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From Ocean Intuition to Sustainable Action

Blue Paper 12 uses science-based governance to transition into a sustainable ocean economy.
Bunaken Island

Many peoples who live near the ocean have a strong intuitive feel for the values they get from it, and Belizeans are no exception. At a deep level, they know their shores are protected from storms by mangrove forests and realize that fish are more abundant in areas where coral reefs and seagrasses are allowed to thrive. And yet, human activities often damage or destroy our ocean ecosystems and their ability to provide benefits. Translating ocean intuition into sustainable action isn’t easy for communities or governments juggling economic, social, and environmental priorities—that’s where engaged scientists can come in. During this World Ocean Week, I’m pleased to share Blue Paper 12, a report for the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. In it, my co-authors and I evaluate ways and uncover opportunities to give rise to a sustainable ocean economy by informing a system transition in ocean governance.

On my first fieldwork trip to Belize more than 10 years ago, we went snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of a region that was beginning to restrict fishing intensity and visitor numbers. Afterward, we sat in an airy restaurant nestled in the mangroves, enjoying conch fritters and thankful for the breeze blowing up the mangrove-lined channel, drying our saltwater-soaked skin and easing the afternoon heat. My colleagues from the Natural Capital Project and I were visiting at the request of the Belizean government’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute, which was just beginning to develop an integrated coastal management plan.

Our restaurant surrounded by mangroves was a rarity—most tourist accommodations in Belize are built along a beach or a reef, where mangroves have been cleared to create an unobstructed view of the water. Ironically, removing mangroves can reduce tourism values overall. Mangroves (and other coastal habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows) help buffer wave energy, reducing flooding and beach erosion from storms and sea-level rise. Damaging or removing these habitats increases risks for coastal roads, hotels, and restaurants that attract visitors. Fewer mangroves, reefs, and seagrasses also mean reduced carbon storage capacity and less nursery habitat for lobster and reef fishes.

The Belizean government understood the ocean ecosystem was providing these values to people, but also recognized the significance of tourism to their economy. They wanted to evaluate the steps they could take to harness nature’s benefits in ways that enhanced and harmonized local tourism, fisheries, and other livelihoods. To answer this question, our team worked with the government and its nine regional multi-stakeholder groups to co-develop solutions that were based in science and tailored to both national goals and local aims. 

Belize is a shining example of demonstrating the pathways needed to re-configure governance for a sustainable ocean economy.

Belize’s approach to the planning process is a shining example of governance that allows for holistic ocean management, as we discuss in Blue Paper 12. They prioritized both a top-down and bottom-up approach, first engaging communities to articulate a common vision for their country, a “future where healthy ecosystems support and are supported by thriving local communities and a vibrant economy.”  They then encouraged bottom-up innovation, allowing each region the freedom to decide how they would achieve the national goal, given their own trusted information and values.  Diverse, science-based solutions stemmed from the regional communities and were evaluated for consistency with national aims through a carefully integrated science-policy process.

That first fieldwork trip was the beginning of what has turned out to be a nearly 10-year collaborative relationship with colleagues in the Belizean government, who are now in the midst of formally reviewing their Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan after nearly five years of implementation. The Plan uses regional zoning to secure the benefits of mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs to contribute to the national vision for a more sustainable future. To meet the integrated demands of the Plan, the Belizean government formed a new ministry to reflect the cross-sectoral challenges facing their coastal systems. In a moment of victory for ocean ecosystems, UNESCO removed the Belize barrier reef from its World Heritage Sites at Risk list because of the successful protections provided in the Plan.

Our NatCap team helped illuminate how communities might achieve their vision, but the vision itself was driven by that deep-seated intuition. Reflecting upon this case study during World Ocean week, I am both inspired by what Belize has done and worried about how we can ensure such changes are lasting—that they spread fast enough to address the increasing biophysical and socio-economic pressures on the ocean system. 

My co-authors on Blue Paper 12, Mark Swilling, Tanya Brodie Rudolph, Henrik Osterblom, Eddie Allison, Stefan Gelcich, and Philile Mbatha, have taught me through their scholarship and experience that transitions of complex systems to a more sustainable future are best supported through three key pathways.  

The first pathway is the need to re-configure governance—including top-down and bottom-up nested scales from local to international—and informed by a shared vision, as the Belize government did for their Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan. The second is by empowering people who depend on the ocean commons through knowledge sharing for adaptive learning and conferring rights to the ocean as a public good. Ocean resources are a common good, and like a rising tide, sharing knowledge on its status and management can lift all boats. The third is by reforming ownership in stewardship terms through things like certification and pre-competitive collaboration, which will provide incentives and help build accountability. The Marine Stewardship Council’s fishery certification system and rights-based fishery reforms like catch shares are promising examples of such innovations.

Belize is demonstrating many of these pathways in their transition to an economy supported by coastal ecosystems. It is exciting to think about how quickly good ideas driven by local knowledge and experience might spread if they could be shared more broadly through networks of like-minded innovators around the world.

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