Column: Cultural differences with marine protected areas

Marine protected areas are like oases of the sea: they heal and restore vital spots of the deep blue frontier. To ensure that the ocean is effectively protected, the United Nations set the general goal of 30% of oceans being MPAs by 2030. However, the goal is not as simple as it sounds, because effective…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/shreyachaudhuri0026/" target="_self">Shreya Chaudhuri</a>

Shreya Chaudhuri

January 20, 2021

Marine protected areas are like oases of the sea: they heal and restore vital spots of the deep blue frontier. To ensure that the ocean is effectively protected, the United Nations set the general goal of 30% of oceans being MPAs by 2030. However, the goal is not as simple as it sounds, because effective MPAs must involve the support of local communities, including monitoring systems, and have a detailed plan, among other tasks.

As a result, MPAs requires the collaboration between governments, scientists, local coastal communities including Indigenous groups to address economic impacts, scientific monitoring, management plans, human rights violations, and geopolitical conflicts among other factors

This complexity leads to differences in MPA implementation between countries. For Josheena Naggea, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University from the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, integrating both natural and cultural heritage considerations when planning and implementing MPAs is crucial. MPAs need to be beneficial to people and nature to achieve their full potential.

Palau’s indigenous culture, for instance, celebrates the beauty of the seas, as they are an island nation that depends on the oceans for survival. Their half shell symbol of a clamshell symbolizes humanity’s formation from the ocean. The intertwining of the importance of oceans to their culture could relate to stricter ocean conservation policies. 

This connection of oceans to a cultural system is not limited to Palau. The Indigenous Anishinaabekwe tribe in Canada has Water Walkers, whose goal is to protect the oceans from pollution and anthropogenic disruption to the natural ecosystem. The concept of holy rivers is prevalent with the Ganges and many other rivers in India. In Ecuador, the constitution declares that nature has legal rights. In all of these cultures, the role of nature is incorporated and deeply respected.

In contrast, this cultural incorporation of love for the oceans in general European and American cultures is nearly unseen (except in the case of indigenous cultures like the Lakota who saw water as a life bringer). These cultural differences contribute to the implementation and acceptance of MPAs in different countries.

To better understand these complexities, I spoke with several experts in this field. 

Larry Crowder is a professor of Marine Ecology and Conservation at the Hopkins Marine Station and Senior Fellow at the Wood’s Institute for the Environment at Stanford University who focuses on the interdisciplinary aspect of MPAs. I was able to speak with him about California’s MPAs, which are an international standard. Unlike the rest of the USA, California currently has 124 MPAs that cover 16% of state waters, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but the journey to arrive to this level was a complicated one.

Due to California being a coastal society, the opposition was primarily from the fisher, so the economic threat was the main concern. The fisher had a general distrust of governmental organizations that have previously hindered their way of living. However, as Crowder had observed, the fishers were more inclined to be supportive of the MPAs after communicating with other fishers who were positively impacted by the implementation of the MPA through the process of fisher exchanges. This builds trust within the opposing fisher community since it reassures them of the positive aspects of the MPAs. fisher exchanges helped alter the fishers’ attitude towards federal marine organizations and the culture regarding the oceans for them. Although the connection of the oceans to the Californian fishers was not based on an ancient social belief, their viewpoints had evolved through sufficient communication, which is a tool for enforcing a new culture about the oceans. 

However, the opposition to MPAs does involve indigenous groups as well in other parts of the world. Despite indigenous societies having an inherent connection to the oceans that is intertwined within their culture, they are hesitant to listen to governments that do not recognize their traditional knowledge systems and have a history of suppression and oppression. Dr. Natalie Ban is an associate professor at the University of Victoria who has worked extensively with indigenous groups’ involvement with MPAs in British Columbia.

After speaking with her, I was able to gain a better understanding of how British Columbia is able to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge into a more western culture to form a more evolved perspective regarding marine conservation. Federal marine organizations recognizing TEK and communicating with native groups to improve the MPAs seems to be another option for reducing conflicts and building a more comprehensive marine outlook.

The struggle between native and governmental organizations is much less common in countries like Palau, which has a more integrated culture than British Columbia and California. This does not always equate to complete acceptance however because there is still a recent history of colonization and new political institutions and authorities for natural resource management, though not as much as British Columbia and California. Dr. Staci Lewis is an Early Career Fellow with Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions and is a part of the Center for Ocean Solutions’ Palau project. I interviewed her about how Palau has implemented their MPAs, including most recently their large-scale marine protected area Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary.

She said when implementing the nearshore Protected Areas Network, Palau involved the local population to understand the importance of their areas to communities. As she explained, connecting with the local populations reduces opposition and allows them to feel as though their concerns are taken seriously. When designating the offshore PNMS, however, stakeholder engagement was minimal while international non-government organizations were highly involved. These dynamics resulted in public mistrust of the PNMS and the government entities mandated to oversee its implementation, all of which are currently being addressed by increased stakeholder involvement in the planning and implementation of the PNMS.

After understanding the complexities within each of these MPAs, I was curious as to how as a society we can integrate some of the techniques used by British Columbia, Palau, and California to reduce MPA opposition. Drs. Lewis, Ban, and Crowder all noted the importance of integrating empathy for the oceans within a science-based education, especially to encourage ocean protection values in youth. 

Dr. Ban emphasized the need for informal ocean education. Although a traditional education occasionally does cover the more scientific aspects of ocean education, in order to fully comprehend the beauty of the seas, she believes that it is necessary to “immerse yourself in the oceans.” This could mean going to the beach or lake regularly, or in the case that you do not live near a water body, you could search for aquariums near your area. Visiting water bodies would allow people to connect with the oceans and understand that fish are more than food, as Dr. Ban says.

Similar to this idea of self-immersion in the oceans, Dr. Lewis pointed out the importance of connecting our everyday actions to the greater global threat of climate change. Anything that we do will always be tied back to our planet. Our toilet water flushes into the oceans. Our plastic bags end up in meadows. Our cars release greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere. Therefore, understanding that we are a part of nature instead of believing that we exist alongside it is vital to building empathy. The idea of “saving the sea turtles” is unlikely to help human beings connect to the issue. Ignoring climate change is a human rights violation, so it must be taught as such. 

Prof. Crowder also noted that traditional educational systems are based on discipline. Although it can be beneficial, discipline does not necessarily foster curiosity which is crucial in developing empathy. He calls on students to observe the world whether it be through walks or books, and perhaps through observation, youth will be able to deepen their empathy. 

There are many actions that youth can take to be more informed about ocean education and create more MPAs to stay on track to reaching the 2030 UN enforced deadline. As youth, we aren’t responsible for creating this broken world that we have inherited, yet the burden to save our planet has fallen on our shoulders. It is up to us to decide whether or not we will change the current narrative.

List of local & global resources from where you could begin to get involved in marine conservation and stay updated to reach the 30by30 UN declared goals (and add in the description): 

  1. EarthEcho International has a special #OceanEcho30by30 youth program that specializes in marine protected areas. (launching in 2020 and int.) 
  2. Mission Blue, founded by the inspirational Sylvia Earle, aims to designate “Hope Spots” across the world. (int)
  3. Bayecotariums are the Bay Area’s largest water conservation organization. (local)
  4. The Ocean Protection Council is California’s state council for MPAs. (local)
  5. Blue Frontier Campaign is a political grassroots organization calling for marine conservation. (local)
  6. Ocean Conservancy is a nonprofit that combines scientific research with policy. (int)
  7. Greenpeace is an environmental advocacy organization. (int.)
  8. UN Ocean Decade is an international plan on ocean conservation from 2020 to 2030. 
  9. Sustainable Ocean Alliance funds youth-led marine projects.
  10. Heirs to Our Oceans is a youth-led marine conservation group, training “Heirs” to the oceans. (int.)