For a while back in the 70s I lived as a barefoot boy running around a village in a remote part of Palau. I spent my days exploring with my marine biologist father. He was a disruptor in his day. He approached that traditional community based on what he could learn, not on what he could teach. He listened and documented the community’s unique relationship with the ocean and their knowledge of the reefs they had fished and watched and cared for over generations.
Back then I fell asleep on many nights to a loud humming in the backdrop from the generator that supplied our power. When it worked.
The world is still full of small, remote communities like this that depend on their local ocean environment for their way of life and on drums of fossil fuel for their power. Sometimes they sit in Australia itself and often they sit in a region where we want more influence. I’ve just returned from one in West Papua, where swirling tornadoes of barracuda and passing dugong fill the day, and the hum of a generator fills the night. When it works.
These communities are stewards over some of the most biodiverse, pristine and precious places in our marine environment. Sometimes that marine environment benefits as a result, and sometimes it doesn’t, but all of us have a direct interest in supporting those communities to succeed.
For many villages and groups, a traditional ethic of marine conservation and concepts of custodianship and tenure have been challenged by the emergence of legal and illegal commercial fishing, dive and surf tourism, technology, climate change and plastic pollution. That has often come at a cost to their ability to draw culturally, economically and productively from an environment that has sustained them for centuries.
Unfortunately, the national and international discussion about ocean futures often overlooks this remote, local dimension. We are on a constant quest for scale and by scale we almost always mean ‘bigger’ because ‘big’ solutions are needed for ‘big’ challenges and ‘big’ opportunities.
In my own space we talk about offshore aquaculture and renewable energy in a national and global context. Our strategies are underpinned by the statistics on global levels of sustainable and unsustainable wild fisheries and the latest forecasts on international demand for renewables. Our aspirations around growth focus on opportunities worth billions that might feed or power communities of millions.
What if we had a different conversation about scale? What if we looked at the opportunity to scale down some of our global and national blue economy solutions and aspirations so they applied at the local level?
Our work to create a sustainable blue economy shouldn’t just generate national and international outcomes, it should also put innovative and cost-effective ocean solutions in the hands of small, remote communities and it must do so if equity is really going to be a guiding principle.
Imagine if our global investment in blue economy innovation focused more on these communities, providing them the option of small-scale but innovative aquaculture solutions to offset their need to take from local reef systems. And imagine if those communities could easily choose the sun, wind and waves to power that aquaculture and their local energy demands instead of the diesel that so often spills and slicks across a reef top’s surface. What might that mean for the world’s wilder ocean places?
If equity is an important principle in our approach then ocean leaders must focus on the needs and opportunities for all communities to participate equally in the blue economy revolution. In future, ‘downscaling’ needs to be seen in as as positive a light in the ocean community as ‘upscaling’.
Greg Johannes chairs the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre and the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, and has just returned from his fourth visit to the people and reefs of West Papua.