A Call to Prioritize Social Equity in Ocean Conservation

A Q&A with Nathan Bennett, Laure Katz, and Angelo Villagomez

This piece was originally published on the Blue Nature Alliance website.

Modern conservation practices were largely developed without considering justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Humans have been viewed as separate from nature. Indigenous and local knowledge has been mostly dismissed. And communities have been left out of decisions that directly impact their ocean, land, and heritage.

Even though many efforts have aimed at correcting these and other failings for decades, the worldwide pandemic and highly visible human rights atrocities have spotlighted the need and opportunity to address longstanding social, economic, political, and environmental inequities. While these issues and conversations extend far beyond the conservation community, they are relevant, timely, important, and deserving of urgent attention and action.

New research, “Advancing social equity in and through marine conservation,” recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science explores these issues and calls for steps for improving social equity in ocean conservation efforts. In this Q&A, three of the 21 co-authors, Nathan Bennett, Laure Katz, and Angelo Villagomez, discuss their work and its implications. The Blue Nature Alliance provided financial support for this research and used the research as the basis for our Code of Conduct.

Why is it important to address social equity through ocean conservation?

Angelo: There is strong scientific evidence that we need to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. But in our urgency to protect the ocean, we can exacerbate social inequities if we do not address how decisions are made and who is part of the decision-making process. Generally, marine conservation has not been able to reach its full potential of ideas, knowledge, and action because it has historically been dominated by people, institutions, and organizations that exclude entire communities, knowledge systems, and cultures. Focusing on social equity is not only the right thing to do, but equitable approaches lead to better and longer-lasting outcomes.

Nathan: There are too many examples of conservation initiatives that resulted in disenfranchisement, abrupt displacement, and outright exclusion of local and Indigenous communities. Understandably, this action – or inaction – resulted in hard feelings and opposition to marine conservation. We need more allies, not fewer, to achieve global marine conservation targets. While there has been progress, the marine conservation community needs to continue to learn and incorporate equitable and inclusive approaches.

What does a socially equitable approach to marine conservation look like?

Nathan: This paper discusses a re-imagined approach that places local knowledge, needs, and visions for the future as the focal point of marine conservation efforts. This requires the consideration of the local social context in all marine conservation decisions, including acknowledgment and understanding of local people’s rights, livelihoods, and values. Decision-making processes should be collaborative and a true partnership between different levels of government and Indigenous peoples’ governments. Management authority and leadership should center on the communities with the most intimate relationship with the ocean – for example, in the form of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) and Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) which are designated and managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs).

 Laure: One example of this in practice is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The name of the monument itself was gifted by Hawaiian elders [editor’s notelearn about the naming process here]. Over time, as protections increased and the area was expanded, formalized mechanisms were established, such as the Reserve Advisory Council, to ensure full inclusion in the design and management of the area.

How does this approach improve conservation outcomes?

Laure: I am committed to this career because of the enormous potential to improve ocean health and people’s well-being. The key is to see local and Indigenous peoples as part of the solution—resulting in a path that makes space for local and Indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihoods, and access to food. Some argue that inclusive conservation slows and potentially weakens protections. But, in the end, we know that the time invested up front will increase local support and improve the likelihood of protections to remain in place.

I experienced this first-hand during the rapid proliferation and expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs) in parts of the Coral Triangle region in Southeast Asia. The MPAs were designed around the tenure boundaries of Indigenous communities rather than administrative boundaries. Incorporating traditional knowledge and cultural practices led to the creation of the largest fully protected zones in the Coral Triangle. Inclusion of traditional fishing zones for the exclusive use of local communities led to the elimination of destructive fishing, measurably significant increases in catch-per-unit effort for local fishers, increased food security for men, women, and children, and even increased school enrollment for both boys and girls. That, in turn, led to increased government and community support for the MPAs—resulting in more government funding for MPA management.

Angelo: People who are not included in conservation decision-making are less likely to support conservation outcomes. So, creating a bigger tent, allowing for new and different ideas will lead towards more durable outcomes, with greater support from the people living closest to and depending on the ocean.

In the Mariana Islands, I worked with my home community to design, name, and advocate for a protected area near the Mariana Trench that prioritizes access for Indigenous people. Over the course of a year, we held over 100 public meetings to discuss the urgent need for ocean protection with our community, helped our leaders reach out to decision-makers in the federal government, and kept everyone updated with radio and television interviews and newspaper articles. The community supported a big, protected area, but only around the islands that were already uninhabited nature reserves. Popular local fishing spots closer to the inhabited islands were never proposed for protection.

How does the Blue Nature Alliance incorporate social equity in its approach?

Angelo: The Blue Nature Alliance seeks to learn and implement the best management practices for designating and managing large scale marine protected areas (LSMPAs). For example, in Fiji our partnership is driven by village leaders in the Lau Seascape and Tristan da Cunha, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, we worked with local leaders to support long-term financing, as well as on the ground conservation projects.

Laure: Social equity is core to the Blue Nature Alliance’s approach to conservation. Through a collaborative peer-reviewed process, we generated a set of social principles and a Code of Conduct to guide our activities. From our process to scope potential engagements to how we cultivate partnerships, we endeavor to operate in a manner that is consistent with our social principles and that advances social equity.

The Blue Nature Alliance is also investing in research, tool development, and learning opportunities that aim to provide tangible ways for others, such as NGOs, funders, and governments, to advance social equity in their work. This article is the first published output of that work.

What should be the next steps for the global marine conservation community?

Nathan: Everyone has a role to play. Governments must create supportive policies and advance equitable practices. NGOs can develop better inclusive approaches and advocate for change. The philanthropic community has a huge amount of power, and coinciding responsibility, to incentivize equity within their funding portfolio.

An important next step for all organizations is learning, listening, and reflecting. Learning about the mistakes of the past. Listening to different perspectives and the voices of Indigenous peoples and local communities. And reflecting on how social equity can be incorporated into their government policies, management practices, NGO programs, or funding portfolios.

Direct link to the research: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.711538/full

Discovery of a Great Hammerhead Nursery

Happy Shark Week (if you celebrate), and I’m so excited to share our newly published open access paper about our research on juvenile great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) with you! (It’s been hard to keep this one to ourselves).

Great hammerheads are an iconic shark species which have undergone significant population declines globally. In 2019, they were assessed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, which reported overfishing as the greatest threat to their survival. Great hammerheads are known to make incredible long-range migrations and cross state and international boundaries, making them challenging to protect as adults. Little is known about where they are born or where they spend their early years of their life, although there have been scattered reports of juveniles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys, and one report from Georgia.

Identifying habitats that are important to juvenile sharks matters because young sharks are often the most vulnerable individuals in a population, and their survival is vital to the future of their species. Many juvenile sharks spend time in “nursery areas”—places where they are less likely to be eaten by predators, or where food resources are abundant. They then expand their ranges as they age, covering more distance as they grow larger. Identifying nurseries has long been a conservation priority for managers and scientists. After several years of research, our team has collected the first scientific evidence of a nursery area for great hammerhead sharks on the Atlantic coast of the United States—within sight of the skyline of Miami, Florida.

There’s a three-part established test for an area to be identified as a shark nursery: 1) Juvenile sharks are more commonly encountered in that habitat than elsewhere; 2) they remain in the area for extended periods; and 3) The area is used repeatedly over years. Our results demonstrate that this area definitely meets two of these criteria, with preliminary evidence that it also meets the third. We’ve found the same habitat may be a nursery area for several other shark species too, including scalloped hammerheads, another Critically Endangered species!

Although great and scalloped hammerheads are protected in Florida waters and must be released if caught, hammerhead sharks often die or suffer serious harm from capture stress. Some of these juvenile individuals were caught with hooks from prior encounters with recreational anglers still embedded in their jaws. We hope learning more about this nursery can help us reduce threats to and better protect these small sharks. We can’t wait to share further updates as new results come in from the project’s telemetry expansion, supported by the Nature Trust of the Americas and a National Geographic Explorer Grant.

Our short scientific paper documenting this work is available open access through the journal Conservation Science and Practice, you can visit the project website here, or I hope you will watch the incredible video (also embedded at the top of the post).

Shark Conservation: What’s New and What’s Next? The text of my UN Early Career Ocean Professionals Day talk

On June 1, 2021, I was invited to speak at Early Career Ocean Professionals Day, part of the kickoff for the United Nations Decade of the Ocean. The text of my remarks, with links to relevant references, is provided below.

Greetings to everyone watching virtual Early Career Ocean Professionals Day around the world! My name is Dr. David Shiffman, and I’m an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist based in Washington, DC. I study threatened species of sharks, and how to effectively protect them. I also study the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding of these issues. In addition to research and teaching, I am a public science educator, and I invite you to follow me on twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @ WhySharksMatter, where I’m always happy to answer any questions anyone has about sharks.

Today I’d like to talk to you a little bit about my work on why we should protect sharks, how we can most effectively do that, what people think about this issues, and why all of this is important. First of all, no, sharks are not a threat to you or your family, despite what you may hear in inflammatory fearmongering news reports. Hundreds of millions of humans enter the ocean every year, and a few dozen are bitten—more people are killed by flowerpots falling on their heads from above in a typical year than are killed by sharks. Sharks also play vital roles in the healthy functioning of marine and coastal ecosystems, ecosystems that humans depend on for food security, livelihoods, and recreation. In short, people are better off with healthy shark populations off our coasts than we are without them.

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Taking the bait, chopping up tankers, the calamari comeback, and some #scicomm advice– What’s up with the Ocean this week?

August 26, 2020

Don’t take the bait. Baiting fish for the sake of tourists has always engendered a fair bit of criticism. New research out of the Cook Islands demonstrates that frequent baiting at popular snorkeling sites alters fish behavior and causes harm to the reef ecosystem. Just don’t do it.

Etat-major des Armees/EPAhandout

More trouble in Mauritius. The government of Mauritius has begun the process of scuttling the bulk carrier that ran aground and spilled thousands of gallons of fuel oil in one of the worst environmental disasters for this small island nation. Though the cleanup is underway, the impacts will be felt for generations. Local reports are already showing a 5-fold increase in the level of arsenic found in fish near the wreck site.

All hail the Calamari Comeback State. Why is Rhode Island the Calamari Comeback state? Climate change and overfishing. Squid are moving north into Rhode Island’s waters and all their other major seafood products are becoming increasingly depleted due to overfishing and environmental degradation. What a comeback!

Upwelling (the part where Andrew gets on his soapbox)

Last week on Twitter I did a little a little briefing on competence laundering and how science communication can lend credibility to un-credible individuals by over-analyzing inane statements. Edited and reprinted below.

Sometimes, the current POTUS will go off on a weird nonsense ramble about a topic your have expertise in. There is a huge, natural desire to contextualize those statements and find the nuggets of reality in them.

This is competence laundering.

I’m guilty of it too. It’s so hard to resist talking about the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act when the President says we should buy Greenland. I was more vigilant during yesterday’s shark nonsense. Trying to contextualize what he’s really talking about is to ascribe a level of understanding to a topic that he clearly does not have.

Maybe he saw a thing about great whites on Fox News. Maybe he got a briefing about seal and salmon conflict in the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe he saw the Shark Week Mike Tyson Special and can’t tell the difference between the heavyweight champion of the world and the man who sung Kiss from a Rose because he’s an unrepentant racist.

You don’t know which it is. Trying to contextualize the inane ramblings of an incurious man does nothing but obscure the profound incompetence. It’s competence laundering. We don’t have to be complicit. The answer to what the heck he was talking about [last week] is “I don’t know and he doesn’t either.”

#IMCCsharks : An IMCC Symposium on Current and Emerging Issues in European Shark Conservation

On Tuesday, August 18th please join us for a (now virtual) European shark conservation symposium as part of the (now virtual) 6th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC!) IMCC is a once-every-two-years event that brings together ocean scientists, conservation and management professionals, and educators from all over the world- register here for just $25 for the virtual version. Follow along on twitter with #IMCCsharks

We have 11 speakers from all over Europe and North America speaking on a variety of issues related to the conservation and management of sharks and their relatives in European waters, and ongoing efforts to scientifically study especially threatened species. The symposium will also feature a panel discussion and informal mingling via a Zoom happy hour with some of the speakers after the symposium ends. The symposium is broken into two 90 minute parts, be sure to check out them both!

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Fun Science FRIEDay – A fish without blood

Amidst all the hysteria surrounding the seemingly unstoppable COVID-19, we bring you a story of a fish without blood. In 1928 a biologist sampling off the coast of Antarctica pulled up an unusual fish. It was extremely pale (translucent in some parts), had large eyes and a long toothed snout, and somewhat resembled a crocodile (it was later named the “white crocodile fish). Unbeknownst at the time, but the biologist had just stumbled on a fish containing no red blood pigments (hemoglobin) and no red blood cells – he iron-rich protein such cells use to bind and ferry oxygen through the circulatory system from heart to lungs to tissues and back again. The fish was one of  sixteen species of what is now commonly referred to as icefishes that comprise the family Channichthyidae, endemic around the Antarctic continent.

The Antarctic ice fish on the seafloor surrounded by brittle stars. (Photo credit:  E Jorgensen/Alfred Wegener Institute)
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Fun Science FRIEDay – Suspended Animation

Scientists (and sci-fi fans) have to varying degrees been discussing the concept of suspended animation for years; the idea that the biological functions of the human body can somehow be put on “pause” for a prescribed period of time while preserving the physiological capabilities. If you’ve ever watched any sci-fi movie depicting interstellar travel you have probably seen some iteration of this concept as a way to get around the plot conundrum of the vastness of space and space travel times, relative to natural human aging and human life span. The basic principle of suspended animation already exists within the natural world, associated with the lethargic state of animals or plants that appear, over a period, to be dead but can then “wake-up” or prevail without suffering any apparent harm. This concept is often termed in different contexts: hibernation, dormancy, or anabiosis (this last terms refers to some aquatic invertebrates and plants in scarcity conditions). It is these real-world examples that likely inspire the human imagination of the possibilities for suspended human animation. The concept of suspended human animation is more commonly viewed through the lens of science fiction (and interstellar travel), however, the shift of this concept from scientific fiction to science reality has a more practical human application.

Computer artwork of futuristic humans in suspended animation (Photo credit: Science Photo Library).
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Come to the geek side of #scicomm: Marine science education by Dungeons & Dragons

A couple of years ago, several of the people organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress let slip in their planning discussions that they played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). There are many of us of a certain age that remember fondly playing in our youth, some of us have kids who are now getting of an age where we can, in turn, teach them how to play, and some were drawn in by the surge in Youtube and podcast shows like the hugely popular “Critical Role” where literally millions of people turn in to watch a bunch of nerds play Dungeons and Dragons … and have fun.

This led to the idea of playing a game at the conference. After more discussion, perhaps helped by a few drinks, the idea was spawned that perhaps we could make this game marine-themed and educational? Maybe even play this game in front of an audience at the conference? Perhaps even record it and share it online…?!

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Fun Science FRIEDay – The Emperor of all Maladies

The Emperor of all Maladies is how Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist, aptly described cancer. Cancer, this scourge of mankind going back as far as 4,600 years ago when it was identified by the Egyptian physician Imhotep (the first in recorded history). Cancer takes one of the most successful traits of complex eukaryotes, cell division, and weaponizes it in unchecked cellular growth; some even consider cancer to be a more evolved form of cell division. This ailment has plagued humanity, and baffled physicians for centuries as they attempt to tackle the seemingly impossible, discover a cure for cancer.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T cell. (NIAID/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
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10 sharks that mattered in the 2010’s

Just when you thought it was safe to read another decade-in-review listicle…

You can buy this on a tshirt

As the 2010’s come to an end, it’s a time to reflect on the often-problematic decade that was as we plan for a hopeful future. I am a sucker for year-in-review and decade-in-review listicles, and was devastated to learn that no one had yet written a decade-in-review listicle for sharks! Please enjoy my official, scientific list of the most important science, conservation, and pop culture sharks from the past decade.

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