The vision we need for the ocean we want
Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
As a surfer and marine social scientist, my life is lived in intimate relationship with the ocean, exploring the power of the ocean to help us reconnect with ourselves, each other and nature. In the crises we face, the loss of our emotional connection with the more-than-human world, especially the ocean in all it’s wonder and aliveness, is of deep concern. There is no part of the ocean that remains unaffected by the growing and interconnected pressures from climate change, biodiversity loss, and further degradation caused by human activities and pollution. In turn, the impacts of the ocean (and marine environmental degradation) on human health are poorly considered. Not to mention the roll-back on progress made to tackle plastic pollution, with the huge environmental and public health risk posed by the millions of disposable plastic face masks entering our waterways and ocean every minute. In my home country of Ireland, our water environments are in crisis with water quality declining and water pollution rising at an unprecedented rate, primarily driven by the intensification of industrial agriculture, biodiversity and habitat loss and raw sewage. More than half of our rivers, lakes and estuaries are in an unhealthy state, failing to meet ecological targets set by the EU Water Framework Directive. Last year, swimming was banned at bathing spots across Ireland for 350 days of the year. What value can ‘wild swimming’ have when ‘wild’ places don’t exist anymore more? What healing benefit can ‘surf therapy’ offer when raw sewage is being pumped into the sea? We can’t be well in a sick sea.
An interdisciplinary European collaboration called the Seas Oceans and Public Health In Europe (SOPHIE) Project, funded by Horizon 2020, has outlined the initial steps that a wide range of organisations could take to work together to protect the largest connected ecosystem on Earth. In a commentary paper published in the American Journal of Public Health the researchers call for the current UN Ocean Decade to act as a meaningful catalyst for global change, reminding us that ocean health is intricately linked to human health.
The paper highlights 35 first steps for action by different groups and individuals, including individual citizens, healthcare workers, private organisations, researchers and policy-makers, presenting opportunities for new alliances and partnership building. Many of these actions emphasise the need to link knowledge with practice in a way that supports and promotes a culture of care. This is even more relevant in light of the global pandemic, highlighting just how catastrophic the consequences of our societal disconnect from our natural place in the Earth’s systems is, and how vital the restoration of healthy, functioning natural ecosystems are for our survival.
These first steps emphasise how essential holistic collaboration is to make an impact. For example: Large businesses can review their impact on ocean health, share best practice and support community initiatives; Healthcare professionals could consider “blue prescriptions”, integrated with individual and community promotion activities; Tourism operators can share research on the benefits of spending time by the coast on wellbeing, and collect and share their customers’ experiences of these benefits; Individual citizens can take part in ocean-based citizen science or beach cleans and encourage school projects on sustainability.
The paper calls on planners, policy-makers and organisations to understand and share research into the links between ocean and human health, and to integrate this knowledge into policy. With emerging community interest in local waterways and new river trusts, catchment and coastal groups being established, perhaps we could encourage policy makers, local authorities and businesses to adopt some of the steps supporting ocean and human health in our communities? For example, Surfrider Foundation and various community groups across Europe are pushing for key changes to improve the legal framework in the EU and ensure greater protection of our bathing waters, such as the inclusion of all-year-round monitoring, extension of the monitored areas to include nautical recreational areas, and improved public information. The World Surfing League, recognising that surfing is entirely dependent on health marine ecosystems, have launched their We Are One Ocean campaign supporting a global petition calling on world leaders to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030. Given the growing uptake in citizen science initiatives since COVID-19 began, there is tremendous potential for widespread community engagement and a more participatory approach to managing and protecting our waterways, beaches, coasts and seas.
With the huge influx of people taking to our waters and sea, there is a real need and opportunity for greater support for initiatives that promote ocean action, awareness and education. For those meeting the sea for the first time it can feel strange, unfamiliar, maybe even dangerous. Like any good relationship it takes time to understand the ocean, to develop the life-enhancing (and life-saving) skills to read the sea and to be safe. “It’s really important to educate people. It’s not just about your personal experience, it’s about the environment you’re in, knowing the tides, winds and geography of a place”, Caitriona Lynch, co-founder of Ebb and Flow Swimming in Galway, explains, “For me, what’s really important is helping people appreciate that it’s bigger than them and their experience. You’re part of this amazing place and protect it and mind it for yourself and other people.”
I believe our post-pandemic journey represents a unique opportunity to bring the ocean literacy principle of the interconnectedness between ocean and human health into mainstream culture. Where the natural world isn’t some kind of frill but integral to our ability to survive and thrive. Where blue prescriptions such as ocean therapy, for example, are not a novelty, but offer a viable complimentary or alternative healthcare intervention when addressing the psychological distress of not only of this pandemic, but climate breakdown and the complex challenges to come. And above all, fostering a culture of care for our ocean.
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