Blog: Who will decide the future of our seas?

Published: 15 Jul 2019

Author: Sarah Brown
Blog: Who will decide the future of our seas?

Community participation is a key to sustainable marine management.

Every day there are more pressures on our seas - from fishing to marine litter, from renewable energy developments to defence and shipping routes. That’s why making a decision about where to put a marina, a pontoon or a wind farm can be complicated. You have to consider the effect on other coastal activities, on people who live near the coast, as well as on the overall health of our seas - and the repercussions can be profound.

I work as a freelancer supporting public engagement in marine planning. It’s my job to get the right people around the table and then try to keep them around the table, working towards an agreed goal.

When a new development is planned, such as an offshore windfarm, it’s important that everyone who will be affected by it is involved in the planning process. I’ve known of situations where a developer has put a huge amount of money and energy into some elements of planning, such as assessing the environmental impact of the development, but they’ve only discovered at a late stage that they’re proposing to put a wind farm in the middle of an incredibly important, high-value fisheries area.

"It can be incredibly difficult to reconcile the competing priorities of different groups with a stake in the marine environment."

It can be incredibly difficult to reconcile the competing priorities of different groups with a stake in the marine environment. So last year I travelled to Canada and the USA on a Churchill Fellowship to see what I could learn from some of the brightest minds in American marine planning.

I was struck by the approach towards public engagement of organisations such as the North West Straights Commission and the Californian Coastal Commission. In the UK, a planning discussion or decision-making meeting might be made open to the public, but such open-house sessions are not the norm. In California, it’s a legal requirement that all decisions about the coastal and marine environment are taken in public. I attended one of their open-house meetings and it was clear that having discussions in front of ordinary people completely changes the dynamic of the conversation. There is nowhere for decision-makers to hide.

On my travels, I met people who challenged my ideas about handling conflicts between differing agendas. In the UK this is almost a taboo subject – we try to avoid conflict, or perhaps add the disagreement to an agenda for another day. What was so refreshing about the approaches of people like Betsy Daniels at Triangle Associates, which has been evidenced in the research done by Julia Wondolleck at the University of Michigan, was that they didn’t shy away from admitting that conflict existed. Instead they tackled it head on. This approach doesn’t guarantee that you’ll arrive at an agreement, but it cuts to the chase and helps facilitate real decision-making.

Another highlight from my trip was encountering the Fisherpoets, a group of fishermen from Oregon, Washington and beyond, who write poetry and recite it at public events. My facilitation work often involves fishermen and they’re a tough crowd - if you’re not one of them, it’s difficult to get a dialogue going. The Fisherpoets gave me a fresh perspective on the passion that fishermen have for their work and the sea, and how difficult and mentally draining, yet enriching and fulfilling, that work is. I’ve brought this into my engagement work back in the UK. When I talk to fishermen about fisheries science, it’s important that I recognise the emotional investment they have in fishing.

It can be hard to get across to people the importance of marine planning. They might wonder why it should matter to them where a wind farm goes. Yet the health of our seas ultimately impacts everyone, whether through driving changes in the weather, coastal erosion, fish stocks or whatever else. My Fellowship provided me with new tools and techniques to help bring more people around the table and to ultimately make better decisions.

Read Sarah’s report

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