Earlier this month I had the pleasure of acting as a ‘trainer’ in a workshop on Seabed Management organised by Kim Peters and Phil Steinberg. As part of the European Commission’s COST Action programme on Ocean Governance for Sustainability, and in conjunction with the University of Liverpool’s Institute for Sustainable Coasts and Oceans, the workshop brought together early career researchers and leading scholars in the fields of Ocean science and Governance.
Over the course of three days, the focus of the workshop centred upon the practical questions of building bridges between academic research and policy at a time where research on the sea floor and questions around seabed governance are becoming increasingly significant (and doing so at an unprecedented pace). A range of insightful and thought-provoking keynote lectures provided some vital context to a number of pressing issues (including the development of legal frameworks for deep sea mining in small island developing states and the work of the Deep Sea Ocean Stewardship Initiative) whilst three practical break-out sessions offered participants the chance to develop a range of skills for working at the science/policy interface. Kim Peters led the first of these sessions on networking and ‘translating science to scientists’, I led the second on the science/policy interface, and Phil Steinberg the final session on the media and communicating science beyond the academy.
The moral complexities of Deep Sea Mining
Unsurprisingly, deep sea mining (dsm) formed the basis of discussion in both the break out groups and many of the keynote lectures. Legally it is a complex issue and the practicalities of undertaking deep sea mining are also inherently complicated but it was the multifaceted moral and cultural dynamics that caught my attention.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign describe the practice as an ‘emerging and very real threat to the world’s oceans’ whilst Greenpeace detail its ‘devastating’ implications. Similarly, campaigns such as ‘Yes to life, no to mining’ aim to warn that we are ‘out of our depth’. Whilst my knee jerk reaction is to agree, I was reminded at the workshop that whilst I may hold this view, I am sitting typing this post on a laptop that relies on minerals found on the sea floor, having just checked my phone which also relies on the substances that can be found beneath the sea. Even renewable energy infrastructure like wind farms require materials that are running out on land and can be found on the seabed. Important scientific research is struggling to keep pace with the demands of industry and there are many uncertainties and unknowns about the detrimental effects of dsm on marine life and ecosystems.
For those living at the forefront of dsm, the ethical and moral complexities are more profound. Approximately 1.5 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean Floor is currently under exploration leasehold for deep seabed mining to private and national government companies within both territorial and international waters. Indeed, as Hannah Lily from the Commonwealth Secretariat informed us during a fantastic keynote, whilst debates often surround how dsm will evolve beyond legal jurisdictions in international waters, key developments are taking place within the territorial waters of small island developing states. For a diverse range of Pacific Islands, this is far from straightforward. Drawing on her extensive experience, we heard how some island communities simply do not want the financial ‘development’ that money from dsm may bring, actively choosing to opt out of the consumerist demands and consumption practices that drive the demand for dsm in the first place. Regulatory frameworks and enforcement capacities are lagging far behind industry practice and demand, and for some, religious beliefs play a significant role in shaping perceptions of the practice. Dsm not only has legalities and practicalities but theologies too.
Within this framework, we also discussed the issue of ‘visibility’ or, more pertinently, the invisibility of the seabed. It is a space that is often out of site, and therefore out of mind and perhaps one of the key challenges in creating robust policy lies in raising a public consciousness and awareness about the seabed– as we heard in another excellent keynote from Eva Ramirez, this is something that DOSI seek to achieve in the policy sphere by communicating scientific research to policy makers. We discussed the difficulties in getting people to care about a space that you cannot see. Without this awareness, informed and widespread debate about an issue that affects us in profound ways is unlikely to be achieved. Series like Blue Planet clearly have a role in this, but I was challenged to think about the small contribution my own research could make to this endeavour.
Networking beyond your discipline
Beyond discussing pressing issues like dsm, I was more generally struck at the workshop by the diverse and rich range of scholarship being undertaken on the ocean in the EU and beyond. Expertise on issues including marine genetic resources, habitat modelling, fisheries governance in Denmark post Brexit, deep sea ecosystems and hydrothermal vent communities were just a small fraction of the vibrant research community represented at the workshop. Needless to say, most of this lay beyond my areas of expertise but herein lay the richness of the experience. Engaging with scholars working at the forefront of these exciting fields was a rewarding one, giving me a small insight into the diverse range of approaches needed to tackle the complex array of issues effecting the seafloor and its inhabitants. Getting out of my comfort zone and disciplinary context is something I aim to do more of.
Creative methods and representing research
I was also challenged about the practice and representation of research. In another fascinating keynote, Leonie Robinson who specialises in the community ecology of marine ecosystems, detailed the ways that her project team had engaged with various stakeholders to better understand how different components of the marine ecosystem connect and the strength of these connections. In doing so, she highlighted the creative methods involved in the research process. Using chocolate money, stakeholders were asked to value certain components whilst post-it charts and interactive mapping sessions challenged those involved to think about their respective perspectives in new ways. Brilliant graphics were used to represent some of these interactions providing much food for thought about how I can more creatively engage with both the research process and its subsequent representation.
To conclude the workshop, Kim led us on a tour of Liverpool to highlight some it’s rich maritime heritage and contemporary maritime significance. Braving the snow and what felt like Arctic winds – we even managed to get a quick photo with the Beatles before departure. Overall, it was an excellent few days bringing together a diverse range of scholars and expertise – a huge thank you to both Kim and Phil for organising.