In a recent Ocean Conservation Trust and DEFRA public survey, only 19% of people have heard of and feel they have some understanding of the term marine citizenship. What is the understanding that 19% has? Probably something about reducing single use plastic to protect the ocean, beach cleaning, reducing carbon emissions generally, and making ethical choices when buying fish. These are all important actions that collectively contribute to a human-ocean relationship directed towards marine sustainability and reduced marine environmental degradation.

For the past four years I have been investigating what marine citizenship is by asking active marine citizens their views. Whilst these individualistic choices, or pro-marine environmental behaviours, are a part of marine citizenship, unlike many practitioners, marine citizens also understand marine citizenship as part of a political movement driving transformation in the way society interacts with the sea. The ocean is part of their sense of responsibility and they exercise their rights to be involved in its management in a wide range of ways.

Discovering what makes people become environmental or marine citizens is a holy grail for researchers looking to improve environmental sustainability. Lots of research shows what the most common personality or social traits are in such active citizens, but these findings don’t explain how or why such people managed to bridge the value-action gap and began to take actions for the benefit of the environment. By taking an holistic, interdisciplinary approach, my research is pointing towards a theory of how the value-action gap might be closed: a marine identity.

In social psychology, identity process theories look at the components of identity and how people work to preserve their identities so that their sense of who they are doesn’t get compromised. In active marine citizens, their strong love of the sea (called thalassophilia) and a dependency upon it being beautiful, interesting and healthy for their own wellbeing, recreation or livelihood, feeds their marine identity. But if the ocean is being degraded and harmed then this threatens their marine identity because how can it fulfil their needs in the same way if it is poor condition? Marine citizenship is a way to restore and maintain the marine identity because doing something that promotes marine sustainability is a way to feel empowered and effective and it holds the promise of ocean restoration.

What does all this mean for coastal communities? Well it’s likely there are a range of marine identities and some of these might depend on a relationship with the sea which is extractive or harmful. Just like in marine citizens, people who identify with using the sea in these different ways will likewise work hard to maintain their sense of identity. Different groups of people with different relationships to the sea may be pitted against one another in marine environmental decision-making and consultative processes, driving division and conflict. This produces poor outcomes, poor legitimacy of decisions, and fractures communities. It’s important that we can break down the perception that we have to choose between the environment and the economy.

Through the challenges of climate change, the ocean recovery agenda, with, for example, the introduction of highly protected marine areas, and the economic challenges unique to coastal towns, there is a pressing need to empower coastal communities to have more influence over how these challenges will be addressed. Being pro-environmental doesn’t mean being anti-economy, but there are conflicts that will need resolution through solutions which are environmentally and politically just, as well as effective.

In my research, I found that the most effective participatory processes were those which were at local scale, had transparent procedures which were viewed as fair, and had proper communication of the outcome rather than just leaving participants in the dark. These were viewed positively even when the outcome wasn’t what participants had hoped for. We should be aspiring to thriving coastal communities built on marine sustainability and social justice. This can be achieved through improvement in the ways in which people can participate in shaping marine and coastal management to be more empowering and less tokenistic. The ocean is an extremely dynamic and complex environment, and coastal communities and the challenges ahead are equally as complex. Complex problems are best tackled using wider participation and a wider range of knowledges. Marine citizenship can be enabled through participatory policies and fairer and more effective solutions will emerge.

My research findings should be of interest for those who are interested in improving political engagement with marine and coastal matters and transforming not only the human-ocean relationship but also how we as a society get to participate in that process. To help with this, I have produced an accessible summary of my PhD thesis. I hope there is something of interest to help any coastal community in considering their local challenges.

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