By: Sam Andrews and Kat Middleton
Surrounded by the ocean on three of its four borders, and with an economic exclusive zone (EEZ) spanning some 2.9 million km2, Canada plays a major role in the conservation and sustainable use of the marine environment. For the 7 million people that live in Canada’s coastal areas, the ocean is a significant feature in their lives. Be it for the extractive uses on which so many coastal communities depend on, or for the non-extractive uses that provide benefits to human health and wellbeing. Alongside most of the world’s ocean, Canada’s marine waters have seen degradation from human activities such as overfishing, coastal habitat modification, upstream contamination and air and noise pollution.
Fostering understanding and stewardship of the ocean among the Canadian public is vital part of establishing and maintaining a healthy ocean. There is a dire need for better marine education for the 28 million Canadians who live inland and in remote locations. But how can we help Canadians learn about their influence on the ocean and the ocean’s influence on them? How can we increase ocean literacy in Canada? We want people to learn about the ocean in a way that inspires and motivates positive action to better protect this major Canadian ‘ecosystem’ as well as the global ocean.
Since we cannot bring every Canadian to the ocean, we must bring the ocean to them. CaNOE Communications Working Group members Samantha Andrews and Kat Middleton recently tackled this topic at the 2016 OceansOnline Conference held in St. John’s, Newfoundland. They co-led a facilitated discussion on behalf of CaNOE about the role of the internet in increasing ocean literacy in Canada with participants from around the world.
The importance of connection
Sam and Kat are from very different backgrounds. Sam grew up on a small Island (Jersey, Channel Islands) where the ocean and coast were a part of her everyday life. Her decision to work in Marine Conservation was no surprise. Kat, on the other hand, grew up on a Canadian Great Lake. The ocean was not a part of her life, but thanks to some wonderful books put out by OWL magazine in the early 1990s, she felt a connection to the ocean and the creatures that lived there. Thanks to this connection, she is now a marine scientist – and pursuing a career in ocean education.
Kat wasn’t the only person in the room who had grown up away from the ocean, but she was unique in never having visited the ocean before deciding that marine science was for her. Some participants shared that they grew up in Ontario and Quebec, but had parents who loved to sail, giving them a personal connection and first-hand experience with the ocean. Another attendee noted that at a university in the coastal city of Pittsburg, USA, there are an increasingly large number of marine science majors and interns from inland locations rather than coastal areas.
From the continued discussion, it seemed that a personal connection to the ocean played a significant role for most participants in fostering their interest in the ocean. Interestingly, one attendee from the Island of Puerto Rico noted that being close to the ocean might only habituate people to it. She continued to explain that, contrary to our discussion, living by the ocean may not necessarily mean people are more aware of the importance of the coast or their environmental impacts.
The power of the Internet in connecting people to the ocean in a way that educates and fosters a sense of stewardship
Attendees were in little doubt that the Internet could be a powerful way to connect people to the ocean in a meaningful way. With significant global reach, the Internet has a bigger audience than books and television documentaries, as well as a huge variety of media and flexibility of outreach tools online. The group discussed potential ways we could connect the public online to the world of ocean science.
- Social media is for everyone
All social media platforms received unanimous support from the group as a useful way to connect people with the ocean in their daily lives. The ability to quickly and easily bring people together was identified as one of the key strengths of social media, since users are often already familiar with their platform of choice. “They know how to act, how to engage”, one attendee noted. The ease of access and intuitive nature of social media makes dissemination of knowledge possible and allows for greater interaction between users. With NGOs, scientists, marine management bodies, industry groups, and the “public” on one social media platform or another, the importance of these online platforms for professionals as well as non-professionals was also highlighted.
- Blogging builds on knowledge
Using the Internet to connect inland populations to the ocean doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel. People have relied on the written word through books, magazines and newspapers, long before the World Wide Web. Like digital personal newspapers, blogging platforms have surged in popularity online, and can be an excellent tool for ocean science communication. Attendees noted that different styles of writing can appeal to different audiences, each with their own demographic makeup. However, perhaps more so than social media, blogs are typically sought-out, and specifically searched for by those already interested in a chosen subject matter. So, blogs may not necessarily create an initial ocean connection, but they can certainly build upon it.
- Educational digital media
Most of us know how captivating television can be – especially for young children who crave content filled with larger than life characters. Attendees noted a couple of educational kids shows that can be found online – ‘The Octonauts’: a group of animal cartoon characters who explore the ocean while encountering real animals in lifelike settings, and the upcoming ‘Splash and Bubbles’: a digital puppetry show produced by Jim Henson, in conjunction with marine biologists and educators. The most successful engagement from these shows, one attendee thought, will likely come from following a simple formula: have a good plot, make it fun, and then sneak in the learning. Whilst young children may be happy to sit and watch one program online for 15 or 20 minutes, if the content is any longer, young teenagers may not. Many young teenagers are often seen flicking from one stream to next on their digital devices. But this doesn’t mean visual content is less useful for this age group, one attendee noted. It’s important to tailor educational videos to the shorter teenage (and sometimes adult) attention span. It is essential to connect each audience with the styles of entertainment they are already engaged in.
- Interactive live dives
“The Internet can do more than distribute visual or written media”, an attendee noted. The Fish Eye Project has a simple mission – entertain, engage, and educate by connecting people to the world’s ocean through interactive Live Dives. Having already been broadcast to IMAX, science centres, and classrooms, The Fish Eye Project not only shows people what is happening under the waves, but does so in real-time, and with a diver audiences can interact with! This live, in-situ, interaction the attendee highlighted, is key for going beyond education – it creates a connection to the ocean, and to the animals that live there. For people who never get to go into the ocean, this is a unique and immersive opportunity.
With engagement being key, another tool that could prove useful in ocean education and stewardship initiatives are online games. Just like children’s programs, engaging games should also have a plot, be fun – and have a healthy dose of education thrown in – even if it’s not obvious to the gamer. A few ocean science gaming ideas were given by the group:
- Simulation games – imagine being a salmon, from the moment you hatch to the moment you spawn
- Hungry sharks – but with a healthy dose of stealth education
- Plastic pollution – look at how it may impact an ocean animal
Gamers thrive on nuances, and there are plenty of those in the natural world, one attendee emphasised. Other suggestions looked to games already in development. Attendees questioned: “If movies can have scientific consultants, why not games? They should include marine scientists!”
Working together – connecting coastal and inland communities for improving ocean literacy
What became clear from the facilitated discussion was that the variety of tools available on the Internet are valuable in engaging all communities with the ocean, whether they live on the coast or not. Overall, the group agreed that the Internet provides an incredible opportunity to show coastal and inland communities just how linked they are to each other and the ocean.
- Connecting communities
Online tools can be used to engage school groups in different parts of the country – and even overseas – to gather in one (virtual) space. Interaction can go beyond just talking, it can involve hands-on learning. Participants noted that a school located near the coast could launch an Open ROV into the ocean, with operators located inland, and work together with another school across the country to explore the unknown ocean depths. Another idea discussed was for those living along watersheds with migratory species, such as salmon. School groups could tag and track individual fish as they migrate from their natal rivers and back again. Youth involved in the project would learn about the impacts of inland restoration or restocking efforts along with a partner coastal community, who may follow the same salmon at ocean entry. Classes could go see salmon on either end of the migratory pathway and broadcast their experiences back to the partnering community. Other participants pitched ideas about following human actions and our impact on the ocean – such as littering and plastic pollution.
- Tracing seafood
Seafood was decided as a major way in which inland communities may connect with the ocean. Thanks to smartphones, scanning barcodes and QR codes is a straight-forward process, and tracking is sometimes done as part of the seafood processing chain. By tapping into these technologies, inland communities can see where their seafood has come from, how it was caught, and even who caught it. Some organizations, such as SeaChoice, already offering such services, but there may be room to expand to show the whole process – from fisher right through to fork. In a similar vein, the Internet also offers a way to connect fishers to consumers who live far away. This connection offers a human dimension and the potential for interaction between those providing the food and those eating it. Food provenance is becoming increasingly important for consumers and fishers who wish to demonstrate the sustainability of their practices. These interactions could be created through physical events such as seafood tastings with celebrity chefs and scientists. “What about dine-in theatres, with live streaming?” one attendee added. Participants also noted that the opportunity to connect fishers to professionals, managers, scientists, and NGOs for example, to promote discussion and understanding would only be a good thing!
Facilitated discussion participants noted that not everyone has access to the Internet, and if they do, that connection may not be good enough to use some applications. One solution may be to ensure there are shared community events where people can attend an online event at one location that has a reliable Internet connection. But the importance of a good connection at the receivers end can be paramount. Fish Eye Project’s live dives, for example, would not work so well where Internet is poor. In terms of collaborative learning partnerships between inland and coastal communities, poor internet on either end presents challenges. “Can’t we just combine the Internet with more traditional methods?” one attendee asked. Suggestions focused around using the postal system, sending ‘love-letters’ to the ocean (“the sounds you make relax me”), or ‘guilty-letters’ – an everyday action that someone did that contributes towards poor ocean health (“I threw a can into to estuary”), which can be put online, and linked with marine science and/or conservation actions, both inland and on the coast.
A number of attendees also noted that there are ways to boost Internet signals such as using cell phone data – an approach that can work just as well, if not better, than the average Internet connection in some remote areas.
Regardless of these barriers, facilitated discussion attendees agreed that online tools for ocean science communication are an essential contributor towards improving ocean literacy in Canada and around the world. The ideas and contributions of participants at OceansOnline will go towards a growing list of ocean education resources from CaNOE’s Education and Outreach Working Group. CaNOE members are invited to join the Education and Outreach Working Group, as well as several others that you can find on our website.
We would like to thank all of the attendees of this facilitated discussion. We hope it was as useful – and as inspirational – to you as it was to us.
Sam is a marine conservation biologist/ecologist and marine science communicator. When she is not talking to people about the ocean, its inhabitants, or its importance to us, she can be found at Memorial University of Newfoundland where she is doing a PhD. Her research focuses on population connectivity, dispersal, and metapopulations, and their application to marine protected area networks, right here in Canada. Twitter: @hobosci
Kat is a marine biologist and science communicator who is just completed the Science Communication graduate program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Her research project focused on how immersive social media campaigns can contribute as effective online science communication tools, especially for improving ocean literacy in inland populations. Kat has been studying and working in aquatic and ocean conservation over the last decade and now works as a communications specialist at Laurentian University. Twitter: @katmidds