Ocean of bliss: rewriting the narrative

On World Oceans Day, Essam Yassin Mohammed says it is time to rethink the way we look at the world's ocean resources.

Essam Yassin Mohammed's picture
Essam Yassin Mohammed ([email protected]) is senior researcher in environmental economics in IIED's Sustainable Markets Group.
08 June 2015
A boat near Fiji. Tourism and fishing are important industries for the Pacific nation of Fiji. Both of these economically important sectors depend on effective marine conservation (Photo: Sam Gao, Creative Commons via Flickr)

A boat near Fiji. Tourism and fishing are important industries for the Pacific nation of Fiji. Both of these economically important sectors depend on effective marine conservation (Photo: Sam Gao, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How dare I associate the ocean with a positive word such as bliss? Believe me, as we mark World Oceans Day, there are plenty of reasons to think positively about our oceans. They are the foundations of our well-being and economic prosperity. 

There are a number of studies that show how marine and coastal ecosystems regulate water quality, protect cities and communities from storms and flooding, and support the livelihoods of millions of people globally.

More than three billion people obtain almost 20 per cent of their animal protein from fish. Increasingly we look to oceans and coasts for new sources of raw materials and renewable energy. 

Rewriting the narrative

Having said that, most of the values and functions of the ocean are obscured by the crisis narrative that dominates as a result of the countless alarmist stories we see and hear. Campaigners argue that highlighting (or magnifying) the negative stories helps bring the issue of oceans to the forefront of political, economic and conservation debates.

I totally agree. After all, we humans are conditioned to respond to alarmist stories and (often) take success stories for granted. 

But I also think that too much emphasis on the negative has inhibited our ability to focus on solutions and discuss the positive stories. Believe me, there are a number of success stories out there – ranging from the restoration of North Sea cod stocks to the use of economic instruments to change the behaviour of fishers to sustainably manage their resources. 

Another major reason to celebrate is that a universal goal on oceans is almost certain to be one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that will soon be agreed by United Nations member states.

Goal 14 (PDF) (or 'the ocean goal' as I would like to call it) calls upon countries to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development" and sets several targets including the restoration of depleted fish stocks to pre-exploitation levels and elimination of harmful subsidies. This is a clear manifestation of the changing perspectives on the importance of oceans. 

I recently heard someone suggest that "this decade is going to be the decade for oceans, as was the 1990s for forests". Not a decade of doom and gloom, but a decade where the ocean receives the attention it deserves both at national and global levels. 

It is time that we join hands, harness the opportunities, and rewrite the narrative on oceans – shifting from the crisis narrative to one that is focused on solutions. 

What's IIED doing to this end?

At IIED, our work aims to promote and support healthy and resilient oceans in general and fishery resources in particular for present and future generations. There are four aspects to this:

  1. Valuing the undervalued: We believe that one of the most important drivers of over-exploitation of ocean resources is the fact that most of the benefits that these resources provide us with remain hidden. This is mainly because conventional markets fail to capture their 'economic value' and so they are not reflected in national accounts.

    As a consequence, these resources continue to be ignored in economic and development policymaking processes. To address this problem, we are working with our partners to unleash the "hidden value" and make a compelling case as to why governments and market players should invest in these resources as an economic infrastructure and enhance its productivity.
  2. Balancing carrots and sticks: We strongly believe that humans are part and parcel of the complex oceanic systems. We depend on the oceans' resources for our existence. And therefore, our actions affect the resilience and sustainability of the oceans.

    While it may be convenient to blame the mostly poor men and women who dwell in coastal areas for their "destructive" behaviour (e.g. overfishing) and push for stringent regulatory regimes, we have been advocating that policymakers need to rationalise resource users' behaviours and provide economic incentives. One of the exemplary cases of using such an approach is the Government of Bangladesh's initiative to incentivise fishers to comply with traditional fisheries management regimes.
  3. Sustainable financing: Such schemes do come at a cost. So finding an innovative financing mechanism is essential. We are working with national governments and other development partners to explore the potential for using trust funds, fiscal reforms and for harnessing market forces for fisheries management.
  4. Creating space for dialogues: We believe that the traditional disconnect between science, policy and consumption needs to be bridged. As part of our effort to bridge this gap, we created an online platform, FishNet. We hope that our virtual platform will bring policymakers, scientists, and ordinary citizens together and allow them to share knowledge and information in a more accessible manner.

By focusing on solutions, we believe that we can find ways to manage our relationship with the oceans more sustainably – providing livelihoods and a valuable source of food for future generations. It is only by finding positive solutions that the crisis can be avoided.

The theme for World Oceans Day on 8 June 2015 'healthy oceans, healthy planet' (Image: World Oceans Day)

Wishing you all a happy World Oceans Day!

Essam Yassin Mohammed ([email protected]) is senior researcher in environmental economics in IIED's Sustainable Markets Group.