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The ocean is, and always has been, our life support system on Earth. In the past our ancestors crawled, flipped and wriggled onto the land from the sea, giving rise to our own species. In the present day, human beings draw upon the seas for food, energy, recreation and inspiration. Fundamentally the oceans provide a stable climate that supports all life on Earth – a service that none of us can do without.
The oceans and seas now face a myriad of problems: overfishing, climate change, and pollution from farming, heavy industry and settlements. However, these problems are being addressed by hundreds of scientific and management programs that are, piece by piece, bringing together solutions in a holistic fashion called the ecosystem approach.
This approach is about understanding the oceans as a dynamic, connected, living system and not only addresses the ecological side of the problems but specifically includes humans in the equation. At the heart of the ecosystem approach is the consideration of human values and the trade-offs we make as a society over environmental protection and economic development.
How far can we go in obtaining ‘services’ from the sea, such as fisheries, before protection and recovery initiatives are undertaken? Recent research by the EU Knowseas project, led by myself and the Scottish Association for Marine Science, is exploring this question from a unique viewpoint – trying to understand how people value the seas, what they value, and what they expect from their environment.
Underneath the policy choices made by government are the collective choices made by individuals in the resources they use, the places they visit and the actions they take within households that will influence the marine environment. For example, our seafood choices and national love affair with cod and chips has a direct bearing on fisheries and the status of fish stocks.
Our household use of energy and willingness to switch to renewables collectively affects the development of government support for blue energy industries. At a most basic level, our personal respect for the environment and our own behaviour reflects whether we throw rubbish out of our car window that ends up in rivers and coastal waterways.
It is the consideration of these issues at an individual level that gives rise to the idea of ‘ocean citizenship’ where the health and sustainability of the oceans is as much a matter of individual behaviour and positive action as it is choices made by central governments.
The Knowseas team conducted a survey of 7,000 people across the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Poland between December 2010 and January 2011, in order to understand public values towards the sea. The research discovered that the services most valued from the oceans are the provision of weather and climate, as a source of food, and for its scenery.
While industry and employment was important, it was clear that individuals value the beauty of coastal environments. This varied amongst nations, with warmer nations generally more optimistic about the importance of the sea and having a closer cultural link to marine systems. The results show that marine activities that are captured through measures of economic output are not necessarily those of most importance to individuals.
The research identified an important trend across all of the surveyed countries. Results indicated that over half of the population sampled believe that environmental groups or scientists were most competent to manage the marine environment, while less than a third indicated that any other group, including national and EU government, was competent.
While government and industry is the cornerstone of marine environmental management, the research picks up on an increasing public mood for civil society to have a seat at the table and where scientific concerns are central to decisions – not peripheral. One interpretation is that we are witnessing the expansion of the environmental civil society movement from land into the marine environment.
While ocean issues were overall ranked quite low in terms of importance against day-to-day issues such as the economy or education, it is clear that there is a shift occurring in the public consciousness and that scientists have to continue to work hard to communicate oceans issues to the public and work in partnership to achieve social change.
There is clear optimism over the means of change with a large majority – in some countries over 80% – favouring more action on the coasts and sea through marine planning and the development of marine protected areas.
Our research shows a good starting point, and with genuine engagement, participation and accountability it will be possible to provide a platform for delivering a healthy marine environment that ensures a flow of benefits to all parts of society.