Oceans and Human Health – For an inclusive and holistic approach to marine planning

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3 June, 2020

As populations worldwide are struggling out of the COVID crisis, the coast and the open sea never looked so appealing to individuals and their families as a free breathing space. But this crisis should not let us forget that the ocean is under unprecedented pressure from the cumulative effects of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and further degradation from human activities. The sustainable development of marine planning in Europe requires partnerships and collaborations that cross sectors, disciplines and scales in order to address the complexity of these multiple global and local challenges.

The complex mix of pressures pose a threat not only for marine and coastal environments but also human health such as increased flooding, storms, food insecurity and pollution. Alternatively, we are only just beginning to understand the incredible health and wellbeing benefits to be realised from access to and engagement with healthy marine environments, or ‘blue space’. These ‘well-being’ and therapeutic benefits, in particular for mental health, offer huge potential when addressing the growing psychological distress that will continue long after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

While we have legislated widely to regulate the impacts of human activities on the marine environment, and devised mechanisms to monitor and measure these impacts, we have not fully considered, in turn, the impacts of the marine environment (and marine environmental degradation) on human health. The coronavirus pandemic starkly highlights the need to better understand these human-environment interlinkages, in addition to the need for adaptive policies and mutual cooperation and support on a global scale.

From a marine planning and policy perspective, Oceans and Human Health seeks to deliver new knowledge and understanding that can offer a more sustainable, integrated and holistic approach, linking global-to-local issues. Oceans and Human Health (OHH) is an emerging meta-discipline exploring the complex and inextricable links between the health of the ocean and that of humans. This linkage between ocean health and public health underscores how urgently interdisciplinary cooperation is needed among researchers and decision-makers. The inter- and trans-disciplinarity of OHH is incredibly important in the context of marine spatial planning, offering a lens and approach to address complex, dynamic and systemic issues related to marine and human interactions.

A participatory and inclusive approach was adopted and advocated by the EU-funded H2020 SOPHIE research partnership in the recently published Strategic Research Agenda for Oceans and Human Health in Europe.[1]. The newly launched Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) on oceans and human health showcases how deeply interconnected the health of people and the marine environment are. It outlines vital research priorities, and new collaborations and partnerships needed to inform policies and practices to protect the health of seas, oceans and people.

Partnership-building and collaborative work carried out by the SOPHIE project included multi-stakeholder ‘Conversations’, online and in-person, engaging thousands of expert and citizen stakeholders across Europe, to identify key priorities and actions for OHH. Thousands of priorities were generated and categorised into 49 priority categories. Expert and citizen stakeholders were invited to attend workshops in 2019 with the aim to gain a deeper insight into multi-stakeholders’ priorities for Oceans and Human Health by building consensus through a Collective Intelligence methodology.

Following this process, meta-analysis revealed nine priority themes that are most influential for OHH in Europe, illustrated in the SOPHIE multistage influence map, read from left to right in order of greatest influence (Fig. 1). This map highlights the causal processes that drive OHH dynamics in Europe and how priorities influence each other.

Figure 1. SOPHIE multistage influence map of stakeholder priorities for OHH in Europe.

The influence map highlights a need to link knowledge with practice in a way that can support and promote sustainable actions and greater citizen engagement. This presents opportunities for transdisciplinary research and partnership building between research scientists and decision-makers in marine science and planning, social sciences and public health.

As a marine spatial planning tool, the map can be used by different organisations, institutions in different sectors and countries e.g. policy makers, marine scientists, public health, industry and media – enabling decision-makers to see how combined efforts and coordinated and integrated approaches are the way forward.

For more information and to help share the SRA so we can carry the Oceans and Human Health Agenda forward until 2030 please visit: www.sophie2020.eu

A contribution by

Easkey Britton PhD, SOPHIE project partner at National University of Ireland Galway – contact easkey.britton@nuigalway.ie


[1] https://sophie2020.eu