Latest Issue

The ocean can’t look after itself

Ocean conservation is crucial to addressing climate change, but public awareness is limited. Sparking connections with individuals offers a key to deeper understanding and action

By Simon Crompton  

©Mike Giangrasso

This article was produced in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Blue is the new Green, say ocean environmental organisations. After years in the shadows while the United Nations pushed on with an agenda to cut emissions and slow climate change, the need for global action to protect the seas from pollution, acidification and over-exploitation is finally gaining some limelight.

Next month [5-9th June] the UN will hold its first ever high-level meeting specifically addressing ocean conservation. The UN bills it as “a game changer that will reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, planet and prosperity.” Under discussion will be targets to reduce pollution and debris, protect marine ecosystems, end overfishing and destructive fishing practices, and minimise the effects of ocean acidification.

Ocean organisations and scientists are hopeful that the event, and resulting call for action, will mark a turning point after two decades of neglect in national and global politics. Finally, they say, the world seems to be waking up to the importance of the ocean.

“I have worked on ocean issues for 20 years plus, and in the past it’s been difficult to get any attention,” says Dr Heather Koldewey, Head of Marine and Freshwater Conservation Programmes at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). This May, she was encouraged by the widespread media coverage of the plastic debris strewing the beaches of the supposedly pristine Henderson Island in the South Pacific.

“Whales and dolphins have never been a problem, but getting attention about wider ocean issues has been much more difficult. It’s encouraging to see that more ocean stories are making it to the news.”

But alongside the optimism is an awareness of how hard won some of these advances have been. The forthcoming UN Ocean Conference may revolve around implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on conserving the ocean, but the fact is that there was originally no goal for the ocean when the SDGs were developed in 2014. It was only added after a hard fight by environmental organisations.

And the ocean wasn’t even on the agenda at the landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the 23 years since that convention was introduced—to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”—there has been no similar formal UN process to stabilise or protect the ocean.

“The world is well on its way to meeting targets set for protection on land, but far from its goals for ocean protection,” said Jane Lubchenco, a member of President Obama’s science team and Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University, writing in Science. “The politics of ocean protection are too often disconnected from the science and knowledge that supports it.”

Professor Dan Laffoley, Marine Vice Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas, agrees that political and public engagement with the ocean lag far behind its actual importance. “We ignore the ocean and its life-giving values at our peril. It is, after all, more than 70 percent of the surface of our planet, contains nearly all the water we know, and provides some 99 per cent of our planet’s living space. It absorbs just over a quarter of the carbon dioxide we emit each year and—since the 1970s—some 93 per cent of the enhanced heating from the greenhouse effect and other human activities.”

Yet despite the important connection between the ocean and climate, the ocean was only mainstreamed into climate policy two years ago during the Paris UNFCCC. And most of it remains completely unprotected. Two thirds of the ocean—the high seas—lie beyond national jurisdiction, and according to the High Seas Alliance, until there are means to protect such areas, the whole ocean will remain seriously challenged. “Our hope for the UN Ocean Conference is that it will support a call for states to convene a formal intergovernmental conference next year, leading to a legally binding treaty to protect marine life of the high seas,” said Peggy Kalas of the Alliance.

Why has this happened? Why, despite the progress being made, are scientists and conservationists still concerned that all too few politicians and members of the public appreciate why conserving the ocean is just as important as global warming?

In particular, why does no one seems to grasp that the ocean is critical to the functioning of key planetary systems, and life itself? It is a key contributor to the Earth’s atmosphere, distributes heat, regulates climate and is part of a planet-wide ecosystem that supports all life. But the public and politicians are vague about, or unaware, of this.

“People are always astounded when I tell them that every other breath you take comes from the ocean,” says Heather Koldewey, who conducts public education programmes with ZSL. “At school we learn early on that trees are really important for providing oxygen but people don’t learn that the rest of it comes from the ocean.”

The messages have not been getting through. Ocean conservation organisations and their backers are beginning to tackle this bull by the horns.

In 2013 the ocean programme of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF)—an European charitable foundation aiming to promote improvements in human wellbeing—conducted a scoping exercise looking at the key issues facing ocean health. And it became clear that overlaying all the specifics—such as warming, overfishing, acidification—was a more general problem of how disconnected people are from the ocean and the threats to it.

“Without tackling that disconnection, everything else becomes more difficult,” says Louisa Hooper, Environment Programme Manager at CGF’s UK Branch. “Traditionally, organisations have focused on particular issues, or species, rather than looking at the whole area of communication and addressing that. It felt like there was a gap there, and that we could support work and provide greater focus in this area.”

As a result, the foundation commissioned a major study from the Frameworks Institute, a communications thinktank, aiming to map gaps between expert and public understanding of marine conservation. Published in March, it  found that the British have many shared understandings and assumptions about the ocean—partly forged by our dependence on and proximity to the sea—but that these perceptions often undermine concerns about threats to its health.

For example, it is often assumed to be so vast that it must be immune to negative change or human influence. The British public—united in a sense of the importance of the seaside and the nation’s naval history—tend to think only of its surface.  “This leads people to underestimate the profound and enduring changes that are happening beneath the surface,” says the report.

The Frameworks Institute identifies some other significant gaps in public understanding. For example, while grasping basic concepts such as the water cycle, the public lacks understanding of how the ocean and atmosphere are connected through exchanges of temperature, oxygen and currents. And though people recognise dangers to specific species, they don’t understand how planetary ecosystems are interconnected.

People’s understanding of the effects of pollution is limited to the specific animals that it affects—birds strangled by plastic bags or drenched by oil. They lack a wider understanding of how pollution disrupts ecosystems, says the report. Interviewees provided little evidence of understanding acidification and ocean warming, and their relationship to carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

When it comes to what can be done to protect the ocean, there is a sense of pessimism and powerlessness. Part of this fatalism stems from the tendency to think only of solutions at the individual level, rather than collective or political action. How can an individual bring change to entire marine systems? This contrasts with experts’ insistence on collective responsibility to address problems through government. These “gaps” that emerged provided important cues for how marine conservation experts and advocates should frame their messages in the future (see box).

For Louisa Hooper from CGF, two recommendations stand out. First, avoid language which romanticises the vastness and mystery of the ocean. This, the report says, tends to strengthen a sense of separation from the ocean, and a feeling that it is immune to human influence or efforts to conserve it. “Intuitively, you tend to think it will help people to understand why the sea is important,” she says “but research reveals the opposite.”

The second lesson is: don’t focus solely on individual action. Although calls for individual behaviour change are important, activists need to ensure that it is linked to a bigger picture of how collective action works, and how policy change is needed.

“We want the findings to be of practical use to conservation organisations and governments,” says Louisa Hooper. “We have already discussed the report with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and there’s real interest in the implications for government communications.”

The report is clear that building on a shared national sense of the sea, and connecting this with a bigger understanding and sense of mission, will be key. Many organisations, projects and campaigns now follow the principles advocated in the Frameworks Institute report, and demonstrate their potential impact.

For example, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) works to clear the shores of the rising tide of rubbish that is dangerous to sea life and habitats—partly because it is important in its own right, and partly because it connects individual experience with a bigger picture.

Sue Ranger, MCS Education and Engagement Manager, says: “We try to provide an immediate point of connection to people, so they  know it matters to them – whether it’s because they like to spend time by the ocean, or eat seafood or think surfing is cool.”

“These quick connections can link to a bigger picture and create opportunities to talk about the global ocean. Marine plastics, for example, are everywhere—on every beach, and down in the deepest part of the ocean. We all live downstream, so we are all connected.”

MCS community beach cleans engage people in a sense of individual action linked to collective action. It also helps counter people’s sense of powerlessness. “Doing something in the community makes people feel good. We have thousands of volunteers on beach cleans every year, and they really do unite people behind a common cause, providing an opportunity to explore wider and deeper ocean communications.”

“Taking part in the Great British Beach Clean each year is one of the most British things I can think of: out in every conceivable weather, flasks of tea, gales, jolly chats. It’s a very good thing.”

Jason Hall-Spencer, Professor of Marine Biology at Plymouth University, is a great believer in community-based initiatives to link individual experience to a bigger picture. Beach cleans on the South West coast of England have exposed the public to the phenomenon of rare sea fan corals being washed up on the shore – the result of plastics and fishing nets breaking them off at the stem.

The public found hundreds of sea fans, tangled with fishing line, washed up in the winter of 2014–15, and as a result Hall-Spencer and his team wrote up a scientific paper warning of the threat that this type of “ghost fishing” posed to marine ecosystems. “What’s on the strandlines does indicate what’s going on in the seas,” he says.

“When you look out to sea, it feels as if it’s so vast there’s nothing we can do to change it. But if you’re helping manage a shore or a salt marsh on your doorstep, it becomes more practical and manageable.”

“Things need to be visual and real for people, and provide examples of what works rather than talking about a crisis. That’s much more motivational.”

Louisa Hooper of CGF says the key is finding the common ground we all occupy—whether as holiday-goers, fishermen, politicians or environmentalists.  “We need to build on what people have in common and on what matters to them,” she says, “and it’s rarely short term exploitation of the sea that matters to most people.”

Ocean conservation groups will have to use all the tools at their disposal. Even with the new global focus on ocean protection, the speed and scale of action required to turn the tide on ocean decline means massive political will is needed. This is not yet evident.

The forthcoming UN Ocean Conference will be an opportunity to catalyse action to protect the ocean and the services which it provides to humankind, but its effect may be limited if it is not accompanied by a larger project to connect public, politicians and media alike in understanding what we stand to lose if we do nothing.


How marine conservation messages need to change

The Frameworks Institute has provided the following recommendations on communications for marine conservation experts and advocates:

  • Avoid crisis language
  • Avoid talking about the ocean as an economic resource
  • Use the idea of the ocean as a sustainer of human wellbeing
  • Build on existing knowledge to expand understanding
  • Emphasise ecosystem disruptions
  • Specify what governments should do
  • Showcase systemic solutions that work
  • Avoid language emphasising vastness and mystery
  • Discuss all pollution types
  • Stress negative outcomes for all human populations, not just coastal
  • Highlight how conservation contributes to economic advancement
  • Avoid focusing solely on individual action


The #OneLess campaign: making it personal and global

How do you connect with people on an individual basis about the global ocean—particularly if they live miles from the sea? A campaign spearheaded by the Marine CoLABoration and hosted by the Zoological Society London (ZSL) aims to connect the whole of London with the ocean by demonstrating how small individual actions at every location, become a collective wave and have wider impacts on earth systems.

The #OneLess campaign’s objective is to make London the first capital city to stop using single-use plastic water bottles. Research published in Science in 2015 showed that between 5.5 and 14.6 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean every year. A World Economic Forum report projects that by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish.

So the campaign revolves around collective individual action, encouraging people and businesses to stop using single-use plastic water bottles.

At the same time, it emphasises that Londoners’ lives are inextricably linked to the ocean: the River Thames transports oxygen, water, clean air, fish, nutrients and weather from the ocean to the city to make it habitable and healthy.

“Connecting the ocean to people’s everyday lives is so important,” says Dr Heather Koldewey, Head of Marine and Freshwater Conservation Programmes at ZSL. “That’s where the #OneLess campaign has come into its own, taking an everyday item and making it an ocean story rather than a litter story or a plastics story or a packaging story.”

“Pretty much everybody in the country has come into contact with single use plastic water bottles, and how you choose to use it and dispose of it has an impact on the ocean. Concentrating on the bottle becomes a means of accessing the larger consequences of plastic waste on the ocean.”

She remembers visiting an island in the Chagos Archipelago and finding over 300 water bottles from 10 countries on the beach in 20 minutes.

“When you throw something away, there really is no away. It’s going somewhere, whether it’s your local beach or an island far away. So it’s about looking at individual responsibility and the bigger picture at the same time. Every piece of that litter on the beach was in somebody’s hand at one time.”

“One of the things we’ve been working on is ocean optimism and providing solutions rather than doom and gloom. If you make people aware that the average person in the UK uses 200 plastic bottles a year, then you can see very quickly that individuals, families and workplaces can make a difference by doing something very simple such as swapping to using refillable bottles.”

Ahead of the first UN Convention on Oceans on June 5th, Prospect will be hosting a roundtable discussion with leading experts addressing the issues. If you are interested in receiving a write-up of the event, please email

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect