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Marine ‘identity’ could boost ocean protection

Many people are so attached to the ocean that it forms a key part of their identity, new research suggests.

Published 8th July 2021

This emotional attachment and “dependency” on the ocean (or thalassophilia) comes from positive experiences and can lead someone to become a “marine citizen”.

Marine citizenship means participating in the transformation of the human-ocean relationship towards sustainability – for example by campaigning for ocean conservation and encouraging others to do so, or by individual action like ethical consumer choices.

The findings come from a PhD thesis by Dr Pamela Buchan, of the University of Exeter, who argues that focusing solely on individual behaviours limits the potential for citizens to get involved in marine environmental issues, and that environmental education could be more effective if it included political and civic elements.

“It’s not so much about educating people to care about the sea, as connecting them with it and supporting them more in civic participation,” Dr Buchan said.

“Many people are concerned about degradation of the ocean, but the most commonly talked about solutions focus on individual consumer actions like eating less fish, buying more sustainable products and re-using plastic.

“Marine citizenship is about more than individual or private choices. The most deeply engaged marine citizens take a risk by putting their values out in the open. They work to help people connect with the sea and create change by bringing people with them.

“Deeply engaged marine citizens even become politically involved in local marine issues and decision-making, such as through local planning consultations, national marine designations and campaigns.”

Dr Buchan said “anyone can be a marine citizen”, and “emotional affinity to the ocean” is the common thread linking a diverse mix of marine citizens.

The evidence points towards a 'marine identity' that comes from positive ocean experiences and which can drive people to take action for the ocean. For people who depend upon a healthy ocean for their identity, threats to the ocean, such as climate change, pollution and loss of habitats and biodiversity, also threaten their personal identity. People are motivated to protect their identity so this could drive them to take action, becoming active marine citizens and trying to reduce those ocean threats.

Dr Pamela Buchan - University of Exeter

Dr Buchan has published an accessible report summarising her PhD Thesis, Citizens of the Sea, which is free to read online.

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