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2021-2030: A Decade of Possibilities for Those Working on Marine Conservation

Authors: Mona Samari


Women fisherfolk in Mbour, Senegal talking to journalists during a media training organized by Mona Samari for the Earth Journalism Network - September 2019. Taken by Mona Samari.

The year 2021 is a pivotal one for the oceans and marine environment, as it marks the launch of the first-ever The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development—a decade set to “provide a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new foundation, across the science-policy interface, to strengthen the management of our oceans and coasts for the benefit of humanity.”

Marine conservation practitioners should capitalize on this decade-long common framework to integrate new societal needs, encourage new transdisciplinary partnerships, and examine if the current asymmetric power distributions structures serve the evolving needs of institutions and individuals wishing to tackle ocean and coastal governance issues.

This question is rather important because the UN decade of Ocean Science calls for more symmetry in power distribution between the various stakeholders. Its charter, amongst other themes, encourages the promotion of knowledge and information that are more equitably shared around the world.

For too long, a lack of equal representation of impacted stakeholders has stifled ocean knowledge creation, exchange, and dissemination, creating knowledge gaps amongst countries and unbalanced knowledge systems. The lack of diversity during consultation processes has further marginalized underrepresented stakeholders, such as women fisherfolk, journalists based outside the main capital, artisanal fisherfolk, and youth-based entities—especially from the economically developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The issue of women fisherfolk in West Africa is a textbook example of how marginalized stakeholders, despite having a post-harvesting role in the fisheries supply chain, were side-lined from discussions and consultations related to the devastating impact of industrial and semi-industrial fleets fishing in artisanal fishing areas. Despite being highly visible and active in many West African fish landing sites, they were effectively invisible to stakeholders regarding access to capital and other resources. Despite being on the front line both at home and in the workplace, it took a major overfishing crisis in the region for their voice to be finally heard outside the fish landing sites and for their associations to start receiving a fraction of the financial or organizational support available, to help them overcome the catastrophic fishing crisis.


Women fisherfolk in Mbour, Senegal talking to journalists during a media training organised by Mona Samari for the Earth Journalism Network - September 2019, taken by Mona Samari.

Indeed, many funding opportunities in the ocean conservation sector tend to be geared towards providing opportunities for established organizations or entities aligned with the status quo. Compared to the development of human rights sectors, less funding is made available for grass-root movements or solution-based start-ups in the ocean realm, especially in economically developing countries.

The issue of the limited type of funding in the ocean realm extends to innovative technologies as well, as these face significant barriers, including “debilitating start-up capital costs, regulatory constraints and lack of clear revenue streams,” according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development—an intergovernmental organization. According to Ocean Panel Blue Paper: the Technology, Data and New Models for Sustainably Managing Ocean Resource, published in 2020, technological innovation has largely been driven by government and large-scale commercial interest, whilst small markets have often led to “hyper-specific solutions that lack commercial applicability, creating an environment of technology lock.”

As we look to the future, funders that make space for a seed funding model in their portfolios to support smaller-scale and innovative projects within the ocean conservation and management sectors will play a vital role in supporting those at the forefront of innovative solutions for the complex problems facing our oceans, especially in economically developing coastal countries.

One such key stakeholder group which requires more tailored funding is youth groups in the conservation area, which includes young activists, early-career scientists, interns, and all those starting off in their careers or active citizen engagement. Much has been written about engaging the youth, when in fact, most youth-based activists are engaging other youth in evolving and creative ways via social media platforms or in-person. It would be wiser to ask whether imposing outdated information exchange models such as long emails, generic petitions, overly formal Zoom calls on these important future conservation leaders may result in a lack of inspiration, especially against the current backdrop of the increasingly short bandwidth span for information gathering.

Are we ready for a new ocean conservation communication paradigm?

Time will tell if the increased use and reliance on online communication platforms by stakeholders during the pandemic crisis has either contributed to building more bridges with grass-root stakeholders or taken us a few steps back. In economically developing countries, a lack of access to these platforms coupled with poor or unsteady satellite-based communications or internet bandwidth may further marginalize certain voices, which is why relying on online communication platforms alone won’t solve the issue of inclusion and diversity during consultation processes, or replace the need for empowering locally-based actors, peer-to-peer based learning model, and informal interactions for building trust.

Focusing on youth groups, advances in online communication technologies, or increasing gender parity are not silver bullets, especially when singled out as part of a solution-based approach.

Instead, they need to come together through learning networks that integrate those working in different disciplines—referred to as the transdisciplinary approach in academic circles—which is more likely to contribute to effective, ecosystem-based ocean management. 

A study titled Marine-Related Learning Networks: Shifting the Paradigm Toward Collaborative Ocean Governance published in 2020 is the first academic research paper that examines the multifaceted and evolving roles marine-related learning networks play within rapidly evolving ocean governance systems. The findings indicate that these networks not only form in response to knowledge and action gaps but also function to inform policy and improve ocean management (Dalton et al., 2020). They are uniquely positioned to act as “catalyzers and conduits to build capacity and develop solutions in response to governance needs through inclusive and collaborative responses to ongoing and emerging marine issues” (Dalton et al., 2020). However, the study also highlights that “too often, they rely on one-size-fits-all management prescriptions and top-down, mono-disciplinary governance approaches, which fall short in addressing complex, transboundary ocean issues” (Ostrom 2007 as cited by Dalton et al., 2020). 

The in-depth study presents a wide-reaching first look at the general role of marine-related learning networks in ocean governance across many contexts. As it compares the success of marine learning networks rooted in dynamic and inclusive participation over long periods to some of the more static traditional ocean governance structures, “which often fail to adapt or consider the changing needs of local communities,” (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006; Young et al., 2007; Cárcamo et al., 2014; Tschirhart et al., 2016 as cited by Dalton et al., 2020) it defines the hallmarks of success as “having a distinct purpose, building trust and relationships, emphasizing equitable participation, and supporting clear, sustained leadership” (Dalton et al., 2020). 

If marine networks can be successful in tackling issues, is the answer to simply create more of them in more countries?  

According to Dalton et al, the answer is no (2020), “since networks are not immune to external influences, including the agendas of funding entities, political turbulence, and ideological shifts” (Gerhardinger et al., 2018 as cited by Dalton et al., 2020). Instead, the research stresses that marine “learning networks are most effective when they are developed in response to identified needs of marine managers, resource users, governments, resource users, activists or other communities” (Dalton et al., 2020). The study also highlights “bringing people together in inclusive environments to share knowledge with one another and develop trust, effectively building their capacity to inform policy and improve management” (Dalton et al., 2020).


Women fisherfolk in Mbour, Senegal talking to journalists during a media training organized by Mona Samari for the Earth Journalism Network - September 2019, taken by Mona Samari.

Working towards the marine environment we want.

Access to information, access to public participation, and access to justice are three key pillars of sound environmental governance when tackling environmental issues, as enshrined in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration—an international UN document that includes 27 principles intended to guide countries in the future of sustainable development. The Rio Declaration states that “the only way to have long term economic progress is to link it with environmental protection,” further noting in Principle 10 that environmental issues “are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level […].”

This decade is an ambitious one for ocean conservation as well as a pivotal one which is set to “provide a unifying framework across the UN system to enable countries to achieve all of their ocean-related Agenda 2030 priorities.” Furthermore, the pledge to protect 30 percent of our oceans by 2030 to help safeguard marine ecosystems and fisheries is a framework used by many to play their role, including even Jeff Bezos, who recently pledged 1 billion  USD for ocean and land conservation efforts as part of this 30 x 30 conservation framework.

The current crisis of ever-increasing multi-layered human-made pressures such as a changing climate, growing global population, and multiple environmental stressors – now commonly referred to as anthropogenic stressors – requires not only more (virtual) seats at the decision-making table but also a rethink of the current approach to ocean governance and a better harnessing of the power of marine-learning networks. 

Now is the time to place the three key pillars of sound environmental governance: access to information, public participation, and access to justice at the heart of tackling environmental issues collectively and with a broader scope of stakeholder expertise. More than just fashionable buzz-words, the actual benefits of placing equity, collaboration, and adaptability at the heart of a solution-based approach to ocean governance and management are too well documented to ignore. 

How to cite this page:

Samari, M. (2021). 2021-2030: A Decade of Possibilities for Those Working on Marine Conservation. [online] Available at:


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