Shallow Argument

Marine conservationists need to stop thinking deep. Instead, to build public support for ocean conservation, they need to focus attention on “very shallow ocean neighborhoods” with waters less than 10 meters deep, a prominent marine biologist argues in a new essay.

“As marine conservation and food security problems loom ever larger, we must address the reality that too few people act in support of the ocean,” Amanda Vincent of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver writes in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. “The key to popular engagement with marine conservation lies in making the ocean seem familiar and valuable, so that its care becomes a matter of personal responsibility rather than an abstract notion and a tiresome chore.”

To encourage that shift, Vincent – who has spent decades of working to protect seahorses and other marine species – argues it is time to highlight what is going on in the shallow, nearshore waters people know best. Shallow seas are “where biological richness and human pressures collide most seriously,” she notes. And “people are far more likely to care about their neighbourhood shallows than the vastness of the ocean in general, simply because people are inclined to protect what they recognize and understand. Anybody who has spent time near the coast has probably gazed, tossed a line, dipped a paddle or kicked a foot into the first 10m of water… By focusing on such shallow waters, we allow people to grasp the complex challenges of marine conservation and address them on a tractable scale.”

She envisions a campaign that goes far beyond traditional research, and seeks to “identify creative ways to connect uncommitted people to their shallow seas.” The “real problem,” she writes, “is that most marine conservationists simply do not have the skill set to effect a significant change in public attitudes.”

To close the gap, “it will be vital to engage the creative geniuses who are otherwise busy convincing us to follow fashion trends or buy the newest gadget… We will certainly need to find the mavens who can help tap into new media, fully exploiting Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and mobile phone apps in ways that few scientists even know are possible.” She notes that, in the Philippine subsistence fishers have started using mobile phones to demand police enforcement against illegal fishing. And she envisions a “web-based ‘dating service’, where people who want to give time and resources can find local and relevant organizations and initiatives in need of support.”

If such efforts are successful, she notes, they could ripple far offshore. “By getting it right for the very shallow coastal waters, we will markedly improve the lot of the rest of the ocean,” she concludes. “Once you get people to care about the shallows – and pressures will only be reduced if that happens – then it should be possible to get them to care about more remote waters.” David Malakoff | October 2, 2011

Source:Vincent, A. (2011). Saving the shallows: focusing marine conservation where people might care. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 21 (6), 495-499 DOI: 10.1002/aqc.1226

Image © Carlos Caetano |