As an anthropologist conducting social and cultural research on various coastal communities, I have been struck more by our similarities than our differences. One recurring theme I have seen across the world is the inequity between who has access to and benefits from oceans and who relies on oceans to live.

We know that the human relationship with oceans under modern market systems is unsustainable, unstable and inequitable. We hear that in stories about overfishing and plastic straws and coral reefs. What we do not often see are the human stories about the ocean communities that are already facing urgent ecological, social and political problems, even before complex environmental challenges are layered on. We are not in the rooms where scientists and leaders make political and societal decisions to the best of their ability while trying to avoid further disadvantaging the marginalized and the disempowered. We need to create a new platform for ocean governance to identify the inequities that exist, develop knowledge-based solutions, and actually enact these changes to make oceans equitable for everyone.

This is the aim of the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center, a 10-year collaboration between The Nippon Foundation, a global leader in addressing the complex challenges facing our oceans, and EarthLab, a new institute at the University of Washington designed to co-produce actionable research to address urgent environmental challenges.

With such vast issues to work out, I find it important to clearly say that we will not solve these issues on our own, nor will we cover the entire expertise of societal issues of oceans. We are academics convening a transdisciplinary team from across the whole system to understand what is happening now, share stories with evidence, examine power dynamics, and propose solutions and tools that are needed for immediate outcomes today and to transform the system for the future. We are an enterprise to promote inclusive but critical thinkers, which do not have any support from political actors and do not serve any particular sector or state.

By engaging in interdisciplinary research, developing an innovative ocean network, creating fellowship programs, and through effective science communication, the Center will serve as a link between all its components to catalyze interactions and promote adaptability to emerging challenges and opportunities.

In our first year, we focused our efforts on building a broad network of partner institutes and researchers from around the world. Due to our unique approach, we recruited an array of social and natural science researchers on equity, social change capacity-building, policy and governance, and other disciplines for holistic study of changes to oceans and impacts on the communities that rely on them. The foundation of this network comes from the Nereus Program, a successful decade-long global partnership of 17 leading institutes working to advance our comprehensive understanding of the global human-ocean system across the natural and social sciences.

In tandem with growing our network, we are growing the capacity for our sector to do this work long into the future through our fellowship programs. This year, we have supported and collaborated with 30 fellows that are a mix of undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students and postdoctoral candidates.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed some aspects of how we will do this work in the short term, I am beyond proud of my nimble program team that has acted with care and urgency to set up our Center, build our network and programs, and plan an annual policy course, starting this fall. I am pleased to share that Ocean Nexus principal investigators have already started over 60 research projects on themes from ocean leadership to health and development to climate adaptation.

With all of this in place, Ocean Nexus is in a one-of-a-kind position to expand our understanding of our relationship with oceans, so all can access and benefit from the oceans equitably. And yet, after over a decade of working in this field, I am keenly aware of the magnitude of our mission. We will face many obstacles as we work towards shedding light on inequities, implementing solutions, and challenging power structures. This year, it is a pandemic. Nine years from now, who knows? What I know for sure is that systemic inequalities will not wait.


Yoshitaka Ota
Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center

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