How to bridge the Science-Policy-Society gaps to better protect and manage marine ecosystems?

We live on a blue planet, where 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans, lakes and rivers. There is now an increasing interest for our oceans as evidenced by various international initiatives such as the adoption of a UN Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to the ocean. However, there is a lot to be done and catch up on because the marine environment has for a long time been a stepchild in environmental policies and conservation. The impacts of human activities on marine ecosystems are not visible to most people and therefore have not entered the public awareness to the same extent as the degradation of terrestrial ecosystems or the loss of animals or plants on land. What’s more, the marine environment still has many blank spots for science, but its importance for society is undeniably huge. A large source of the protein consumed by people comes from the sea and the oceans support the livelihoods of billions of people around the world. Oceans regulate the global climate by absorbing vast quantities of carbon and they are the largest producer of oxygen.

Fishing boat and coasts in St Lucia. Photo credit: Fabiola Espinoza Cordova

In MaCoBioS, a consortium of international researchers from many different scientific disciplines seek to answer some urgent questions, regarding the impacts of human activities on marine ecosystem functions, the supply of ecosystem services from these, and the potential of solutions that combine better marine management and protection with the mitigation of environmental changes, foremost adaptation to clime change. Yet, for scientific knowledge and understanding to be taken up, policy makers and environmental managers have to be included throughout the process. Science communication must ensure that results and evidence-based recommendations reach this important target group, who use this knowledge to formulate policies and plans that in turn contribute to improve marine management and conservation.

Unfortunately, while this sounds quite straightforward, the reality is more complex and challenging. Mobilizing different kinds of knowledge (for instance local and indigenous knowledges) in order to improve the management of marine resources requires pluralistic and interdisciplinary approaches. Science needs to interrogate prevailing power asymmetries within and among existing institutions, question its own scientific assumptions, and the values and interests that are the result of the power asymmetries and assumptions.

In addition, the language of science and the language of policy are rarely compatible, finding a common denominator and being able to speak to one another is therefore of utmost importance. Here, science and scientists have an important task – learning to speak the language of policy and practitioners, that overcomes historically diverging views and interests. Moreover, although science is complex in itself, providing evidence-based recommendations must account for the messiness of the policy process. At each phase of this process different short and long term economic, social and political interests and power clash with each other. Thus, policies may either be compromises of different trade-offs or benefit specific sectorial interests first and foremost.  

Within MaCoBioS we seek to provide evidence-based guidance for marine policy formulation and innovative research pathways. We do this because we want to support policymakers in developing cost-effective strategies in order to improve marine and coastal ecosystem management and protection. Doing so is particularly important in the light of the ongoing and expected climate changes. MaCoBioS partners are combining ecological and social science research carried out in three regions (the Caribbean, the western Mediterranean and the North Sea) in order to find out how environmental change affects not just the marine and coastal ecosystems, but also people and communities depending on these.

Getting a more complete picture of the interconnectedness between society and the marine and coastal ecosystems, and understanding how dependent communities are on ecosystem services allows for the formulation of better and more equitable policies. Understanding the societal dimensions and accounting for these in policies and management plans supports their implementation and uptake, reducing potential resistance by people and communities.

Illustration of sea level rise in France. Photo credit: Rémy Simide

For instance, in Barbados we seek to better study how power dynamics and different ways policy makers understand adaptation to climate change influence policy and planning. Moreover, what does it mean for social justice and environmental integrity when actions are implemented on the ground? Understanding how the adaptation challenge is problematized and what processes shape who decides, who is vulnerable, whose values counts and what interventions to prioritize is key if we want to translate scientific knowledge into transformative change.

In Martinique, we apply a gender and intersectional lens and focus on understanding the impacts of climate change (including aspects of loss and damage) on marine and coastal ecosystems and people’s livelihoods. Here, we emphasize local knowledge, the perception of risk, as well as dependencies, needs, and aspirations of communities relying on marine and coastal ecosystem services in order to support inclusive and informed decisions made under the uncertainty posed by climate change.

Text by Torsten Krause, Alicia N’guetta and Fabiola Espinoza Córdova

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