Putting the Local in Marine Conservation

A new proposal for a code of conduct considers marine protection and the needs of people.

Published June 5, 2017

First, do no harm. It’s a guiding principal of all physicians and one that environmental researcher Nathan Bennett would also like marine conservationists to respect. The researcher, affiliated with both the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington, says the desire to protect the ocean can sometimes harm the people who rely on it. In a new paper, he and his coauthors call for a marine conservation code of conduct.

We don’t usually think of conservation efforts doing harm, but Bennett says intentionally or unintentionally, it happens. It’s “the robbing of either marine resources or areas of the sea or the coast from the people to whom it belongs,” he says. Examples include failing to consult with indigenous people before slapping restrictions on their subsistence fishing, or impacting local cultures by inhibiting traditional activities. In some more egregious instances, it could mean ejecting people from their homes or even limiting, or completely preventing, their access to the coast.

The sea can thank the United Nations for recent upticks in global marine protection. In 2010, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity put forward a series of biodiversity goals called the Aichi targets. Target 11 says that each country would commit to protecting 10 percent of its coastal and marine areas by 2020. As the deadline approaches, efforts around the world are ramping up. And Bennett says in Canada, the situation is complex, with areas of the coast being set aside not only for conservation, but also for oil and gas exploration, shipping, and fishing. Bennett wants governments to reach the target with systematic planning, minimal impacts, well-considered partnerships, and discussions on how conservation efforts will benefit communities.

But he cautions that there’s a wrong way to do it, including using conservation as a tool of colonization. Historically in terrestrial conservation, for instance, there was often injustice in the name of conservation.

He cites the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which was forcibly evacuated by the United Kingdom in the 1960s to make way for a military base. The United Kingdom created a large marine park around the islands and in 2016 renewed the lease for an American military base on the archipelago, thus barring the native Chagosians—many now living on the island of Mauritius—from returning, or even fishing the waters. He also cites instances of “ocean grabbing” in conservation projects in South Africa, as well as Southeast Asia, where governments may allow foreign fishing boats into local waters, which depletes stocks and limits access for local subsistence fishers.

Bennett saw a potential solution in a code of conduct. According to the paper, such a code would involve a clearly articulated and comprehensive set of social standards, including fair governance and decision-making processes, socially just conservation actions and outcomes, and accountable conservation initiatives and organizations.

Bennett points to Kaua‘i, in Hawai‘i, as an example of what an enacted code of conduct might look like. In 2015, the governor signed into law the state’s first community-based subsistence fishing area (CBSFA), in the waters off Hā‘ena. Its creation was the result of years of effort by local indigenous people, and the CBSFA is now managed according to traditional fishing and ocean management practices.

Bennett suggests an international body such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which already has guidelines for conservation of marine areas, could issue the code.

“I think in principle this is a fine idea,” says Boris Worm, a marine conservation researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “and one would have to look at the IUCN guidelines specifically to see how well it’s already been covered.”

Worm stresses that it’s been scientifically shown that conservation areas don’t succeed without local support. “You have to get them on board,” he says and points to solutions such as community co-management, local employment, or benefit sharing. He wonders, however, if a one-size-fits-all code of conduct is feasible—or enforceable—globally. With marine conservation situations so geographically and politically diverse, he’s skeptical one code could cover all of the situations that might arise.

Bennett acknowledges it would be tricky, but sees the situation as fundamentally about social justice. As the number of conservation areas rises to meet targets, conflicts with people who rely on traditional use and management of the coast could increase, and Bennett wants to see their concerns brought to the table. “A code of conduct,” he says, “is moving from these issues to a solution.”