As marine conservation and food security problems loom ever larger, we must address the reality that too few people act in support of the ocean. The key to popular engagement with marine conservation lies in making the ocean seem familiar and valuable, so that its care becomes a matter of personal responsibility rather than an abstract notion and a tiresome chore. To that end, it's time we tried emphasizing the plight of life at the ocean's fringes, which I define as less than 10 m deep, as a stepping-stone to marine conservation in general.
Most people see little or no connection between their activities and the future of the ocean (Pew Oceans Commission, 2003). Moreover, many people still see the ocean as ‘vast and healthy enough to absorb pollution and other human stresses’ (AAAS, 2004). In surveys from Portugal and Ireland, half the respondents did not feel that pollution and rubbish were serious problems for local beaches, although half did (MacLeod et al., 2002). A survey in Mexico identified that about one-third of respondents were indifferent to decreasing water quality, although another third were unhappy about it (Tran et al., 2002). Even in scientific echelons, experts disagree about the true state of our fisheries (Duffy, 2011). Given the lack of public and professional consensus on the oceans, it is unsurprising that marine conservation features so little in the political agendas of most nations.
We need to find new ways to increase support for conservation, ways to help people recognize and respond to their connections with the ocean. Once they grasp what is happening, many people do express concern for the seas. Nearly 72% of surveyed Americans in one study believed that the oceans should be protected through international agreements, and 60% of those surveyed said they would eat less of certain kinds of fish if doing so would help to protect natural resources (AAAS, 2004). In a Mexican study, residents did not want additional coastal development, environmental degradation, tourism, or overpopulation in their coastal region (Tran et al., 2002). That said, such warm sentiments do not necessarily translate into action. Slightly less than half of the respondents in the American study would support government regulations restricting the use of the seashore or would support local efforts to reduce business and economic development of coasts (AAAS, 2004). It seems that conservation, while fine in theory, can feel threatening in practice.
During my years of working in marine conservation – and particularly with seahorses and their coastal habitats – I have often pondered how to make the state of the ocean a public and political priority. The answer evidently lies in finding the right messages, tailoring them to the audience, and communicating them in enjoyable and engaging ways. But what are the right messages and media? Flagship species undoubtedly help to excite people about conservation (Zacharias and Roff, 2001), but other tools and approaches are also desperately needed to expand and harness that excitement. Moving beyond charismatic species, how do we reach audiences with effective and influential messages about the way that well-managed oceans confer food security, coastal protection and climate control – all things of importance to their well-being?
I have come to the conclusion that, if we want to broaden our conservation constituency, we will do well to focus on the very shallow ocean neighbourhoods (<10 m deep), those where biological richness and human pressures collide most seriously. This is where a great diversity of the world's marine species and habitats are found. It is also where the ocean experiences the greatest human damage, from climate change to fisheries collapses and from physical damage to land-based run-off. However, the real benefit of such a focus on the ocean's fringes probably lies in how humans connect to the seas.
People are far more likely to care about their neighbourhood shallows than the vastness of the ocean in general, simply because people are inclined to protect what they recognize and understand. Anybody who has spent time near the coast has probably gazed, tossed a line, dipped a paddle or kicked a foot into the first 10 m of water. This limit of 10 m depth is somewhat arbitrary but is easy to remember and is about as deep as a swimmer ever goes. By focusing on such shallow waters, we allow people to grasp the complex challenges of marine conservation and address them on a tractable scale.