By Athena Trakadas, Chair, Ocean Decade Heritage Network

In the Call for Action at the first UN Oceans Conference in 2017 in New York, stakeholders were called upon to “develop comprehensive strategies to raise awareness of the natural and cultural significance of the ocean” (Call for Action “Our Ocean, Our Future”, §3, §3d). The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-30 (Ocean Decade) is a large-scale, global response to this call. The initiative promotes a common framework for supporting stakeholders in studying and assessing the health of the world’s oceans. The broadest aim of the Ocean Decade is to build scientific capacity and generate knowledge, fully recognizing that there needs to be a “paradigm shift” in how ocean/marine science is obtained. Its overall Mission is “To catalyze transformative ocean science solutions for sustainable development, connecting people and our ocean” (Implementation Plan Summary, p. 8).

But what does “transformative ocean science” really mean? And what can a “paradigm shift” really look like?

At UNESCO-Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and UN Ocean Decade meetings and conferences, the focus is largely on the “natural significance” of the ocean. And in these and other fora, “ocean sciences” tends to be seen as encompassing the traditional physical oceanographic sciences – that is, hydrography, biological, chemical, and geological oceanography. This narrow conceptualization of ocean sciences is often repeated – and institutionally re-enforced – in some of the broader UNESCO literature on the ocean: for example, in preparatory drafts for the Roadmap for the Ocean Decade, published in 2018 and 2019, and the Ocean Decade Implementation Plan Summary from 2020. The “cultural significance” or “cultural heritage” of the ocean, if noted, is usually placed as a minor partner to or on the receiving end of data from these disciplines. For example, in Ocean Science Roadmap for UNESCO Marine World Heritage Sites in the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science, published in late 2021, “cultural heritage” is mentioned once in its 15 pages – as an unelaborated, potential avenue of research using data generated from ocean sciences.

Delegates to the UN Ocean Decade meeting met in Lisbon, June 27 – July 1, 2022. Photograph by Athena Trakadas.

Cultural heritage specialists who work in marine, underwater, and coastal environments – including marine/maritime archaeologists, heritage managers, anthropologists, and ethnographers – are keenly aware of the utility of traditional ocean science-generated data in our practice. We are also largely cognizant of the inverse: that knowledge about materials from and societies of the past can make a significant contribution to ocean science datasets. The humanities and social sciences produce directly relevant qualitative and quantitative information, documenting and providing traditional knowledge and historical data to help gauge present and future patterns regarding pollution, impacts of climate change and other hazards, and establishing ecosystem baselines (including these recent examples). The paradox is that outside cultural heritage specialists, this contribution remains under-recognized and relatively little is done to support or enhance the role that tangible and intangible cultural heritage already plays. This is one of the reasons the Ocean Decade Heritage Network (ODHN) was established: to coordinate with a broad range of stakeholders such as ACUA to underline the contribution, utilizing foremost the framework of the Ocean Decade.

The second UN Oceans Conference, held June 27-July 1, 2022, in Lisbon, co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal, focused on transformations and solutions that are anchored in the UN SDGs and that are needed to save the world’s ocean. With over 6,000 delegates, including heads of state, a place at the table to address major structural transformations and innovative shared science solutions was hard to come by. Physical oceanographic sciences were on full, high-level display throughout, in plenary speeches, interactive dialogues, side-events, and exhibits. Fortunately, through a combined effort that included UNESCO colleagues, two events addressed the ocean’s cultural heritage.

Session participants L-R: ): Amber Carter, Kerstin Forsberg, Tommy Melo, Shirley Binder, Athena Trakadas, Garry Momber, Masanori Kobayashi, Molly Powers, Meriwether Wilson, Peter Manyara, Fanny Douvere, João Costa. Photo by Paul Montgomery.

The first was a hybrid virtual/in-person workshop, The history of the ocean species and environments and their impact on humanity, held on June 30 at NOVA University. A side-event, It’s all about people: Building inclusive leadership and cross-sectoral collaboration for a thriving ocean, was held at the conference’s main venue on July 1. Both were hosted by the UNESCO Chair “Ocean’s Cultural Heritage” of NOVA University, Lisbon, UNESCO, Planeta Océano, and Edinburgh Ocean Leaders, with 35 associated partners, including ODHN.

The seven presentations in the Thursday workshop discussed datasets derived from traditional knowledge of fisheries and marine conservation, and from archaeological sites and sources providing information for climate change histories. Ocean Literacy was a major point of discussion. Part of the focus of the Friday side-event was on “underwater cultural heritage and the ocean’s past.” The event was more mixed, with three sections of two speakers each, due to the overwhelming expressions of interest and lack of available time. The section ‘Underwater and coastal cultural heritage of the ocean: Where the past guides the future’ (10 minutes total) lead off ‘Working with leaders and creating leadership’ and ‘Collaboration and co-design’.

Although the time allotted in Lisbon was limited, a combined effort was made to argue again to a more traditional ocean science audience that the Ocean Decade presents an opportunity for cultural heritage data to make a comprehensive contribution to its societal outcomes. Several cultural heritage stakeholder groups present in Lisbon submitted Conference Inputs to this effect, published in the final UN Oceans reporting. A part of ODHN’s submitted statement summarizes these arguments:

“We call upon the UN to take Ocean Action:

· Acknowledge the essential role of culture heritage in delivering sustainable development in our seas and oceans, noting in particular the relevance to the UN Ocean Decade and UNESCO’s Thematic Indicators for Culture in the 2030 Agenda;
· Acknowledge the power of cultural heritage as a medium for engaging the public in addressing
the sustainability of our coasts, seas and oceans; including through citizen science to
investigate, protect and celebrate long-standing relationships between people and the sea
around the globe;
· Recognize the importance of cultural heritage stakeholders in enabling ocean scientists, and to form innovative partnerships to work together to deliver SDG 14.”

It is our contention that “transformative ocean science” cannot be achieved without taking into account the human time-depth and traditional knowledge of the oceans. Intangible and tangible cultural heritage is a direct link between comprehensive ocean research and sustainable development – for understanding measurable changes in global ocean conditions. To make good on the Ocean Decade’s aim of “building scientific capacity and generating knowledge”, this “cultural significance” needs to be included. Indeed, in order to achieve the Ocean Decade’s seven societal outcomes, they all require a historical perspective on human-ocean interactions. A “paradigm shift” worthy of achieving is that the humanities and social sciences should be included within the “ocean sciences” – instigating a transformation in terminology, practice, policy, and not least, data obtention.

Already, with the presence of cultural heritage on the agenda in Lisbon, progress has been made since the 2017 UN Oceans conference in New York. The next UN Oceans conference will be held in 2025 in Paris, and our hope is that cultural heritage and the “cultural significance” of the ocean will be even more present. Its contribution shouldn’t be undervalued, and at the very least, by the end of the Ocean Decade in 2030, it will not only be a given, but understood as part of the necessary solutions for sustainable development to connect people and our ocean.

Categorised in: