The art of selling conservation

By Dr. Nick Hill

I couldn’t possibly recall the number of times I’ve attempted to explain to my friends and family, for the most part patiently and calmly, but sometimes, I confess, angry and frustrated, why it is important that they choose the fish they eat carefully and use the various fish guides when making their choices, only to come for dinner another day and be proudly presented with tuna sushi or baked cod, or even a prawn cocktail.

When I ask them where this came from and whether they checked it was sustainable, I inevitably get a blank stare back. I repeat the arguments again, to which I always get sympathetic groans and understanding nods — but it obviously doesn’t stick for long. This battle to get people engaged in issues of marine conservation is shared by many marine conservationists across the world in a wide variety of contexts. If we can’t convince our own friends and family, how can we expect to reach the rest of the public?

This is exactly the question taken up at “Shallow Seas: The Future of Marine Conservation,” a recent talk at the Zoological Society of London in the UK. The talk looked at how scientists try and often fail to connect with the public about conservation issues. I thought which readers of this blog might find interesting.

Dr. Amanda Vincent, Project Seahorse’s Executive Director, put forward the case that we should focus marine conservation efforts at the ocean’s coastal areas: the world’s “shallow seas.” Not only is this the area of greatest collision between humans and the oceans, and where a huge variety of species live and important ecosystems that provide invaluable services to humanity are found (think seagrasses, coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes, estuaries), but this is also where millions of people work, rest, play, and explore. By focusing on areas that the vast majority of people have experienced in some way, Dr. Vincent argued we stand a much better chance of engaging people in marine conservation. However, we need to improve the tools that we use to engage people in the shallow seas, and we need to tap into emerging support for marine conservation. You can read more about her ideas in a recent editorial published in Aquatic Conservation.

Dr. Sarah Coulthard, from the University of Ulster, focused on the developing world, where many of the world’s poorest and most numerous fishers depend on the ocean fringes for their very survival. Sarah highlighted the importance of understanding people’s well-being when designing marine conservation strategies for these shallow zones. Conflicts can exist between the use and value that people obtain from these areas and potential conservation policies and strategies. Without understanding the wishes and needs of these people, any conservation efforts are likely to fail. You can read more about these ideas in the following papers:

Coulthard, S., Johnson, D. and McGregor, J.A. (2011). Poverty, sustainability and human wellbeing: A social wellbeing approach to the global fisheries crisis. Global Environmental Change 21: 453–463.

McGregor, J.A. (2004). Researching wellbeing: Communicating between the needs of policy makers and the needs of people. Global Social Policy 4(3): 337–358.

Vivekanandan, V. (2010). Trawl Brawl India — Sri Lanka trans-border fishing. Samudra report 57.

Dr. Richard Harrington, from the Marine Conservation Society, highlighted the importance of public engagement in driving forward the UK’s marine conservation agenda. He argued that the vast majority of the public’s reason for engaging in consultation comes from their personal experiences with the ocean fringes. However, despite widespread public pressure and engagement from a wide range of stakeholders from businesses to recreational yachters and holidaymakers, even now the UK government is stalling in their delivery of conservation plans.

Dr. Rebecca Jefferson, from Plymouth University, provided a fascinating insight into the UK public’s perception of the oceans and opportunities for connecting people to the sea — to increase the public’s “ocean citizenship.” Few people even know what lies beyond the coast. For example, 44% of the English public believe coastal shallows to be generally, mostly or totally barren. This illustrates one of the many barriers to developing the society-sea connection.

But there is reason for hope. Dr. Jefferson has found many people are at least interested and open to new information and ideas about our oceans. Her research has discovered that different people have different interests and motivations, and that we need to understand these differences and how to work with them. For example, women were generally more interested in pretty species, while men were more likely to be interested in species they could eat. Promisingly, however, she found that, yes, people relate to dolphins and similarly cute or anthropomorphic species, but they also relate to non-charismatic species that are nevertheless important — seagrasses for example. The challenge is in the storytelling. How do we give people the information they need to become invested in the conservation of these species? Her message was that we should not underestimate or patronise the public, but we do need to find ways to get more interesting stories out there.