A World Oceans Day reflection on working together to save our seas
For a long time, I have felt that the ocean is a place of worship. A dive or a surf can bring you to your knees, make you feel small, make you feel better. It is where we pray and we beg for mercy, where we marvel and where we go to feel connected. For many of us our connection to the ocean is one of luxury. We spent our childhoods swimming, exploring the rock pools and ‘dissecting’ a dead fish here and there. At an early age, many of us also took up the mantle to protect dolphins at all costs – we did not allow our parents to buy tinned tuna unless it said ‘dolphin-friendly’, or we turned our school speeches into passionate advocacy for these lovely creatures. If we were lucky, we graduated as marine biologists or started an ocean-focused NGO on the side. In many senses, we are ‘luxury’ ocean users – able to surf/dive/paddleski/SUP regularly.
But what many of us luxury ocean users do not realise is just how little we know about protecting the ocean. Yes, the ocean is full of almost unimaginable wonders that deserve to thrive. And so, we block off areas for protection as we please and as funds allow. We take up arms and get vocal with locals who continue to eat fish despite heart-wrenching documentaries. We presume to know the solutions because we were raised “correctly” or because we studied biology or because we’ve been picking up plastic off the beach since we first saw that turtle with the straw up its nose. No doubt we know a lot. But what don’t we know?
I like to say that my real-world knowledge began with my move to Mozambique a few years ago. For just more than a year, we lived in Inhambane where I had some time and space to explore the Inhambane Bay mangroves, an ecosystem that I am all too familiar with as a professional ecological specialist. I very quickly learned that in Mozambique, unlike in South Africa, you do not just separate people from the mangroves and neatly quantify them as ‘anthropogenic effects’. No… here the local communities taught me that my views and understanding of ecosystems were limited. If we as ecologists and conservationists are trying to solve the ocean protection puzzle, we are missing the many puzzle pieces brought to the table by people who do not go through our standard western education system. For the first time I learnt about traditional ecological knowledge, a form of indigenous knowledge that includes the knowledge, practice, and belief concerning the relationship of living beings to one another and to the physical environment, which is held by peoples in relatively non-technological societies with a direct dependence upon local resources (Berkes 1993).
I realized that the community members who wanted to collaborate had a completely different understanding of the system I was now trying to study, they had their own protected areas and reasons for protecting, and (most importantly) their own questions! My role changed. I was no longer the authority, instead I was a team member using my expertise and understanding to help answer their questions. They are the custodians of the space; they will persist even after our project ends and I stop visiting. They are the people who will have the real impact and I do not get to decide what that impact should be. The last four years of my life have been very humbling. Aside from the romantic notion of ocean custodians, this project shook me out of the illusion that we should protect for the sake of protecting and maintaining healthy ecosystems. This is a luxury notion brought about the luxury of a full belly and secure future.
Subsistence and small-scale fishing or aquaculture communities need to conserve to ensure food security. This motivation if anything is even more profound as it speaks to a direct relationship between humans and the sea. I think what shocked me the most is how the efforts of the local community were completely overshadowed by the foreign marine conservation organisations working in the area. These were globally celebrated organisations that I once held dear until I learnt their definition of ‘working together’.
Locally, we can add to this South Africa’s history of forced removals. How many communities have been historically (and remain) excluded from natural spaces and the science? Can we really talk about ‘working together’ if communities are still battling to even access the space upon which they depend (Sunde and Isaacs 2008, Sunde and Erwin 2020)?
What now? Us luxury ocean users need to learn and unlearn a few things if we are committed to working together to protect the ocean, our place of wonder and worship.
- First, we need to learn to listen. What does this space mean to others? What does protection and conservation mean to people outside of our neat bubbles? Most importantly, we must listen with no argument or defence.
- We need to constantly ask ‘is our activism exclusive?’, ‘do our efforts undermine entire livelihoods?’, ‘are we trying to solve a problem with our Luxury Lenses still on?’, for example, reducing fish consumption is certainly doable for us luxury ocean users, it is not that easy (and sometimes not possible) for the majority of coastal subsistence communities.
- We must include many perspectives in our decision-making process. This means not only hearing from marginalised communities but also having them vote on decisions. This would make our efforts more inclusive and provide us with a broader range of information. Sometimes we mean well by closing off areas but in truth a quick discussion with local dependent communities could have better informed our efforts.
- We need to be careful about who we assign as ‘teachers’ and what is being taught. And then of course who we classify as ‘poachers’ and how did they come to be? Such heavy, short labels often do not provide adequate historical context and us humans tend not to go looking too deeply either.
- We must learn outside our area of interest. You’re interested in the ocean and its creatures, right? But what about the deep (often dark and haunting) history of our ancestors with the sea? How many of us have really taken the time to learn in this regard? How can we fully work towards protecting something when we do not properly understand what it means to everyone we work with?
This year marks the beginning of the United Nations’ Decade of Ocean Science. With the theme of ‘The science we need for the ocean we want’, I hope us luxury ocean users really use the opportunity to examine and redefine our role in celebrating and conserving the world’s oceans. We are not the only authorities or the sole knowledge-holders, we should not just invest our time in learning about marvellous creatures and pretty underwater forests. If we want to truly work together and collaboratively solve ocean issues, we need to take the time to understand these human-ocean relationships outside of our own perspectives. Listening, broadening the decision-making panel, interrogating words and good deeds and broadening our own learning are just a few ways through which we can truly begin to understand these dynamics and make cohesive choices. It is a lot to do in one go, so if you choose to work on one thing today start by listening.
About the author: Nasreen Peer
Nasreen Peer obtained her PhD studying crabs and realised that crabs without context make for frivolous research. She is now a lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Botany and Zoology. Here she teaches students about the natural world and makes them question the way we relate to our environment and each other. She is also the co-founder of Argonaut Science (Pty) Ltd, a small business based on the principle that science and exploration belong to everyone. You can find her on Instagram at @naszoea or on Twitter at @nasreenpeer