The devil’s in the details of the deep blue sea

Discover Professor Steve Fletcher's research in the area of Ocean Policy and Economy

Ask Professor Steve Fletcher what drew him to research in the area of Ocean Policy and Economy, and his answer is simple, and to the point:

‘Well, the ocean is just amazing, isn’t it? It’s inspiring, it’s beautiful. It really captures people’s imagination. My job is to communicate the importance of its protection and its sustainable use to people. That’s what drives me.’

Communication is key to what Steve does. Because, as he says, ‘ocean policy is a live debate that’s happening all the time, and that’s where I like to locate my research – at the edge of traditional academic enquiry and the reality on the ground.’

His work is firmly connected to places, and deeply rooted in solving specific challenges. It’s about taking people on a journey, from the shallows and into ‘the deep, dark cold’. He says: 

‘I want to help people to be inspired about how important those unpleasant and difficult-to-access areas are to them, that most of us will never visit.’

Waking the sleeping giant

When the opportunity came to join Portsmouth as Director of the research theme Sustainability and the Environment, Steve recognised a chance not to be missed.

‘From an ocean perspective, Portsmouth’s a sleeping giant. The place has an incredible maritime and ocean heritage, so it’s a great place to work on ocean issues. And the University is progressive. If somebody has ideas, drive and passion, there aren’t many barriers to making a difference.’

Making a difference is firmly on Steve’s agenda. He wants to build on existing successes in ocean research by encouraging inter-disciplinary, cross-faculty working. He’s also keen to strengthen emerging potential areas of excellence, which include growing agendas around sustainable food, and sustainable fashion, and sustainable communities.

Plastics will be a major focus, as part of Revolution Plastics. Not just in terms of our ground-breaking work to engineer a plastic-eating enzyme and drive a recycling revolution in single-use plastic, but also looking at maximising recycling rates and living within a circular economy. There’s a host of burning questions to tackle, including:

‘How do we look at decoupling resource use from environmental impact, so we can continue to grow and use resources without wrecking the planet at the same time.’

Reaching beyond the University will be key to Steve’s vision. He’s keen to draw in a community of supporters and collaborators who can work with our researchers.

He sees an opportunity to work across the whole economic region of the Solent, tapping into the idea of “marine city parks” – essentially, helping waterfront urban areas to engage more with their “Neighbourhood Ocean”, unlocking health, wellbeing and economic benefits.

But neither regional boundaries nor borders of any kind will limit his ambition:

‘I’m very keen to build a global centre of excellence. There’s nothing holding the University back from having a very ambitious programme around global reach and impact focused on  sustainability and environment.’

One of Steve’s main research interests is the sustainable blue economy - an idea rooted in recognising that natural marine resources underpin humans’ economic and social wellbeing. 

Everything from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear and the way we travel around the world is, to a greater or lesser extent, reliant on ocean resources.

One of the challenges of conventional conservation is that it’s perceived to be a cost to society as it restricts use in some way. If you’ve got a conservation area you can’t do fishing, or you can’t take oil and gas, so it’s a cost. What the sustainable blue economy asserts is that, unless you protect the natural capital of the ocean, you can’t credibly expect the economy to be strong.

Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy Theme Director

Steve wants to work with different countries, to test approaches to policy making around the sustainable blue economy. He hopes to influence policies that both protect the environment and enable people to have ‘happy, healthy, socially and economically fulfilled lives.’

So, in a nutshell, what needs to change?

‘At the moment a lot of coastal and marine areas are managed in a sector-by-sector way. It’s incoherent and non-coordinated. Conservation’s done independently from tourism, from shipping, from energy generation. So it’s quite easy for, let’s say, energy generation to impinge on a protected area or to wreck the view of a lovely coastal tourism site. A more integrated approach, in which different sectors are managed together would reduce these problems’.

‘One of the potential tools to support a sustainable blue economy policy is called Marine Spatial Planning, which provides a more integrated, joined-up, strategic approach to how marine spaces and resources are used by different activities. And of course, marine space isn’t just the surface; it’s also the water column, it’s the seabed, sometimes it’s below the seabed. It could even be the air above the sea as well.’

Crucially, sustainable blue economy thinking weighs not just financial value, but also social and cultural capital. Portsmouth offers a wealth of examples – from the value of locally caught fish to restaurant tables and a healthy diet, through to the security value of our naval port, and the wellbeing benefits associated with a stroll along the beach on a sunny day.

Put simply, Steve’s research is about enabling those different values to be understood and brought together into a single decision making system. As a result, it will be possible ‘to make policy choices that reflect the multiple values the coast has to different groups. That would be a step change in how the coast is managed in large portions of the world.’

And that’s not the only way in which Steve’s work stands to influence environmentally beneficial change across the globe.

Into the great wilderness

Another key area of Steve’s research centres on the deep ocean. There are areas of the ocean that are not owned, managed or controlled by any individual country. Usually 200 nautical miles or more from waters which fall under any nation's jurisdiction, these remote areas are often referred to as the High Seas.

Steve thinks of the deep ocean as ‘the last great wilderness on earth.’ Why?

‘Because these areas are hugely rich in biodiversity. They account for 62% of the entire ocean by area and 95% of the ocean by volume.’

There are big questions to answer about how we conserve and sustainably use the resources of the deep ocean. Especially because of its status as a marine no-man’s land. Steve explains:

‘There’s a huge concern globally that these areas are being used and abused in a way that is creating an unsustainable future for the oceans. The UN is increasingly worried about the biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.’

Steve’s work is contributing to an ongoing UN legal process to change the Law of Sea to better protect the deep ocean. He is feeding into a wholescale redesign of the infrastructure required to manage areas that lie beyond national jurisdiction.

‘It’s designing a whole new governance system from scratch. If it is approved, I see it making a huge difference. Right now, we can identify areas that are important ecologically, but we can’t legally designate or protect these areas. So anybody can do anything in those zones. There’s no way to protect against overexploitation, pollution, mining, or any of those things.’

If a new, internationally legally binding instrument is agreed, it will represent a step change in the way the ocean is conserved. The signs are promising. Countries are increasingly coming to some consensus around what should be in this instrument.

To produce an evidence base that has traction with countries, it is important to understand what evidence they’re interested in. So I co-design the research process with the audience of that research. It improves buy-in and the quality of the research.

Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy Theme Director

No island is alone

Small nations are trying to have a big impact on the UN’s thinking. Protecting their national waters is crucial to their future prosperity, as well as their natural environment. Collective efforts are vital, but Steve can also help individual nations consider the right marine policies.

‘Imagine a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific,’ Steve says. ‘These small island developing states should perhaps really be called large ocean economies, because they’re responsible for huge areas of ocean, that they can extract resources from.

‘They’re really pushing the UN to think about the impacts of climate change on the small islands and on the sea, to think about how the ocean resources are changing as a result of acidification.

‘And then trying to build a framework so these islands and other places can use ocean resources to support their development, but not wreck the resources and compromise long term sustainability.’

The concerns of these small states are shared by larger nations and groups. Together, they’re pushing forward the ocean protection and sustainable use agenda at the UN.

Steve’s research track record means he is ideally placed to make an impact on these changes as a Member of the UN’s International Resource Panel. He has advised countries on embedding sustainability into their marine policies.

The keys to doing so successfully? According to Steve, there are three: academic rigour, humility and a collaborative approach:

‘Usually, when trying to advise a country or develop guidelines, it is ideal to look around the world at 20 or 30 examples of, let’s say, where protected areas have been used to support economic development. And then, from that analysis, synthesise what the effective practices are. And then feed that synthesis back into the policy domain.

‘You have to go with a degree of humility to a country and recognise that it has all sorts of political, social and economic priorities you may know nothing about.

‘I’ve learned that to talk about effective practices, you need to engage with people who were involved. So if we’re talking about how effective a protected area might be at protecting, say, dolphins in Belize, it’s critically important to engage with people who were involved in that. Otherwise it’s impossible to truly understand what it was that actually made it work. In the UN world, if the examples you’re drawing from are not grounded in reality, everything you do loses credibility.’

When it comes to helping countries - or the UN - understand the implications of possible policy choices so they can make more informed decisions, Steve’s collaborative, rigorous yet humble approach pays off:

‘You say, this is what I found. This is how it might be relevant for you. And then give options. Say, if you chose to frame a policy around extreme exploitation, then your resource base would be wrecked within 15 years. But if you have a policy around conservation and use in a sustainable way, then you might have an ongoing resource for the next 100 generations.’

Supporting better decision making really matters to Steve:

‘The thing that drives me is doing research that makes a difference. And unless you work at the interface between research and the people who need the results, then the research is not going to make a difference. It’s going to fall on deaf ears.’

If you want to make sure people listen and act, you must first ensure they understand. That’s a thread that also runs through another strand of Steve’s research: ocean literacy.

Change begins with you

So, what exactly is ocean literacy?

‘Ocean literacy means working with individuals or groups to help generate behavioural changes designed to deliver policy objectives, such as reducing the amount of single-use plastic that’s used, encouraging different waste disposal practices, or making different food choices.’

Research is important as it helps us to understand the implications of people’s lifestyle choices on ocean resources. An example is what we do with waste - there must be few people in Britain today who are not aware of the threat single use plastic poses to our oceans. Ocean literacy seeks to turn such awareness into real change. Steve explains:

‘Once we understand what the implications of behaviours are, we can try to understand what interventions we can make to encourage an altered behaviour.’

This could be as blunt and immediate as a law that bans plastic bottles, or as long-term as social marketing which aims over time to make certain activities less appealing, or it could be an economically-oriented approach, such as a 5p tax on plastic bags.

Steve is heavily involved in the Marine Social Sciences Network. It’s an organisation that brings together people from around the world who share an interest in applying social sciences to ocean problems.

‘The notion of taking people’s opinions into account and trying to influence behaviour as a response to some of the world’s environmental problems, is quite new in the marine science world,’ Steve says. ‘The new network is really trying to build capacity and interest in this area.’