When we consider the ocean and its relationship to humankind, we often think of it in terms of a transaction: the material and economic benefits the ocean delivers. While these are immense – the value of ocean ecosystem services has been placed at $2.8 trillion annually – there’s far more to recognize. The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the central importance of nature’s role in human well-being, with governments recognizing the need for access to public outdoor spaces as essential, even during lockdowns, and citizens flocking to coastal areas for respite and relaxation as restrictions have lifted.

Our relationships with the ocean and the non-material values and emotions on which they are based – social and cultural identities, individual and collective welfare, the symbolic importance of marine animals, a sense of place and belonging, adventure, curiosity, spirituality and awe – are not yet given sufficient policy attention, but are key to securing a healthy and productive ocean that provides for all.

A new report commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy explores the diverse set of relationships that we have with the ocean. The authors draw attention to a global mosaic of relationships with the ocean across cultures and over time, highlighting many less measurable ways that they have contributed to the social good. For example:

  • Throughout history, port cities have been pillars of multiculturalism, upholding values of tolerance, diversity and inclusion.
  • Maritime codes of conduct have helped to enshrine principles of neutrality, allowing safe passage or giving assistance to those in distress even during times of conflict – norms which are now enshrined in modern law.
  • The great spiritual significance of the ocean within many non-Western maritime cultures is closely tied to human well-being and affirmative relationships with the sea.

While assigning a monetary value to these factors may be inappropriate or impossible, we must ensure that the ocean’s many contributions to our wellness and quality of life are not overlooked or undermined, particularly as nations make investment decisions about how to reset and rebuild their economies after COVID-19.

Access and Inclusion

Enabling equitable access to the ocean is key. The decrease in public access to the ocean and ocean opportunities caused by the increasing privatization of coastal areas and industries is cause for concern. In the United States, for example, 70% of coastal land is now privately owned. This global trend has a detrimental impact on small-scale fishers and Indigenous people who look to the ocean for livelihoods and cultural identity, as well as those whose personal well-being is linked to the ocean, including surfers, sailors, scuba divers and the broader population. It particularly affects low-income groups, who rely on public outdoor spaces for relaxation and well-being but are increasingly excluded from accessing the beach or ocean-based economic opportunities. Women, who were once involved in many aspects of fishing, processing and trading, especially in non-Western societies, have seen their roles eroded over the past century, as maritime jobs and the perception of freedom associated with them were increasingly considered the domain of men.

A wider set of values and visions must inform ocean planning and decisions. The mosaic of relationships with the ocean is not represented in ocean governance, which is too often dominated by economic interests and Western voices. It is particularly important for the concerns and interests of people working on or stewarding the ocean to be addressed in decision-making around ocean governance and ocean access. Economic development should be focused on improving human well-being, not be at odds with it, but this ideal can only be realized if those most impacted by development can contribute to the decision-making process. We need to listen to the full range of ocean voices and visions, especially those of often excluded groups such as small-scale fishers, women, indigenous peoples and sea nomads, when planning for the future of the ocean economy. In this way, we can guide investments in ways that are beneficial for everyone.

Opportunities for Action

In response to these concerns, the authors suggest three opportunities to work towards more equitable access and inclusive governance. First, we should humanize the ocean narrative by shifting language around the “blue economy” to emphasize the relationship between the ocean and humanity. That will require broadening the knowledge base to include local and Indigenous knowledge and interdisciplinary research on the ocean realm beyond economics and biophysical sciences. Because narratives motivate and inform political action, inclusive narratives that put people at the center will set the stage for broader and bolder political action.

Secondly, we should engage key national and international constituencies in developing future visions and plans for the ocean, including a diverse set of values that emphasize human well-being. Groups such as small-scale fishers are the largest population economically dependent on the ocean and are being squeezed out of coastal zones they have stewarded for centuries; they could be powerful allies for ocean stewardship.

Finally, we should advance policies and finance strategies that will support inclusive ocean-society relationships and level the playing field for groups previously excluded from ocean governance. Such actions include directing development funding to municipal or local level institutions; publicly funding the maintenance of local knowledge to support communities negotiating with external interests; establishing statutory protections to prevent private equity from undermining community interests; and ensuring that COVID-19 recovery planning supports human well-being in all dimensions, not merely economic. Through these actions, we can reframe the human-ocean relationship, engage a wider ocean constituency, and support that constituency in furthering a diverse and inclusive set of relationships with the ocean among ocean nations and peoples.

Amid our current climate, health and economic crises, we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pause and carefully consider our complex relationship with our ocean planet, which is a product of geography, history and human diversity. This is a time to rethink and remake that relationship to meet the challenges for future generations. This process will play out against a wider global reflection on human values and a rising tide of protest against economic and racial injustice. The moment is now to take the bold political actions needed to develop a sustainable ocean economy, built on diverse relationships and values, in ways that encourage equity and inclusion and recognize the non-material aspects of human well-being.

Nireka Weeratunge, an anthropologist and independent scholar, is Research Fellow to the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka.