Getting below the surface

Getting below the surface

Public understanding of the ocean

Louisa Hooper, Environment Programme Manager at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Branch, asks what can be done to foster a deeper understanding of ocean conservation

Ocean conservationists have never had much of a problem getting public and media attention for penguins, dolphins and whales. But it’s not so easy bringing larger issues of ocean welfare into the spotlight. For those concerned about ocean welfare, this isn’t just frustrating – it’s potentially disastrous. It has meant that politicians have consistently failed to put ocean conservation on the national and international political agenda.

According to marine conservationists, political and public engagement with the ocean lag far behind its actual importance to the world. ‘We ignore the life-giving qualities of the ocean at our peril,’ says Professor Dan Laffoley, Marine Vice Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas. He points out that the ocean provides around 99 per cent of our planet’s living space, and absorbs just over a quarter of the carbon dioxide we emit each year and around 93 per cent of the enhanced heating from the greenhouse effect and other human activities.

Yet it faces constant threats caused by human activity – ocean warming, overfishing, acidification and plastics dumping. So why is public and political understanding and awareness of these issues so low? Why are people not engaging with ocean welfare in the same way as global warming?

At the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – an international charitable body aiming to promote improvements in human wellbeing – we recently conducted a scoping exercise on the issues facing the ocean, and identified an overarching problem which has huge implications for those wishing to preserve ocean health. Messages about threats are not getting through because the public is somehow disconnected from the ocean. We wanted to investigate this disconnection further, so that ocean and conservation organisations might address how they present ocean issues to the public and the media. So we commissioned a major study from the FrameWorks Institute, a communications thinktank, to map gaps between expert and public understanding of marine conservation.

A problem that feels too big for us?

The report, published in March 2017 and entitled Getting Below the Surface, came up with a paradoxical conclusion. While the British dependence on, and proximity to, the sea has produced many shared understandings about the ocean over the centuries, these often serve to undermine concerns about ocean health.

For example, the ocean is often assumed to be immune to negative change. The British public are united in a sense of the importance of the seaside and the nation’s naval history – but find it difficult to look beyond that, to the profound changes that are happening beneath the sea’s surface.

The FrameWorks Institute found that although people recognise specific dangers – birds strangled by plastic bags, for example – they don’t understand how ecosystems are interconnected, and how pollution, acidification and warming disrupts them all.

Perhaps most strikingly, the report found that people can feel a sense of fatalism and powerlessness when confronted with the problems facing the ocean. In the face of massive issues affecting a massive ocean, what can an individual do? The result can be a state of depressed apathy.

‘How do you keep your eye on pollution?’ said one interviewee. ‘How do you deal with it? It’s so vast. It’s like a void.’

This isn’t helped when organisations use romantic language emphasising the vastness and mystery of the ocean. Intuitively, we tend to think that this will help people understand why the sea is important, but the research reveals the opposite. It only reinforces people’s sense of separation from the ocean, and makes them feel they can have, or have had, little impact.

‘It’s essentially untamable,’ said another interviewee. ‘What’s changed? It’s still – if you looked out at an ocean 1000 years ago, you’d look out on an ocean now.’

Avoid the language of crisis

These findings give rise to the report’s most important and surprising recommendations. Those wishing to communicate to the public on ocean issues should avoid the language of crisis. Such language actually triggers people’s sense of fatalism, leading them to feel that little can be done to reverse existing damage or prevent future deterioration

Instead, communicators should emphasise that although the need for action is urgent, practical solutions are possible. They should also provide examples of success.

For example, instead of starting a press release with ‘A new report launched today highlights that the population size of marine vertebrates has nearly halved since 1970. The overwhelming conclusion is that our ocean is in crisis …’ the FrameWorks Institute recommends ‘A new report launched today highlights the important actions we can take right now to protect the ocean. Increasing marine protected areas, restricting fishing areas and reducing fossil fuel emissions will restore fishing populations and limit ocean warming.’

Organisations need to counter a sense of powerlessness about the sea by focusing less on individual action and more on how collective action works, and how policy change is needed. Although calls for individual behaviour change are important, activists need to ensure that it is linked to a bigger picture.

Help people understand that systemic action brings change

We need to help people understand what governments and other institutions can do, by providing examples of specific actions which will help protect the ocean and its ecosystems. Explaining solutions targeted at changing the system – rather than heroic individual action – helps people to see that concrete and practical steps to preserve the ocean are possible.

One example demonstrating how individual action links with collective action to have a positive impact is recent campaigning on single-use plastic water bottles. A World Economic Forum report has estimated that by the year 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish. The #OneLess campaign, spearheaded by the Marine CoLABoration group we established in 2015 and hosted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), revolves around collective individual action, encouraging people and businesses in London to stop using singleuse plastic water bottles. Launched in 2016, it connected the capital with the ocean, demonstrating how small individual actions at every location could have wider and positive impact on earth systems.

Explain how ocean sustains life and wellness

Communicators also need to talk about humans’ economic relationship with the ocean in a different way, says the FrameWorks Institute report. It is tempting to appeal to people by arguing that the ocean is valuable because it provides resources for human use. But setting up these frames of economics and consumption may make the short-term benefits of taking from the ocean appear clearer than longer-term harms. Rather than emphasising the parts that are available for consumption, it is better to convey that the ocean sustains human life and wellness. All parts of the ocean are critical to doing that, says the FrameWorks Institute – not just those that create economic benefits for humans.

Equally, it is important to highlight that marine conservation and human prosperity are totally compatible, and to offer examples of how marine conservation can contribute to economic advancement. For example, communicators can show how jobs and scientific advancements have accompanied efforts to protect ocean systems.

The public needs specifics. It needs to feel empowered, not hopeless. It needs to be helped to understand the issues and to engage with the interconnectedness of all life systems with the sea. And it needs to be shown how all those individually threatened species that people are aware of – the penguins, the dolphins, the birds strangled by plastic bags – fit into a bigger picture of ecosystems where disruption has wide consequence for all of us.

Putting the research into practice

These are valuable findings – not just for ocean conservation organisations but for everyone who values the sea and wants to engage others in preserving it. We at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK are determined that the findings will be of practical use to government and a wide range of organisations. We have already discussed the report with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and there’s interest in the implications for government communications.

We are now commissioning a second piece of research looking in more detail at effective ways of framing messages about the ocean. The end result may be a stronger collective voice among those who are trying to influence the public and politicians.

It’s about building on our shared national values and understanding of the ocean, connecting with all of us – whether we’re holidaymakers, fishermen, sailors, environmentalists or politicians – in a greater common understanding of why the ocean matters and what we can do to protect it.

The full Getting Below the Surface report is available online at