hugosas.