By Patrick Wells, High School Biology Teacher and Memorial University Ph.D. student
The NMEA Annual Conference was in a word, incredible. The hosts of the conference, SCMEA, are commended for organizing and executing a world-class event. From the moment I arrived, I felt welcome, included, and accepted in the NMEA community. For this blog post, I would like to hit a few conference highlights but will state from the outset; this convention included too much information to report in one post. I will write a follow-up blog specifically on the concept of ocean literacy to detail how NMEA is seeking to address this shared issue and measure it globally. Now, on to some high lights from NMEA 2017.
The NMEA Annual Conference took place at the Charleston Marriot Hotel, in South Carolina. The conference space was hosted by a dedicated group of volunteers who were energetic and well organized; I was pleasantly surprised their ranks included many young NMEA members. The week started on Sunday evening with a social that greeted new comers in a casual, relaxed space. Attendees met old friends and others, like me, formed new bonds with people they may have worked with on line (such as members of the Ocean Literacy Committee). The mixer was a friendly conference kick-off and delivered a palpable sense of community; this did not change throughout the conference. From the outset, many members of NMEA seemed to be components of a positive synergetic organization, focused on the educational issues related to the oceans (and the Great Lakes too!).
Monday morning saw the commencement of the formal presentations, poster session, and exhibits. There was over whelming amount of things to take in! A systematic approach over three days allowed me, and the other 300 attendees, to absorb the information and collect resources. I focused on presentations and meetings related to ocean literacy (OL), marine lessons for students, and any shark presentations (to help support a blue shark project I am involved with in NL). For more details on the presentations and the “goings on” download the conference program using this link.
The plenary sessions were the highlights of the day and acted as an amalgam of science with human culture. These sessions featured important issues such as traditional knowledge, coastal cultural connections, land use, and ocean change impacts on the Gullah Geechee. The plenary sessions indeed supported the theme of the conference “Seas of change: Lowcountry lessons in resiliency.”
Two plenary sessions featured speakers from the Gullah Geechee nation. The Gullah Geechee, a UN recognized nation within the United States, reside in the coastal islands and Lowcountry from the North Carolina to northern Florida (visit https://gullahgeecheenation.com/ for more details). Presenters, Ron Daise, Natalie Daise and Queen Quet, introduced conference attendees to Gullah Geechee language and traditions. With prose, words, and song, these presenters demonstrated a passion for their culture and also, a detectable apprehension towards the changing ocean. Similar to many coastal civilizations of the world, many aspects of the Gullah Geechee culture connect to the sea. Rising sea levels will likely create havoc for the Gullah Geechee, a plight shared by many near-ocean cultures of the planet. Watch this video for an introduction to the Gullah Geechee:
The plenary session on Resiliency, Communities, and Land Use featured a panel of experts from Sea Grant SC (Richard DeVoe) and two scientists well versed in the ecological problems facing the Lowcountry of South Carolina (Dr. Liz Fry and Dr. Denise Sanger). Their frank scientific discussion included a forecast Lowcountry changes which will produce a new human reality. The specific examples of the sessions I will review are the impact rising sea levels on the vast Lowcountry coastal marsh systems and the effects of “King Tides” and flooding in the iconic city of Charleston.
A King Tide is a local term for a spring tide (visit this site: http://www.charleston-sc.gov/index.aspx?NID=1577) and these tides literally put water in the streets of Charleston. Presently, the city suffers through 3-4 King Tides per year. However, by 2045 over 180 king tides per year are predicted for Charleston. Compounding the issues related to King Tides is the flooding created by storm run-off. This results from a combination of infilling of tidal creeks and upstream developments and produces a more rapid spate of rainwater and flooding (this South Carolina Sea Grant publication thoroughly reviews the details). The human desire to live close to the ocean is impacting its ability to self-regulate. Solutions such as building retaining walls to keep the ocean out or dikes to guide runoff will not solve this problem. The 2005 experience of Katrina in Louisiana, tells us that water will overcome human obstacles and the recovery will be costly. Further, walling off the ocean, to block its progression, will create problems for many nonhuman life forms of the Carolinas.
The Lowcountry marshes of the Carolina coast support an immense biodiversity. This vast ecosystem is a vital component of the Atlantic Ocean Biome, but it requires a tidal connection. The panel’s message projected a bleak future for the marshes as the tides of the rising seas move in. Without question, a new balance must form. Humans can relocate. However, the immobile marshes, vital to so many species, have an uncertain future. Humanity’s fate is tied to that of ecosystems, and the panel discussed the need to support nature’s response to the increase in sea levels. Proper science education is required to help citizens appreciate the problem; an uneducated public will not respond well to mitigating actions needed to adapt to the rising seas. Increasing Ocean Literacy (OL) is a required world wide as a component of an efficient human response or adaptation to our changing oceans.
During the conference, I had the opportunity to participate in the Ocean Literacy Group meeting and attended two OL research presentations. Making OL measurable is an important component of determining the need and impact of any educational program. NMEA has long recognized this and Craig Strang, Géraldine Fauville, and Mac Cannady are leading the work on the international OL instrument (a test used to measure OL). To date, the OL instrument has progressed through development, modifications, and is currently in the third round field-testing on 15-16 years olds of several nations (including Canada). CaNOE has helped supply sample test results, but we pale in comparison to the efforts of teachers in Taiwan (coordinated by Chai-Dia ‘Ray’ Yen). At the present, the testing data collected is being used to make the international OL test a valid and reliable measure of OL principles and concepts. The work completed to date is impressive. Craig, Géraldine, and Mac have overseen a significant contribution to world wide OL and almost have a complete product. I am personally grateful as I hope to use this test to examine students, determine their areas of weakness and implement lessons to address their OL deficits. Future strategic developments for OL will be research on educators and ongoing evaluation of OL teaching resources. This will be a daunting but vital task. To be effective, marine educators must use good instructional strategies and field tested resources to foster a deeper appreciation our oceans.
The NMEA 2017 Annual Conference was many things to me, but I would sum it up as inspirational. I remain affected by the plight of the Gullah Geechee and impressed by the frenetic work of ocean educators as they explore and document our unknown and mysterious seas. The more I reflect, the more I realize the world wide growth of OL is vital to our oceans; to change the tide of ocean abuse due to ignorance. As ocean educators we have a lot of work to do. Organization and collaboration are important aspects our efforts. Happily, many of the members of NMEA grasp this concept and are great supporters of their fellow ocean educators.
I would like to thank CaNOE, Holy Spirit High School, The Conservation Corps, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association for their support. My presentation at NMEA 2017 would not have been possible without their encouragement and support.
As a fisher, guide, and teacher of over 25 years, Patrick Wells represents a wide variety of perspectives about our oceans. He has a significant amount formal and informal instruction experience focused on activity-based learning in aquatic habitats. Patrick has a genuine concern for our changing ocean and a strong desire to improve citizen ocean literacy. He is interested in the study of ocean literacy, and as part of a local research project, he is encouraging teachers to adopt a “sustainability stance” towards our oceans. In the context of the literacy groups of NMEA and CaNOE, Patrick has developed a keen interest in measuring ocean literacy. It is his personal goal to find or develop teacher resources that enable teachers to increase the ocean literacy of their students and grow a grassroots movement within teacher associations towards the 7 principles of Ocean Literacy.