In the journal Ocean Sustainability, a team of researchers have published a new paper about the importance of equity for ocean conservation. There, they talk about the ones most affected by the current problems facing the ocean: people in the tropics.
The topic of the paper had been raised in response to Our Ocean Conference held in Panama, March 2023, where the topic focused on the tropics.
Lead author Ana Spalding and her colleague Kirsten Grorud-Colvert assembled a group of multidisciplinary researchers from around the global tropics. Together, they discuss solutions for ocean conservation that are actionable.
After the team had discussed about ideas and whatnot on Zoom, they organized an in-person draft-writing workshop with a core group of collaborators in November 2022 in Panama.
The team’s initial objective was to discuss how to face the most urgent problems affecting the oceans, particularly in the global tropics.
As they went by, however, discussions narrowed down to focusing on the inequity in ocean governance and ocean science as opposed to focusing solely on the scientific aspect of marine conservation.
Spalding said, “The underlying tone was that systemic changes in inequity and access were important. We still incorporated the more technical science side of things, but that’s been written, that’s been talked about. We decided to prioritize this issue.”
Differences in ocean governance
Per the paper, governance of the ocean is still dominated by high-income countries in temperate regions—where most of the scientific knowledge and funding originates.
But the truth is, the tropics are home to most of the world’s marine biodiversity as well as the majority of directly ocean-dependent people. Thus, the current policies are established disproportionately by people who live outside of tropical regions.
Grorud-Colvert said that the team had fundamentally wanted to acknowledge this inequity from the start, pointing out that most of the resources and funding for marine conservation came from temperate regions.
Then, in the paper, the authors suggest that there are four key actions which policymakers must prioritize: equity in ocean science and governance, reconnecting people and the ocean, redefining ocean literacy, and decolonizing ocean science.
According to Spalding, the paper highlighted that the problem wasn’t only the changes to natural ecosystems, fish and mangroves. Rather, the main problem was the impacts those changes have on certain groups of people, in particular, those who live in the tropics.
“We’re not going to see changes in nature until we see systemic changes in how people in these regions can participate, engage, feel connected to the issues, and feel responsible for these changes,” Spalding said.
Co-author from Fiji Sangeeta Mangubhai added that the time was due to value and trust the deep knowledge and understanding of history and place which had been held by those in the tropical majority. “Let us take the lead in those places we call home,” Mangubhai said.
Will contributing directly help?
Since it appears that there’s a disparity of treatment in terms of ocean conservation. From what we can gather, there are those who are most affected by how the seas have changed but, in most cases, have received little attention.
This puts people who live around those areas and genuinely care about the environment at a disadvantage. And most of the time, they feel helpless about the situation until help comes.
Based on those facts, new research by a team at the University of Exeter and the University of Bristol Law School suggests that the global political and government institutions should do more to make citizens feel empowered within marine environment decisions and give them the right to participate—dubbed the “marine citizenship.”
It is a term aimed at people who want to get involved in changing the relationship between humans and the ocean. In this study, marine citizenship has been investigated as a potential policy tool to engage the public in marine environmental issues.
There have been efforts to prevent and tackle overfishing, marine litter, microplastics, pollution, and other problems affecting the oceans. However, the impacts they have on the ocean-human relationship get overlooked a lot of times.
The right to contribute directly
The researchers argue that the current research on marine citizenship focuses mainly on individuals changing their personal behaviors as an expression of responsibility towards the ocean.
So far, the expression and responsibility only include awareness raising, environmental education and environmental attitudes research. The team of the University of Exeter and Bristol Law School research believes that it can change.
Therefore, this study suggests that marine citizens should be allowed to participate in marine environmental decision-making processes. This encourages more societal and political dimensions of the human-ocean relationship, as opposed to solely individual behavioral change.
According to Dr Pamela Buchan at the University of Exeter, current access for commoners to participate in environmental decisions is commonly via charities and conservation groups. Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow individuals to make direct contributions.
“Our research shows that citizens feel that individuals have the least influence over discussions about the future of our oceans,” Dr Buchan said. “Our research shows that marine citizenship is much more than individual pro-environmental behaviors.”
In the conclusion of the study, which was published in PLOS ONE, the researchers ultimately challenge the public and scientific community to further look at the potential of marine citizenship to create transformative change.
I personally believe that the newly proposed marine citizenship can be great for people in the global tropics who are in urgent need to change their surrounding environment to be better. It can also help bring more actions and not just awareness to overlooked but negatively impacted areas around the world.
And, if we were to combine the studies from The University of Exeter and The University of Bristol Law School with that of Spalding’s, what we need next is a space to do it.
A space to discuss about the ocean
Knowing that a space is much needed to make some progress, Spalding and Grorud-Colvert committed themselves to creating a space for everyone all across the world so they all can listen and challenge perspectives and ideas.
The difference in cultures and time zones were not a challenge: looking back to how the co-authors had done their discussions via Zoom, they were surprised to find that their experiences were not very different.
Spalding said, “It’s amazing how shared experiences lead to co-creating solutions for the global tropics. In East Asia and the Pacific and Africa and Latin America, we are all feeling similar things, and we feel validated by the folks from these regions.”
Co-author Josheena Naggea at Stanford University added that, to make better decisions for the tropics, there should be more amplifications of the voice of the tropical majority in ocean science and governance.
“Current scientific leaders need to realize that scientists in the tropics have been mostly ignored or marginalized for a very long time and we nevertheless are producing essential knowledge, and often in much more equitable ways,” co-author Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor said.
Looking ahead, the researchers believe that despite the current inequities in ocean governance—which can negatively impact ocean conservation—solutions are available so long as we constantly seize opportunities for change.