• Many countries have pledged to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.
  • A focus on ecological objectives can result in negative wellbeing outcomes for the associated coastal communities.
  • We present three important considerations to make ocean conservation equitable and inclusive.

In a global push to protect global marine biodiversity, a growing number of countries have pledged and are taking action to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, a movement known as '30x30'. Having a healthy and living ocean can ultimately result in more food, less ocean carbon emissions and continued support for the millions that depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and culture. However, how can we ensure that ocean protection is equitable and inclusive?

Aiming to protect 30% of the ocean with a focus on ecological objectives first and social considerations second could result in increased marine biodiversity, but has led to negative human wellbeing outcomes up to one-third of the time. The design of marine protection areas (MPAs) by experts prioritising ecological criteria may be perceived as illegitimate by the communities whose compliance is most critical to the success of the MPAs, leading to low compliance rates and, in the long run, their ecological failure.

While many of the largest MPAs in the world are established to protect vast regions of the ocean where coastal communities may not be affected, protecting areas close to the coast will inherently lead to conflict, but could also result in the greatest benefits to society.

How to empower coastal communities

In order to protect the ocean and ensure that benefits will eventually accrue to the millions who depend on the ocean economy, our research group has conducted a series of studies to understand how to empower coastal communities to become leaders for ocean conservation.

According to our research, making ocean protection equitable and inclusive requires at least:

1) True co-design of marine conservation strategies. Bringing coastal communities and fishers to the conversation early on is not only a good idea to ensure compliance, but also vital because they are the ones who are the most invested in protecting their own future. Finding the right voices and making sure that they can speak to their needs and priorities, as well as recognizing the value of indigenous and traditional knowledge and finding effective ways to incorporate it into conservation strategies, is essential to making conservation inclusive.

2) Empowering local leaders to pursue (their own) ambitious conservation goals. The most successful ocean conservation stories have one thing in common: local leaders who had ambitious objectives. From Cabo Pulmo, a small fishing village in Mexico that 26 years ago decided to stop fishing, to Palau, a whole nation that decided to protect 80% of their ocean in 2020, these successes were enabled by a local and respected leader who saw a future for their communities through ocean conservation. While there is a role for international organizations to help communities preserve their resources, pushback to decolonize conservation shows that the ambitions and scope should fall on those who depend on these areas for their livelihoods.

3) Opening the door for socially-driven adaptive design. Establishing an MPA that affects coastal communities will most likely lead to conflict. Getting to an agreement requires building trust and negotiating which areas can be protected in order to result in long-term conservation benefits, while not entirely compromising short-term fisheries gains. Our research found that giving communities an opportunity to test several temporary conservation strategies and adapt through time can help to build trust in ocean protection, create social capital in the form of practice for taking community-wide decisions and, eventually, increase collective conservation ambitions.

Properly designed MPAs

Establishing effective MPAs that are also equitable should not be a “one-shot” event but could rather be a way for communities to practice and get better at it over time. To enable this positive reinforcement cycle, it is important to establish MPAs that are ecologically sound and can result in real ecological benefits, and which can also be continuously monitored and enforced in a way that is legitimate to the community.

On the other hand, if an MPA is established and does not show any ecological benefits due to poor design or enforcement, or the benefits cannot be ‘observed’ by the community, there is the risk that trust will be lost and the MPA will lose credibility and support. Adaptive MPA design that empowers fishers inherently runs this risk, which may seem unappealing to managers – but the reality is that many MPAs around the world are doing worse. In addition to the risks of conflict, many MPAs have eroded trust, and while still existing on paper, their benefits are long-gone, and the opportunity to work with the community on new conservation strategies is lost.

How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

In the last 100 years, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields, and all of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

These trends have reduced diversity in our diets, which is directly linked to diseases or health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition.

One initiative which is bringing a renewed focus on biological diversity is the Tropical Forest Alliance.

This global public-private partnership is working on removing deforestation from four global commodity supply chains – palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

The Alliance includes businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people and communities, and international organizations.

Enquire to become a member or partner of the Forum and help stop deforestation linked to supply chains.

Protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 is an ambitious goal that can result in benefits to the ocean and the millions that depend on it. In order to ensure that these benefits reach the right communities, however, it is necessary to have an equitable and inclusive approach to ocean conservation.

Putting coastal communities at the centre goes beyond consultation; it requires dynamic, long-term thinking and true co-design of tools for ocean protection. Temporary policies could be one tool for coastal communities to practice adaptive conservation. Starting small and focusing on relationships and growth could be more fruitful for global conservation objectives than large, ambitious and fragile projects. Ultimately, global change can only grow from the seeds of local successes.