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How do we protect the Ocean?

A focus purely on economics must not overrule the long-term future of the ocean

By Prospect Team  

This article was produced in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

In partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Prospect convened a discussion last week on “How do we protect the Ocean?”. The event took place ahead of the first ever dedicated UN Ocean Conference which was held from June 5th to 9th to consider the solutions and policies needed to conserve and sustainably develop our ocean and marine resources, in line with SDG goal 14. The event drew from research from the FrameWorks Institute which sets out recommendations aimed to facilitate communication and foster understanding about the ocean.

Duncan Weldon, who chaired the discussion, noted that it was striking that discussions about the climate were much more present in the public consciousness when compared to how the ocean was spoken about. Bringing forward the example of the rain-forest, “there’s quite a high level in public discourse, media discourse and political discourse concerning the rain-forest but we don’t really get that with the ocean”.

Kenneth Johnson, Researcher and Head of Division of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, noted that this was not necessarily the case for all aspects of the ocean. Citing the example of coral reefs, he argued that “there are some systems in the ocean that are charismatic enough that people do have knowledge about it”.

Torsten Thiele, Founder of the Global Oceans Trust, stated that “some people say that the ocean is the new climate. I say that the ocean is the old climate”. The important role of the ocean was commented upon by multiple participants. Many of which referred to the fact that every second breath we take comes from the ocean. A key point that emerged early in the discussion was that the way we all engage with the ocean needs to be examined and potentially re-evaluated to create a successful call to action for governments and different actors, including private and public institutions, businesses and individuals.

Mercedes Rosello, Director of the House of Ocean, argued that the historical representation of the ocean merited further examination within the context of this discussion.  “For many centuries, there was no need to understand it. It supported and fed humanity for many centuries and, in just a very short space of time, our technological advancements have been vast.” She went on to state that, due to a legal system “that supports exploitation, we now find ourselves in a position where we now need to very rapidly develop a different approach”.

Mercedes Rosello

Lucy Woodall, representing the High Seas Alliance, also noted the importance of technological advances. “It’s just really important that we come back to the aspect of technology. After advances in research it’s amazing just how much now understand that we don’t know about the ocean.” The erroneous concept that the ocean was “too big to fail” was invoked on multiple occasions. Yet Pen Hadow, Director of the North Pole High Seas Project, went on to state that “If you wait until it is obvious to every person that we have a crisis, it is already lost”.

Adrian Gahan, Managing Director at Sancroft, argued that “we only save what we love and we only love what we know”. Directly citing the research from the FrameWorks Institute that was commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, he went on to note “that if we become disconnected from the ocean then we don’t understand the full range of its services”. As a result, the ocean suffers from a global commons problem since ocean governance crosses over departments and national boundaries

Rodney Anderson, Advisor to North Sea Marine Cluster, also noted the importance of public perception when he reflected on his work on the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009. “One of the issues about the UK is that the sea is not very attractive, nor are the things that are in there and it’s a real problem”. This required a concerted effort to find “pretty things” around the UK coastline in order to establish that this was an issue worth addressing.

Prospect roundtable

When asked, what were the key measures which were needed to be taken to preserve ocean health? Lucy responded that it was “important that we not get caught up in the idea that we need to know everything before we can act”. Louisa Hooper, from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, added that “if you focus purely on economic value it undermines the fact that the ocean is a long-term sustainer of life”.

Increased public engagement was seen by many as being fundamental. Matt Frost, Deputy Director of the Marine Biological Association stated that it is important that “we communicate the importance of the ocean to all stakeholders whether it’s industry or the media”. Yet he went on to note that long-term change would need to be done through education and that the importance of a “syllabus aimed at the younger generations” could not be neglected.

From left to right: Lucy Holmes, Matt Frost and Adrian Gahan

In the closing remarks of the discussion, Adrian offered up a self-admitted contrarian view. “we don’t need a public tipping point. What we need is a policymaker’s tipping point- politicians don’t like talking about the problem unless they know what the solution is.” As a key take-away, Rodney stressed the importance of transparency in fostering an understanding of what is going on. While there may be policy procedures and tick boxes in place “none of us can say, including the regulators, how effective they are in achieving our goals”.

Torsten argued that a strong economic narrative could act as “the tipping point for policy-makers – [since] we can spend money more effectively in that space than in another space” while Lucy noted that “if you focus purely on the economics then that undermines wider questions about the ocean as a long-term sustainer of life and you need to use these messages quite carefully”.

From left to right: Mirella von Lindenfels, Lucy Woodall and Louis Mackay

The discussion was chaired by Duncan Weldon, Head of Research at the Resolution Group. We would like to thank our participants for taking the time to share their insights and contribute to this informative discussion: Rodney Anderson, Independent Consultant and Advisor to North Sea Marine Cluster; Dr Matt Frost, Deputy Director, The Marine Biological Association; Adrian Gahan, Managing Director, Sancroft; Chiara Vitali, Sea Change Campaign Manager; Pen Haddow, Director, North Pole High Seas Project Ltd.; Alice Puritz, Lawyer- Biodiversity, Client Earth; Lucy Holmes, Senior Programme Manager, International Sustainability Unit; Louisa Hooper, Environment Programme Manager, CGF; Dr Kenneth Johnson, Researcher and Head of Division – Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum; Nicola Pollock, Director, John Ellerman Foundation; Fiona Llewellyn, Marine Reserves Coalition Coordinator, ZSL/One Less Campaign; Mirella Von Lindenfels, Director, Communications Inc. Ltd;  Torsten Thiele, Founder, Global Oceans Trust; Dr Lucy Woodall, Ocean Research and Conservation Group, Oxford University; Mercedes Rosello, Director, House of Ocean; Louis  Mackay, Maritime Foundation; and Tony Long, Director – Ending Illegal Fishing Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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