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Professor Steve Fletcher explains how cooperation on our mysterious oceans could help save environments

  • 18 August 2020
  • 17 min listen

Some deep blue thinking here. Have you heard of the Sustainable Blue Economy? How can we unite international goals for sustainability, conservation, energy access, tourism and food supply under one umbrella? Professor Steve Fletcher explains how international cooperation on our mysterious oceans could help save environments, solve human challenges and level the playing field in global economics.

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For a long time, the environmental cost of economic development hasn't been included in the products that we buy, the lifestyles that we lead and we’re beginning to recognise that all of our actions have some environmental implication.

Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of the Sustainability and the Environment research theme

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. This is the series where we share world-changing ideas and research on everything from tech and the environment to health, security and democracy.
Anna Rose: In Life Solved, we're asking the big questions about how research here is set to change our world in the near future. Hopefully, your mind is ready for a workout. Today, John Worsey is hearing how our guest is working to connect the needs of our lifestyles, governments and environments in a new way of thinking.
Steve Fletcher: So at the moment, a lot of trips to the Marine areas and even close to the shore are managed in a sector by sector way. So conservations... It's done conservation, it's done independent tourism, it's done independent shipping and energy generation.
Anna Rose: Can you imagine the leaders of the world making decisions on everything from the environment to gas pipelines, tourism and mining at the same time?
Steve Fletcher: For a long time, the environmental cost of economic development hasn't been included in the products that we buy and the lifestyles that we lead. We're beginning to recognise that all of our actions have some environmental implications.
Anna Rose: This new way of understanding our deeply interconnected economies means we can work towards a future where sustainability, conservation and emissions goals are just as high on the agenda as fighting poverty and giving access to health and energy. Be prepared to look at our world in an entirely different way, as Steve Fletcher explains how we can make the world a better place without deprioritising our environments.
Anna Rose: Steve Fletcher is Professor in Ocean Policy and Economy here at the University of Portsmouth. He's been bewitched by our oceans his whole career.
Steve Fletcher: I think the ocean is in a way most people only ever get to interact with the edge or even the very shallow bits of the ocean. And so it's a bit of a challenge, I think, to kind of really get people to engage with the deeper stuff. The deep, dark, cold, not very pleasant, you know, really difficult to access sort of areas. But really explain and really help people to be inspired about how important those areas are to them, even though they may not see them or ever, ever in any way. It's just-- it's inspiring. It's beautiful. It really captures people's imagination. And it's easy to, I think, communicate the-- the importance of it and its protection and its sustainable use.
Steve Fletcher: I think ocean policy and economy is a kind of catchall term for a whole range of things that I do as part of my research and also part of my professional practise as well. Ocean policy is a real-life, live debate that's going on all of the time, and that's where I like to locate my-- my research to.
Anna Rose: From our oceans to our industries, food supply, clothing, lifestyles, travel and environment, it's all connected. Every aspect of our lives interacts within the economy, and each country's economy, in turn, intersects with another's.
Anna Rose: This is the way some policymakers are beginning to look at our world as we face the challenge of finding solutions to critical challenges. But how does that work in areas that lie beyond national jurisdiction – the high seas?
Steve Fletcher: Everything we wear, everything we eat pretty much, the way we transport ourselves around the world is to some extent reliant on ocean resources. And so there's a huge concern globally that these areas are being used and abused in a way that is creating some unsustainable future for the oceans. So in the way, I talk about that with friends down the pub and randoms [LAUGHS] is as the-- as the last great wilderness on Earth. Because these areas are hugely rich in biodiversity. They account for 60 percent of the entire ocean by area and 95 percent of the ocean by volume. And yet, in essence, they're not managed in any coherent way or plant.
Steve Fletcher: It's sort of a no man's land. I mean, there are activities out there. So you can imagine shipping vessels going by, cruise liners. There are subsea cables. There are some fishing vessels, particularly fishing for large species like tuna. You go out there, increasingly oil and gas exploration is happening in these areas as well. So there's a lot of stuff going on.
Steve Fletcher: So in areas beyond national jurisdiction, there are no protections. So people know where the areas of high biological ecological importance are. But there's no way right now to protect against overexploitation or abuse or promotion or any of these things or mining accidents. So the UN as a body is kind of responding to national-level political demands. And so there are certain countries, like certain groups of countries actually like the EU, Australia, New Zealand, some small island developing states, they're all really pushing the ocean protection and sustainable use.
Steve Fletcher: The deep ocean work is very politically hot. It's so relevant to society, so relevant to issues like plastics and so on.
Anna Rose: Steve has worked with NGOs and governmental bodies the world over and in addition, works closely with the UN to apply research and real-world examples into the frameworks that countries are using to make decisions. So how do you begin to make the ocean a priority to a nation that may have many different urgent matters on its policymaking agenda?
Steve Fletcher: So, anybody that's coming to a country and saying I've got a body of research or a body of evidence, you have to go with a certain degree of humility to the country and recognise the country has all sorts of political and social and economic priorities that you may know nothing about whatsoever. And just go to them and say, well, you know, this is what I found. This is how it might be relevant for-- for you.
Steve Fletcher: The second element is then collaboration in the execution of the research. So what I've learnt over the last four or five years is that if we're going to talk about effective practises anywhere in the world, you really need to engage with the people who were involved in doing that work themselves. So we're talking about how effective a protected area might be at protecting dolphins in Belize or something. You know, it's critically important to engage with the site managers who were involved in that protection. Otherwise, it's impossible to truly understand what it was about that policy or that process that actually made it work. And certainly in the UN world, if there's any sense that the examples that you're drawing from are not really grounded in reality, everything you do loses credibility immediately and it just knocks us back.
John Worsey: Yeah.
Steve Fletcher: You know, it's as severe as that. The-- the level of scrutiny and the need for checking and peer review and collaboration is far, far greater than anything I've experienced in academia.
Anna Rose: Steve is basically talking about his approach of doing research and changing policy hand in hand with the countries, sectors and workers involved. In the case of the oceans, then that's pretty much everyone who depends on its resources for transport, pipelines, cables, food and more.
Anna Rose: Let's put this in context now and get back to the sea. Steve explained how something called the sustainable blue economy approach brings all the values of the ocean together in one decision-making system.
Steve Fletcher: The thing that drives me is-- is doing research that makes a difference. So the sustainable economy work is very interesting because it's kind of replacing a whole research agenda around conventional conservation and it's really giving that conventional conservation activity and economic spin.
Steve Fletcher: So one of the challenges of conventional conservation is that it's perceived to be a cost to society and it restricts use in some way. So if you've got a conservation, you can't do fishing, you can't do oil and gas exploitation. So it's a cost. What the sustainable blue economy concept brings forward is that unless you protect what's called the natural capital of the ocean, you can't credibly expect the economy to be buoyant or the economy to be really strong. Nobody quite understands yet how to make that simple recognition a real thing to-- to generate strategies that work for countries or islands or that work even just for a city like this, you know, in the settlement. And so I'd very much like to drive my research in a direction where I can work with locations or countries to test particular approaches to policymaking around the sustainable blue economy that both protects the environment and enables people to have happy, healthy and, you know, socially and economically fulfilled lives.
Steve Fletcher: So at the moment, a lot of coastal marine areas even close to the shore are managed in a sector by sector way. So conservation's, done as conservation that is done independently from tourism. It's done independently from shipping, which is independent from energy generation. So it's really quite easy for, let's say, an energy generation activity to impinge on a protected area or to wreck the view of a lovely coastal tourism site or something like that. So it's-- it's kind of incoherent and it's none integrated or none coordinated. So one of the potential tools of a sustainable blue economy policy would be something called marine spatial planning, which is an approach to provide a more integrated, joined-up strategic approach to how marine space is utilised by different activities. And of course, marine space isn't just a surface. It's also the water column, it's the sea bed. Sometimes it's below the sea bed. It could even be the air above the sea as well.
Anna Rose: Another aspect of this work is figuring out where the economic value lies in the oceans and how we recognise it in wider society.
Steve Fletcher: So that approach called marine spatial planning is increasingly being used as a-- as a way to balance competing demands of ocean space and ocean resources. The other approach that's increasingly being used is to consider the values associated with the ocean and not just financial values, but also the social and cultural values as well. So, for example, in and around Portsmouth, there's a-- there's a value of just walking on the beach on a sunny day. And that's important for a lot of people's health and wellbeing. There's a value of the fish in the water column, there's a value of the port for international trade, there's a value of the military port, I guess, for the protection of the UK and of the strategic interest that the country has and et cetera, et cetera. There's a whole load of other values.
Steve Fletcher: And in essence, what a sustainable blue economy approach does is enables those values to be exposed in a way that brings them together into a single decision making system. So it's possible to make policy choices that reflect the multiple values that the coast has to different groups. And that will be a step-change in the way that coast is managed in large portions of the world.
Anna Rose: Steve explained how education in society, not just government, is crucial in changing the way we view the role of the oceans in our economy. This, in turn, is vital in landing the importance of their sustainability and conservation. He told us about ocean literacy.
Steve Fletcher: I guess for a long time the environmental cost of economic development hasn't been included in the products that we buy and the lifestyles that we lead. And by beginning to recognise that all of our actions have some environmental implications. And ocean literacy is working with individuals or groups within society to, essentially, support certain behavioural changes. And those behavioural changes are, in essence, designed to deliver policy objectives. And those policy objectives could be around reducing the amount of single-use plastic that's used or it could be around encouraging different waste disposal practises, or it could be around different food choices. So the research comes into it in terms of understanding the connections between people's lifestyle choices and implications for ocean resources. If those implications are negative, we can then try to understand, well, what are the interventions we can make to encourage an altered behaviour? So that intervention might be an economic incentive. It might be a law that will ban plastic bottles, for instance. It might be just simply a kind of a conventional marketing type approach, whereby we make certain activities either more appealing or less appealing depending upon the intervention we want to make. So there's a whole area of research that's opening up now in the UK and around the world that's focussed on essentially social marketing.
Anna Rose: New ways of talking about our world requires a collaborative effort in making sure the message gets out in the right way in all the right places. Steve explained how new cross-nation groups are forming to tackle this.
Steve Fletcher: I'm quite heavily involved in something called the Marine Social Sciences Network, which is a newly formed organisation. Which, essentially, for the first time is trying to bring together people from around the world who are interested in this sort of topic. I mean this is really new in marine science world. Marine science for decades has been a sort of measuring and counting off a ship kind of discipline. You know, the notion of taking people's opinions into account and trying to influence behaviour as a response to some of the world's environmental problems...
John Worsey: Yes.
Steve Fletcher: ...Is quite new. So this group is really trying to build capacity and build interest in this area.
Anna Rose: Education, marketing and a whole new way of looking at research and problem solving is pretty much remarkable how much method goes into the decisions, events and actions that end up influencing our everyday lives. Thanks to Steve for taking time out to explain the sustainable blue economy. And thanks to you for listening.
Anna Rose: You can follow our research at port.ac.uk/research. Our new magazine, Solve, follows University of Portsmouth research when it's put into practice. It's full of news and stories on our world-leading advances and the changes these are making to lives and futures across the world. You can read more from Steve Fletcher and the blue economy in our very first issue. Just go to port.ac.uk/Solve.
Anna Rose: Next time on Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth, we investigate the human element of using drones in warfare.
Peter Lee: The SMIC, the senior mission intelligence coordinator, says there's a kid on the back of that bike. So they'll look at it. No, no, there's not. So after all that of the reviewing, they could still not see how this SMIC on her first day stood up to all the pressure around about her and said, no.
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