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Redefining humanity’s relationship with the ocean to avoid collapse

A new system of ocean governance is needed in order to sustain and bolster life on earth.
Transition to sustainable ocean

A new relationship between humanity and the ocean is required to secure the diverse life support provided by the sea, according to a paper published today in Nature Communications.

“The ocean is a global commons—we all have a stake in it. Fish don’t pay attention to borders, but the way we’re currently governing the ocean is extremely fragmented. If we’re going to create lasting governance solutions for our oceans, we need both bottom-up innovation and top-down leadership. A more holistic approach is critical,” explained co-author Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project.

The authors make the case that a new system of ocean governance is needed in order to sustain and bolster life on earth. The ocean is a complex system, but it hasn’t been managed that way in the past. Instead, current ocean governance is largely dependent on national policies that only consider the waters within each coastal country’s own territory. But it’s not only fish and other sea life that don’t pay attention to borders—the ocean is intrinsically linked to ecosystems on land, rivers, deltas, and estuaries. If we continue our business-as-usual approach to managing the ocean, say the researchers, it will result in the collapse of key biophysical functions and have significant implications for the global economy.

“Complex systems are such that small disruptions can have disproportionately large impactful system-wide effects,” said lead author Tanya Brodie Rudolph from the University of Stellenbosch’s Centre for Complex Systems in Transition. “Should the ocean system collapse, the resultant crisis would be as devastating as the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, it is now important more than ever to understand complex systems and how they can be made more resilient for the benefit of people, the economy, and the environment.

The researchers describe three key pathways to transition complex ocean systems to a more sustainable future. The first 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. 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. The third is by reforming ownership in stewardship terms through mechanisms such as 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.

“For a system transition to take place, we need to come together to articulate a shared vision, principles, and a framework for sharing information and ensuring accountability,” said Ruckelshaus. “As humans, we depend on the ocean for life support and well-being. Shifting our relationship with the ocean towards this mutual, holistic understanding is required in order to secure the benefits we receive from it for the long term.”

The Nature Communications paper is a summary of a blue paper compiled by the authors under the commission of the High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel for short), which is a unique initiative of 14 serving world leaders building momentum toward a sustainable ocean economy, where effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity go hand-in-hand.

Other authors on the paper include Mark Swilling from the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University, Edward H. Allison from WorldFish, Malaysia, and the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center, Earthlab, University of Washington, Henrik Österblom from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stefan Gelcich from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Philile Mbatha from the University of Cape Town.

This story was adapted from the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition’s original media release.

For more on this subject, read Mary Ruckelshaus’ blog on her personal work in ocean systems transition and governance and listen to the World Resources Institute podcast featuring Ruckelshaus during a recent High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy presentation.

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