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AEGN Marine Philanthropy on Sydney Harbour. Photo by Sarah Keayes/The Photo Pitch

Robin Tedder on marine conservation, species loss, advocacy and not giving up

Robin and Rita Tedder live in Clifton Gardens – a small cove on Sydney’s Lower North Shore – and regularly visit the Hunter Valley where they have a small vineyard called Glenguin. They have a passion for the ocean and marine conservation and are great supporters of marine protected areas.

Robin has a background in finance and investment and is Chairman of Vintage Capital. He is a director and co-founder of Blackwall Property Group, a subsidiary of WOTSO, one of Australia’s largest operators of co-working spaces. Robin mentors at Incubate and manages a small portfolio of investments in technology companies. He qualified as Australia’s 7th Master of Wine in 1997 and Glenguin is consistently rated in the top 5% of Australia’s wineries by quality. He paddles in the harbour and ocean, is a keen sailor, follows geopolitical events closely, and has been the Australian Ambassador for Singularity University of Mountain View, California, co-founded by Google and NASA.

Robin’s approach to environmental giving is similar to business investment – try to back the right people, nurture the talent and be patient.

How did you become interested in funding marine projects?

I spend a lot of time on the water and Rita has been picking up plastic at Clifton Gardens daily for 35 years. Also there are established areas of Sydney Harbour National Park all around the harbour and Sydney’s coastline, and yet between Port Stephens and Jervis Bay there is almost zero “no take” protection for our marine habitat. I connected with the Australian Marine Conservation Society in 2014 and looked at what they were doing and advocating for and decided to support their campaign for a Sydney Marine Park.

What is it about this issue that you would like others to better understand?

People say to me, “Robin, what are you on about, the harbour is much healthier than it was 30 years ago!” That highlights for me that people haven’t thought through this issue properly. 30 years ago there were open sewage outfalls off North Head, toxic industrial waste going into the Parramatta River, lead-based antifoul on boats, commercial fishing, little control over big industrial vessels, voiding tanks, ‘through the hull’ toilets on boats were also legal. All those things are gone now, so our harbour is no longer nearly as toxic as it was, but the authorities still tell us not to eat any fish caught west of the Harbour Bridge and to eat no more than 100 grams per week maximum of fish caught anywhere else in our harbour. So right here in our “Emerald City” we have the opportunity to set an example to all Australians and the world, and preserve and protect in perpetuity, by establishing some fully protected zones in and around Sydney’s waters. It seems obvious yet the only fully protected areas are 20 hectares in Cabbage Tree Bay (which has no enforcement) and a single hectare at Ship Rock in Port Hacking. This is less than 0.00001% of the close coastal waters stretching from Port Stephens all the way to Jervis Bay.

Are there any lessons learnt from funding this project?

It’s too early to tell but if business experience is a guide, ‘don’t quit’ seems appropriate at this stage. Oceans produce most of the oxygen in our atmosphere. A dead ocean would result in the end of life on earth as we know it. To me, protecting our oceans and marine life is the standout, pressing environmental issue of our time, but it’s also one of the most difficult. You can buy land and put a fence around it and if we could do that in the ocean, that’s what I’d do, because it’s more effective than advocacy, certainly in the short/medium time. And yes, I am worried that in a world focused on short term outcomes, this issue won’t be adequately addressed. But we should not give up.

Was there a lightbulb moment that changed your perspective about marine conservation?

In 2014 we were visiting Silicon Valley and had the fortune to spend a day with Tod Bensen who was the Chair of WildAid – the highly successful NGO devoted to stopping the illegal wildlife trade. Their motto is: “When the buying stops, the killing can too”. WildAid was catapulted onto the global stage when Tod and his team decided to target shark finning. I learnt a lot that day by listening to Tod.

When my grandson Alex was born nearly four years ago, it was a seminal moment. You think about your grandchildren in a different way than your children. With your own children, you are just getting on with getting through the day. But by the time your grandchild is born, you think, “How do I explain that on our watch, we the boomer generation, we had it all, had a 50 year incoming economic tide, took maximum advantage and didn’t even have to serve our country in war; so how come we left the planet in such a mess?”

What keeps you awake at night?

To me, the big issue of our time is getting through this bottleneck of maximum population and at the same time bringing an additional 2 to 2.5 billion people from poverty through to the middle class – people who want stuff in addition to water, food and shelter. We will probably reach a plateau of about 9.5 billion people and then it will fall away. You can’t stop that, it’s going to happen.

We think we’ve got demands on the environment now – wait till this happens. The issue is what kind of environment will be left in the 21st century? The great biologist E.O Wilson who is arguably the father of evolutionary biology said, “How many species will make it through this bottleneck?” We will make it most likely. How many will make it through with us? How many totemic species? How many rhino and elephants, whales and fish? What kind of world will it be in 2100?

Robert May (an Australian scientist who has been President of the Royal Society and Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Govt) says we are destroying the book of life before we’re even reading it – we are losing species before we even discover them, often at a microbial level.

Superficially it is the most wonderful time for a child to be born (longest life expectancy, highest standard of living, lowest level of violence etc), and we have been the most fortunate generation on earth. All of these wonderful things, but it’s come at a price. What are we going to do as we go through this period? I want to be able to explain what we did on our watch. For me, this is the most important issue facing our generation.

Tell me about your property in the Hunter Valley?

When we bought the property 24 years ago it had been used for cattle grazing. Nothing denudes landscape like cattle and sheep who eat the emerging trees and bushes, spreading noxious fireweed and saltbush everywhere they go. Most of the property, including nearly 2km of riverfront, is now given over to the regeneration of native bush and we have thousands of trees where previously there were only 30 or so old ironbarks! We have resident kangaroos, wallabies, geese, native ducks, wombats and lizards not to mention the goannas, snakes and abundant birdlife. The area under vine represents less than 15% of the land, and vines are only planted on the gravel and ironstone slopes, plus a patch of sandy loam over red basalt at the bottom of the hill.

What is your favourite plant?
I have two – the baobab and the Spear Lily.

What is your favourite animal?
Again, I have two! The humpback whale and the leopard.

What is your favourite place?
Home.

Who has inspired you lately?
The team at Australian Marine Conservation Society and the team who managed Cassini which revealed never-before seen events which are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.