Creating an ocean-friendly society

Ocean literacy

Louisa Hooper of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation reviews recent initiatives to promote ocean literacy – among adults as well as children

Ocean literacy means more than knowing the basic facts about the ocean; it requires a deeper understanding of our influence on the ocean and the ocean’s influence on us. It goes beyond awareness of the environmental threats facing the ocean, to nurture a closer relationship between individuals, communities and the ocean that sustains us all. Ocean literacy is a powerful tool for remedying the disconnect that leads so many people in our society to view the ocean primarily as a holiday destination, or a source of fish, rather than the vibrant, life-giving, blue heart of our planet.

Out of sight, out of mind

Our sense of connection with the ocean should develop early in life. Photo: Russ T

Ideally, our sense of connection with the ocean should develop early in life, but building ocean literacy is not just for children, and we have some serious catching-up to do. Last year saw the publication of Getting Below the Surface, the report of a study carried out by the FrameWorks Institute on behalf of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. This study revealed holes in adult understanding about the ocean and marine conservation in the UK that are undermining people’s willingness to actively engage with the issue and support solutions. Interviews and analysis pointed to a lack of appreciation of the ways human activities are changing the ocean – which is seen by many as remote, unconnected to daily life, and so big that it is immune to human impacts – or how these activities are disrupting ecosystems, the climate and, ultimately, human health and wellbeing.

In a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, people think about the ocean when they eat fish, or go to the beach, but otherwise consider it an issue for people who live on the coast. There is a failure to grasp the connection between land and ocean, and that – just as all rivers lead to the sea – even if we live hundreds of miles inland the air we breathe, our food and our weather come courtesy of the ocean, and all our actions have a ripple effect across our blue planet.

An opportunity for change

But the study also highlighted an unmissable opportunity for change. Despite the low levels of ocean literacy displayed by much of the adult population, there is widespread appreciation of the value and necessity of marine conservation, and real concern about specific threats from pollution and overfishing. This creates a hospitable environment for driving the cultural changes needed to reconnect people with the ocean and take action to support marine conservation.

That is exactly what we have been doing over the past year through a range of initiatives targeting different sectors of the population, and as part of a global wave of change that is building unprecedented momentum behind ocean action. At the first ever UN Ocean Conference in June 2017, there was a global call for ocean education, at schools and throughout communities. The incredible success of the BBC series Blue Planet 2 inspired millions of people to think more personally about what the ocean means to them and triggered an immediate reaction to the scourge of plastic pollution. There has never been a better, more exciting time to inspire action through stories about the sea.

The impact of plastic pollution is capturing the global imagination and demonstrating the huge power of images. Pictures and videos of marine animals choking on plastic present a direct, undeniable link to our careless, throwaway culture in a way that speaks to even the most urban, ecologically disconnected among us. Alongside the swell of support for plastic bag bans and deposit return schemes, awareness of plastic pollution can be a gateway to accelerating wider ocean literacy and promoting the shared values needed to drive marine conservation. It is a chance to mobilise entire generations of ocean protectors.

Building ocean literacy

Earlier this year, our Valuing the Ocean programme supported a series of two-day ocean literacy ‘creative sprints’ bringing together people from diverse sectors such as education, technology, and design. Hosted by Wild Labs, an organisation that uses collaboration across industries to find solutions to conservation challenges, the sprints explored new ways to seize this opportune moment for boosting ocean literacy and engagement. Wild Labs also delved further into the cultural landscape of ocean literacy and how inspirational stories can strengthen our relationship with the sea through their We Are Ocean survey and report. This work proposed new ways to talk about the ocean, using language that builds a more intimate relationship, evokes wonder, and compels people to engage in solutions. Ideas that are emerging out of the Wild Labs sprints and other studies include touring ‘Ocean Imaginariums’ to harness the imagination of both adults and children, pop-up ‘Step into the Sea’ exhibitions in cities, and ‘Ocean Wise’ learning guides linked to water sports.

Bringing ocean understanding into mainstream culture will help to build oceanliterate cities in our increasingly urban world. Cities are engines of ideas and innovation and have the potential to be pioneering places for marine conservation, whether they are by the sea or not. Enhancing ocean literacy will enable people to understand the wider challenges facing the ocean – and humanity, including climate change, unsustainable fishing and the deterioration of coral reefs. Videos explaining ocean acidification may not attract as many views on YouTube as turtles strangled by plastic wire, but it is vital that people appreciate the many, sometimes less visible, ways we are influencing the ocean, and how these changes will impact our lives.

A new initiative that is actively working to generate support for wider ocean solutions is the Agents of Change project, led by partners of the Marine CoLABoration created by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to explore how to communicate the value of the ocean more effectively. Agents of Change is engaging and empowering different actors in coastal communities behind support for Marine Protected Areas, sustainable fisheries, and sustainable marine planning. The end goal is to create a more ocean-friendly society that can spread well beyond the coast.

Surfers, schools and parliaments

Jacques Cousteau taught us that people protect what they love, and no one loves the sea more than surfers. This is being demonstrated by Surfers Against Sewage and their work to raise our ocean literacy and engagement by targeting schools and politicians on the issue of plastic pollution. As well as fostering less polluting habits from an early age through their Plastic-Free Schools programme, they are building out the initiative to inspire plastic free communities, and are now calling on our elected representatives to lead by example by launching a campaign for a plastic-free parliament. Children active in the schools programme have written nearly 800 letters to MPs to demand action on plastic and, in April 2018, pupils from Portreath Primary School in Cornwall travelled to London to address the Protect Our Waves All Party Parliamentary Group. After presenting their own activities, these children posed challenging questions to MPs and definitely made them think about the two million single-use plastic items purchased by the Palace of Westminster last year!

Schools as powerful incubators of change is also the philosophy behind the drive to establish a World Ocean Day in schools every 8 June. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation supported a pilot of this idea in 2018, and now hundreds of schools have registered to take part. Next year we look forward to seeing thousands of children dressing up, holding special assemblies, and taking part in ocean education lessons that will hopefully trickle ocean literacy up to their parents. Love and understanding of the ocean needs to start young and continue to grow and guide our choices throughout life.

From parliaments to primary schools, surfers to chefs, we are listening more to the ocean, learning how we benefit from what it provides, and harnessing our ingenuity to develop creative solutions to conserve and restore marine ecosystems. Ocean literacy encourages everyone to realise that we are all connected to the ocean, all the time, and need to act to protect our planet: Earth-On-Sea.

Louisa Hooper is Senior Programme Manager with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.