The tropical majority may hold the secret to ocean conservation

Engaging tropical majority for equitable ocean governance and science.


Ocean governance agendas are generally based on scientific knowledge, financing, and institutions from high-income states, even though most tropical people who depend on the ocean reside in low- to middle-income countries. This compromises the equality and efficacy of existing solutions and prevents the tropical majority, who can mobilize evidence-based, context-specific solutions to ocean sustainability concerns, from exercising leadership.

The authors emphasize that the most pressing issues confronting the ocean are those caused by nature and humans, particularly those living in the tropics. STRI staff scientist and founding director of the Adrienne Arsht Community-Based Resilience Solutions Initiative, Ana Spalding, lead author with a marine ecologist and associate professor at Oregon State University (OSU) Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, said, “We can’t talk about the ocean without talking about nature and humans Kirsten, and I have been working together to bridge those two aspects.”

The purpose of the article was to capitalize on the tropics-focused Our Ocean Conference, which will be held in Panama in March 2023. Spalding and Grorud-Colvert brought together a group of diverse researchers worldwide to discuss practical ideas for ocean protection. 

They organized an in-person draft-writing workshop with a core group of collaborators in November 2022 at STRI’s Punta Culebra Nature Centre in Panama City, Panama, following initial brainstorming meetings on Zoom.

The goal was to debate ways to address the most pressing issues harming the seas, particularly in the worldwide tropics. Instead of focusing simply on the scientific aspects of marine conservation, the disparity in ocean governance and ocean science emerged as a recurring subject during the initial conversations.

One of the publication’s four significant actions is prioritizing equity in ocean science and Governance to empower community-based conservation and restore Indigenous people’s rights.

Spalding said, “The underlying tone was that systemic changes in inequity and access were important. We still incorporated the more technical science side of things, but that’s been written and talked about. We decided to prioritize this issue.”

Policymakers from outside tropical regions frequently establish policies disproportionately established by policymakers in tropical regions. Another critical activity is reconnecting people to the ocean by increasing awareness that ocean issues affect people in all coastal locations, from small island villages to massively populated cities.

Grorud-Colvert pointed out, “We wanted to acknowledge this inequity from the start, that most of the resources and funding for marine conservation come from temperate regions, and that often leads to those interests co-opting conversations. From there, we can move forward with low voices and expertise in the lead.”

Redefining ocean literacy entails respecting indigenous coastal communities’ traditional and empirical wisdom alongside scientific knowledge to understand marine ecosystems better and how to conserve them.

When decolonizing ocean science, it’s important to consider local goals and capacity. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute provides various options, including fellowships, field courses, and internships, to better understand marine ecosystems and the relationship between the ocean and humans.

Spalding and Grorud-Colvert committed to providing a space for challenging and listening to one another’s opinions and thoughts. They contend that developing solutions with honest talks and cross-disciplinary discussions is only possible.

As a result, the authors of “Engaging the Tropical Majority to Make Ocean Governance and Science More Equitable and Effective” stress the significance of paying attention to those most directly impacted by the ocean’s current issues. We may seek to mitigate the disproportionate impact of climate change on the tropics by concentrating on justice in ocean science and Governance, reuniting people with the ocean, redefining ocean literacy, and decolonizing ocean science.

The authors concluded in the research that there are four critical measures to undertake first to achieve meaningful and tangible solutions for ocean sustainability:

  1. equality in ocean science and Governance
  2. reconnecting people and the ocean
  3. redefining ocean literacy
  4. decolonizing ocean science

The study was funded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Journal Reference:

  1. Spalding, A.K., Grorud-Colvert, K., Allison, et al. Engaging the tropical majority to make ocean governance and science more equitable and effective. npj Ocean Sustainability. 10.1038/s44183-023-00015-9