What does the sea mean to you?

By: Charlotte Coombes
Date posted: 23 March 2017

“It defines who I am, who I have been and who I will be.” What does the sea mean to you? What do you value about it? If it disappeared tomorrow, what would you miss?

As a marine conservationist, I have this permanent yet undefined connection to the sea that hovers at the back of my mind. Of course I do what I do because I think it’s important, but actually talking about why I think it’s important doesn’t seem to happen very often. It gets pushed aside to make room for everyday working life – reporting, meetings, deadlines. We spend so much time thinking about what we should be doing that we forget to focus on why we’re doing it.

Conference

Recently I took part in the Community Voice Method project that MCS has been running jointly with Eastern Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority – one of 10 IFCAs responsible for looking after English inshore seas (from the coast out to 6 nautical miles). EIFCA operates around the Wash, Norfolk and Suffolk. The idea of the project is to get people who use the sea involved in the management of it – marine protection is far more effective when users are involved from the start, and feel ownership of and responsibility for their local environment.

But rather than follow the same old consultation processes and public meetings that can as often alienate people as involve them, these workshops started with a different question – what does the sea mean to people? They asked fishermen, regulators, tour operators, conservationists and more from the local area and what came back was moving and inspiring. (See the quote at the beginning of this blog). Themes such as peace and beauty, job satisfaction, culture and community, wildlife all came through. These values were not unique to any one sector – everyone in the room could identify with what everyone else was saying. It was a real moment of recognition for all of us.

Conference

One local fisherman talked about the joy of getting out on the water – the moment of freedom when mobile signal disappears, that desire to be right back out there as soon as possible. (That fisherman happens to be a 17-year-old who’s also studying at college and is quietly eloquent about something I’ve struggled to define myself). On the other hand, other fishermen had spoken of their fears for the future of their sector – in the words of one, “There’s no one here. We’re the last. When we’re dead and buried you’ll have to go and get your fish from somewhere else.” Small scale inshore fishing is often a family affair, and while there clearly are some young fishermen coming in, there aren’t enough. What I learned from them both was how deeply passionate they are about what they do. How much harder it must be, then, to live in a time where you see all of that disappearing – not just your business, but your traditions, your way of life.

But there were positives. A local councillor told me she was “buzzing” because she was so inspired by the workshops, and an environmentalist had tears in her eyes because of her newfound connection with the community that depends on the thing she’s working to protect. This project is going to have a lasting impact on people.

Conference

The workshops moved us through a simple yet effective process – from values to the key issues facing the region, and then to the actions that the participants recommend to resolve them. Keeping our joint connections to the sea right at the fore, at the end they brought us full circle to talk about how those actions will support the values that we all share. It’s now up to EIFCA to take the learning from these workshops and see what can be done – but conversations have already begun and I am certainly optimistic about the future of the inshore seas of The Wash, Norfolk and Suffolk.

More than that, of the many things I learned during this process, the most important and heartening is surely this: Conservation is not a ‘them versus us’ situation – we are all in it together, and I think we make a pretty good team when we find our common ground.

See more about the project here: http://www.eastern-ifca.gov.uk/publications/community-voice-project/

Learn more about Community Voice Method here: http://communityvoicemethod.org/