26 June 2022

In the past, people believed that the sea was limitless and held infinite resources. No one imagined that we could empty this vast, seemingly unending space. But as we began to peer under the waves, as our science improved, as our seafood choices diminished, and most importantly, as we listened to local communities describe the increasing difficulty with which they caught their daily quotas, we realized that our assumptions were wrong. Better late than never, but even with the sands of time slipping, we did not and have not acted quickly enough. Humans continue to extract resources faster than systems can replenish themselves. We prioritize our convenience over the proper functioning of the planet. We compete with other species for dwindling resources, resulting in their decline and the degradation of their homes. Our actions remain unsustainable.

Marine conservation—the protection and preservation of ecosystems in oceans and seas—is an environmental movement that emerged with our collective realization that we needed to do better, a response to the overexploitation and destruction of the sea and its inhabitants. It represents a resolve to protect and restore the ecosystem functioning of the oceans and honour the services they provide. In time, to focus efforts, communities gathered to set goals to offer a common aim and ensure accountability for all. Small goals became bigger goals, which ultimately became global goals. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 is an excellent example of this effort. The only SDG dedicated to the ocean, its focus—“life below water”—centres on “the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, sea and marine resources for sustainable development”.

Over the years, our progress towards achieving SDG 14 has been slow, often too slow to outpace the growing challenges our oceans face. The news is not improving, and time is running out. Almost annually, our oceans break heatwave records; coral reefs bleach; and plankton, the base of every marine food chain, declines—with many species facing extinction as the planet continues to warm. Dead zones are increasing dramatically, and not even the “charismatic species” in our oceans are safe from extinction. The take-home message? Business as usual has not worked.

Dr. Asha de Vos, center, with members of Oceanswell.

While significant efforts and investments are focused on increasing the scale and improving the effectiveness of marine conservation globally, less effort has been put into operationalizing social equity in and through the pursuit of marine conservation. Without equity, there can be no success. Unfortunately, for too long, most marine conservation efforts have involved “parachuting”. Even today, the best-known and most amplified marine conservation projects are led by individuals who are not local to the places where they work.

Parachute science and conservation occur when researchers from the global North work in the global South, with no long-term investment or consideration of realities on the ground. Partnerships between those from the outside and those in the countries are built once grants are submitted and resources acquired, often too late to ensure the meaningful and equitable inclusion of local stakeholders. The outsider, the resource holder, wields unequal power and usually controls the narrative and research agenda. This results in the work being out of sync with the priorities on the ground but well aligned with those of the outsider—enhancing their career trajectory but derailing existing local conservation efforts. These partnerships are unsustainable in the long term, further exacerbate existing inequities, and block local expertise that drives much-needed outcomes. They do not foster the development of the local cadre of scientists, practitioners and policymakers who have the power to make a difference in the long term. Instead, they perpetuate personal injustices that inhibit us from edging closer to achieving SDG 14. Parachute conservation is at a critical juncture as we recognize that disparities in wealth and opportunity coupled with the persistent long shadow of colonialism hinder our progress on shared conservation goals.

Seventy per cent of our coastlines are in the developing world, but representation of these communities at the global decision-making level is negligible. This lack of representation is not a reflection of a lack of capacity but our non-equitable ways of decision-making. Without representation, how can we design solutions that work for the diversity of coastlines and the people who use them?

Dr. Asha de Vos visits a coral reef during Mission Blue II: Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, 10-16 October 2015. Ryan Lash

If we genuinely want to save our oceans, we must ensure that individuals from these often underrepresented communities are given a seat at the table, listened to and empowered to take action. Individuals who have a long-term commitment, who have built trust in their communities, can engage with those around them, are around when issues arise and can tailor science-based solutions centred on their local knowledge. Equitable global partnerships can help circumvent the void created by the lack of technical expertise on the ground. Partnerships that respect the contribution and capacity of local stakeholders, recognize ongoing efforts, support the scaling of work rather than competing with it and enable local efforts to become sustainable in the long term provide allyship, and amplify and elevate local champions. Partnerships should give and take in equal measure. The more we celebrate and promote these efforts, the more likely they will occur in all corners of the globe, and the further we will progress towards achieving SDG 14.

The ocean makes up 70 per cent of our planet. To protect it, we need a large and diverse team. The theme for this year’s Ocean Conference, “Scaling up ocean action based on science and innovation for the implementation of Goal 14: Stocktaking, partnerships and solutions”, highlights the need for partnerships but should emphasize that without equity, our progress will be negligible. Without local heroes, we will continue to watch the decline of this vital ecosystem. In the end, solutions come from within each of us. How we embrace and empower the most diverse global conservation community over the next few years will make the difference between whether marine conservation becomes a popular global value or retains its current air of exclusivity and elitism. I do not doubt that we will all choose the former.


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