Ocean People

Guest Blog by Kayla Hamelin, PhD Student

Introduction to ocean literacy
Ocean literacy has been defined as “understanding the ocean’s influence on you and your influence on the ocean”. Having worked as a science communicator for a variety of not-for-profit organizations, I have seen the interest in ocean literacy increase markedly in the environmental education community in recent years. A team of researchers, scholars, educators, and practitioners in the United States formalized this interest in ocean engagement by developing the Ocean Literacy Framework, based on seven principles of ocean literacy , representing key concepts from ocean science. For example, Principle #1 states that Earth has one big ocean that has many features. Principle #5 describes that the ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

National and international governing bodies are now incorporating goals of enhancing ocean literacy into marine policy around the world. However, increasingly, there is acknowledgement that ocean literacy is not simply a matter of being knowledgeable about marine science, but rather must encompass a more holistic perspective on our social, economic, cultural, and personal ties to the ocean. As a result, several countries, including Canada, have invested in recent years in developing customized national frameworks that reflect their unique priorities and values. As an interdisciplinary researcher interested in how resource users engage in fisheries science and management, I have a particular interest in ocean literacy that is place-based and rooted in experiential knowledge and local perspectives. To me, ocean literacy means understanding and appreciating the science and socio-cultural significance of our ocean. Ocean literacy must include and respect different ways of “knowing” the ocean – for example, the traditional ecological knowledge and local knowledge held by those who live and work near (or on) the sea.

Contemplating my own ocean literacy
Being engaged in discussions about ocean literacy requires me to consider my own relationship with the ocean. I am aware of the various technical ways that I impact the ocean (e.g., consumption of seafood, production of waste) and ways that the ocean impacts me (e.g., climate regulation, oxygen production). However, in contemplating the socio-cultural dimensions of ocean literacy, I must ask myself more specifically, how do I know and relate to the sea? As someone working on my third post-secondary degree focused on marine sciences, surely I am ocean literate? An expert, even? However, I didn’t grow up by the sea. I was raised far from the coast on the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario. In many ways my hometown feels like a coastal place, but it is missing the distinct salty smell and the stiff sea breezes.

I have often asked myself where my fascination for the sea came from. Prior to beginning university studies in marine biology, my exposure to the ocean was during a single childhood trip to the Maritimes, and thus my passion does not originate from a place of comfort or familiarity, but rather a sense of awe, reverence, and respect for the majesty and mystery of the ocean. Nonetheless, I think that I was already primed to fall in love with the sea, based on my deep attachment to animals and nature. I imagine that some who grow up by the coast may view the sea through a less romantic lens, as a source of food or a means to support their livelihoods. However, I think there is something universal in the draw of the sea, given that many people with various proximities to the coast find spiritual and cultural significance in bodies of water.

Over the past several years of my career, I would spend a handful of weeks every summer working on the ocean conducting scientific field surveys to monitor and track endangered species. This gave me insight into life at sea that I could have never learned from a text book. I am now intimately familiar with the coastal environment of Nova Scotia, and its birds, fish, jellyfish, turtles, sharks, and marine mammals. I am also familiar with the set-up and operation of lobster fishing vessels, a dominant fishery along the Atlantic coast of Canada. After living in Nova Scotia for more than a decade, I have explored innumerable rugged cliffs and sandy beaches, salt marshes and tidal flats. Despite these experiences, I can still relate to the disconnect that many Canadians may feel from the ocean. Most of the year, I am an urban resident of downtown Halifax. If I’m being honest, on a day-to-day basis, my life doesn’t always feel particularly tied to the ocean. My life isn’t governed by the wind and the waves. I don’t know off the top of my head when the next high tide will arrive. I am grateful to have a view of an inlet called the Northwest Arm from my office at Dalhousie, but generally, I am an ocean lover who must seek out connections to the marine environment.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I spent a great deal of time thinking about human relationships with the ocean and strengthening my own sometimes-elusive marine connections. Thankfully, we are enjoying more freedom in recent weeks here in Nova Scotia, but for months, I had little contact with the outside world aside from my daily walks in my neighbourhood. Living downtown in an urban centre, I sought soothing natural environments to calm and refresh myself during those difficult times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the sea. I am so grateful to live with the Halifax waterfront boardwalk, an urban wilderness area called Point Pleasant Park, and the Northwest Arm within walking distance. There is a growing body of literature on the mental and physical health benefits of “blue spaces”. During the COVID-19 lockdown, I experienced and witnessed the power of this effect, both during my own excursions to bodies of water within Halifax, and also in watching how my fellow city residents were drawn to these environments. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on the important cultural and health-related ecosystem services provided by our ocean, which often get lost in technical discussions around marine resource management.

The national conversation on ocean literacy
My thoughts about ocean connections culminated recently in my participation in the Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition national workshop series – a fantastic opportunity to discuss ocean literacy with other scholars, stakeholders, and practitioners from across the country. The Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition (COLC) is a national group of ocean literacy leaders, formed in 2018 to guide the development of a national framework and implementation strategy for enhancing and promoting ocean literacy in Canada. Their work takes a holistic approach, in which ocean literacy is seen to encompass ocean knowledge, ocean values, and ocean actions. Over the past year or so, research has been conducted by members of the coalition to “establish a baseline seascape” for the status of ocean literacy in Canada. In June of this year, there were 5 regional workshops (Pacific, Inuit Nunangat, Atlantic, St. Lawrence, and Inland Canada) and a national workshop to recap results from the past year’s research, disseminated in regional and national reports.

I attended the regional workshops for the Atlantic and St. Lawrence regions (where I have lived and worked), in addition to the national workshop, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions that took place. There were a few key messages that stuck with me. First, nationally, there seems to be an interest in moving away from the term “ocean literacy”, despite its recognition and use elsewhere in the world. Many respondents to the COLC’s surveys and interviews noted that the term is too abstract or academic. “Literacy” often has a deficit-based definition, and it may suggest a link to the formal education system, which makes the term problematic for those who lack access to education or who define expertise in different ways. Crucially, the term “ocean literacy” is difficult to translate into other languages, notably French, and is a concept that is not compatible with the world views of many Indigenous peoples in Canada, which means that it may not be helpful in establishing a national unifying framework. Alternative language is necessary.

The second key conclusion from the national workshop that I found important was the need to move beyond ocean-specific content and instead draw upon the idea of an “ocean continuum” – comprising land, water, ocean, sea, and ice. As someone who grew up relatively far from the ocean, but close to other major bodies of water, this strikes me as a crucial message, and a unifying theme to which all Canadians may be able to connect. After all, the ocean area over which Canada has jurisdiction is equivalent to 55% of our landmass and 12% of the surface area of our country is covered with freshwater (1/5 of the world’s supply). There is truly something for everyone within Canada’s hydrosphere! Like most people from Ontario, I do not instinctively consider myself to have grown up in a coastal province, but Ontario does in fact have marine coastline in the north along Hudson Bay and James Bay. Expanding our geographic perspectives (from coast to coast to coast – and beyond!) and leveraging the strong links within the water cycle can form critical components of a national ocean strategy aligned with the values and experiences of most Canadians. Furthermore, this narrative can be linked with a broader “ocean-water-climate-nature” narrative to synergize with environmental initiatives more broadly.

Finally, there were some unique insights from the Atlantic regional workshop, which I will keep in mind as I move forward with my research. Regional strengths for ocean literacy in Atlantic Canada were identified to be 1) Relationships and collaboration, 2) Place-based knowledge and experiential learning, 3) Ocean awareness through raising awareness about plastic pollution, 4) Women leaders, 5) Two-eyed seeing, and 6) Workforce development. These findings were consistent with my experiences living in Nova Scotia, working within academic, government, and NGO spheres. Moving forward, I recognize that we are stronger working together and must allow for diverse voices to be heard at decision-making tables, in an environment based on trust and mutual respect for different perspectives and forms of expertise. I look forward to seeing the national ocean framework and implementation plan evolve over the course of the year, and will work to ensure that my own work as a marine scientist is grounded in these values. I will continue to explore how the ocean impacts Atlantic Canadians and how we impact the ocean, and I look forward to partnering with stakeholders to incorporate diverse perspectives and expertise into my work.


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