Interview with Jessica Giannotti

Jessica Giannotti is the founder of Crùbag. Originally born in Venezuela, she is a unique mix of artist and researcher. A marine science graduate, she fully understands the world of design, ocean sciences, and environmental education. A significant portion of her time is spent creating and reaching out to marine scientists, research institutions, and other organisations in order to stay at the forefront of the field and gain new insights and inspiration. Her love for Scotland's natural environment and ocean science has grown over the years and lead to the foundation of Crùbag.

What inspired you to first become involved in marine biology?

A childhood passion. I was born and grew up in Venezuela. My family loved the beach and while everyone was playing and basking in the sun, I was lost in awe looking at the tiny crabs emerging and disappearing from the rocks and sand holes. I was also obsessed with mangrove forests, used to explore the canals, get stung by who knows what and was still the happiest person on Earth! My grandad Mario soon understood how passionate I was and gifted me the complete encyclopaedia of Jacques Cousteau - I was 5 years old. At that moment I knew, the oceans were going to be my life.

Then life happened, I moved on and went into a different direction that took me from equestrian sports and training horses in Venezuela, Spain and Germany to becoming a market research consultant for a strategy consulting firm based in Berlin. After several years in the job, I longed for my childhood dream. I moved to Scotland and discovered the BSc Marine Science degree. After completion of the course, I founded Crùbag.

How do you get the idea to start a business like Crùbag and what is the message you want to share?

It was a series of moments that lead to the idea. While studying marine science at SAMS-UHI, I had the opportunity to take several field trips to Loch Etive and sample the water column and sediments - we looked at foraminifera, phytoplankton and worms and plotted some salinity/ temperature profiles. During one summer I volunteered to work with Dr Claire Gachon on a microbiology project to look at diseased algae and Eurychasma oomycetes under the microscope. Every day I had to observe and take pictures of algae under the microscope. A seed was planted.

Towards the end of my Hons degree, I took a science communication module run by Dr Anuschka Miller (Head of Comms and Director of the Ocean Explorer Centre at SAMS). I was not only seeing a beautiful and bizarre world, a world that remains inaccessible to the majority but I was also learning how to creatively communicate marine science.

I became obsessed and fascinated with the idea of sharing these tiny windows of wonder and knowledge that marine scientists were revealing with their work and to share them in a tangible form. Textiles became the ideal medium and Crùbag was founded. I’m very grateful to SAMS and so many people for their commitment to this idea, now a reality, and for their continued support.

Are there any individuals or organisations in aquaculture, research, etc. who you’ve found particularly inspirational?

Yes, over the years I came across a wide range of inspirational people, projects and organisations. Innovation and research can bring us closer to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for a greener, more suitable industry. It’s the value-driven people, institutions and businesses that support bigger goals for the greater good that can make a difference and become global game-changers.

GlobalSeaweedSTAR is a project that brings expertise, applied ocean science and skill development programs to seaweed growers (mostly women) in some of the most economically fragile coastal regions of the world. Dr Claire Gachon’s groundwork research on algae diseases and pathogens changed the seaweed aquaculture industry. Professor Liz Cottier-Cook’s work on the ecological impacts of invasive species is helping improve biosecurity practises in the seaweed industry. Dr Teresa Garzon’s enthusiasm for fish health and the ability to develop novel laboratory techniques to assess fish diseases and developmental stages in further improving fish welfare.

SAMS’ experimental seaweed farms are also very exciting. I’m biased of course because my studio is based at the same aquaculture building from where the farm operations are managed. Over the years I had to put up with the yeasty smell of drying seaweed and had a couple of opportunities to visit the Kerrera farm. The project focuses on research to develop cultivation techniques for sustainable blue growth. We are now conspiring to bring some colour to our building. We’ll keep you posted!

The ACES + Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters Degree in Aquaculture, Environment and Society is a wonderful Masters programme that fosters education and professional development in a multicultural and multidisciplinary setting. One of our Crùbag team members, Remy, comes from this programme, which is building future leaders in the industry in a diverse, collaborative and inclusive environment.

How important has networking been to your career?

Networking has been everything; connecting, caring and listening to people is what makes my work possible. It took me many years to build a strong solid network and I have never stopped working at it. Networking has to come from an honest, open intention. As the head of Crùbag, my job is to help ocean-related organisations and marine scientists to communicate their work and values to new audiences in a tangible form. Our mission to inspire people and to have a deeper connection with nature and learn about the ocean is rooted in collaboration. Every project and collection we do is the result of fruitful multidisciplinary collaborations with organisations, scientists, photographers and other artists and designers, including myself.

Our first two collections were inspired by algae / pathogen interactions and harmful algal blooms, respectively. We just launched Our Plastic Oceans Notebook Collection. We teamed up with SAMS to further explore the world of microplastics in the ocean in collaboration with P6 and P7 pupils from Taynuilt and Kilchrenan Primary Schools - the pupils created designs to express their visions of the ocean's future and give a message to the wider global community. This is a beautiful example of how networking over the years across sectors bears its fruits and provides you with an incredible pool of talent and opportunities to work together and do something bigger than yourself.

For many women trying to move up the career ladder they can be met with inequality challenges. Can you give an example of a discriminatory situation and how you dealt with it or how to avoid it?

This is a very good question. Biases can be so pervasive and hidden that you don’t even notice them. Like with equality around race, you have to be in the situation to fully experience and understand what it means to be disadvantaged by something unrelated to your talents, skills and personality. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of growing up with confidence and a sense of freedom to be whatever I wanted.

However here in Europe, I came across some forms of perceived inequality. One example is that as a female entrepreneur working at the interception of environmental sciences and creative industries, I found it hard to be taken seriously at times. It is up to us women to continue to support each other and not let biases undermine our confidence and resolve to succeed. We have the responsibility to see those biases for what they are, but not let them take over and become the reason for not flourishing on our journey. Initiatives like WiSA are very important buffers to bring positive attention and a safe platform for women in the industry to be seen and be heard.

You have a successful business now and it has been a long journey of hard work to get here. What’s your proudest achievement to date?

Our recent work with the children for Our Plastic Oceans Collection - they were thrilled, moved and seen. We gave them a platform to discuss one of the biggest issues of our time. They inspired us. Also, the joy people feel when they see our designs and touch our products. We made ocean science stories tangible through textiles, revealed unseen natural patterns and shared ocean literacy for people to connect with our planet on a cognitive and emotional level. The trust placed in us by high profile scientists, institutions and our customers all over the world is a great responsibility and testimony of the additional value we create. I’m proud when a scientist tells me that their talk was a huge success and that wearing their work as a silk scarf made people notice and ask questions. I’m proud of that. We’ve been invited to exhibit at important international events where different stakeholders can engage, relax, enjoy the colourful designs in a friendly forward-thinking atmosphere. That’s the power of science, art and collaboration combined.

How do you see the role of aquaculture in the conservation of marine biology? What is the message you would send to the aquaculture industry from your point of view?

One of the United Nations Development Goals is to: “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution. Strengthening ocean resilience, and taking action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans. Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources.”

The blue economy has to be based on the sustainable use of ocean resources. Improving livelihoods and economic growth has to go hand in hand with maintaining ocean ecosystem health. The world population is continuously growing and wild fish stock is not a limitless resource to exploit. The aquaculture industry will play a key role in ensuring a suitable healthy future for all, if we continue to evolve around cultivation standards, disease controls, fish physical and mental welfare and feeding products that do not take biomass from wild fish stocks.

Practices around equipment and materials used need to improve, too. More than 20% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing but round fish farms you often find floating plastic debris that come from broken floaters and other damaged equipment. We need to inspire the design aspect within the aquaculture industry with sustainable material solutions that benefit the ocean and protect its ecosystems.

A recent UN report found that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.

The ecosystem carrying capacity of potential sites has to be assessed, not only in relation to services provided and the preservation of local habitats, but also in relation to general ecosystem function and health needed to support increased biodiversity, as many conservation programs run in areas close to sea farms. A stronger international framework and stronger policies are needed, especially in countries with under-regulated industry standards and biodiversity hotspots.

Scotland can lead by example and become a model for how a brighter future will look where people, industry and nature continue to flourish in harmony.

Read more interviews from the series