Mainstreaming ocean art and culture in ocean management

Senia Febrica

This year is the third year running that the One Ocean Hub has been the United Nations (UN) Friends of the World Ocean Day. On 7th  June 2022, the Hub organised the webinar titled “Blue Heritage: The Role of Ocean Art and Culture in Ocean Science and Management”  as part of our series of events for the UN World Oceans Day. This blogpost summarises the key messages that emerged from the event, in relation to: the importance of cultural connections to the ocean; the innovative potential of arts-based ocean research approaches; the linkages with customary laws of indigenous peoples and small-scale fisheries; and the relevance of cultural heritage, art and customary laws for ocean governance and ocean science.

Cultural connections to the ocean

More attention needs to be given to the human-cultural dimension of the ocean and its use. Recognising the role of ocean cultures and heritage in contributing to sustainable ocean governance. Professor Rose Boswell (Nelson Mandela University) reminded us about the enduring presence of human connections, human storytelling and relations to the sea that are often forgotten in discussion surrounding ocean governance at local, national, and international levels. She highlighted the unique contributions of the Palgrave Handbook of Blue Heritage  to sustainable ocean management, by analysing discourses about national priorities in Global South with regard to ocean management strategies and contemporary conceptualisation of blue heritage. The Handbook of Blue Heritage highlights that while nature is inherently valuable, humans hold diverse, intrinsic and cultural connections with the ocean and coasts. The book represents a novel interdisciplinary collaboration between One Ocean Hub and global researchers, involving more than 25 authors worldwide, including scholars from Australia, United States, Seychelles and India. It is edited by Professor Rosabelle Boswell, Nelson Mandela University (South Africa), Dr David O’Kane (Max Planck Institute, Germany) and Professor Jeremy Hills, University of South Pacific (Fiji).

The event also provided an opportunity to discuss key messages from Between Worlds, Professor Boswell’s third poetry anthology which articulates the nuances of human relations with the sea and the imagined responses of both animate and inanimate marine worlds.   Mpume Mthombeni, an award-winning performer, storyteller and theatre-maker from Umlazi, Durban and the co-founder of Empatheatre, read two poems titled ‘Plastics’ and ‘The tide came’ from Between Worlds.  Professor Boswell highlighted that due to ‘climate crisis and declining ocean health, humans are increasingly in a liminal space between this world and imaginary, alien worlds to come’ (Boswell, 2022). Drawing from her ethnographic writing, ‘the poems by Professor Boswell raise the problems posed by climate change by ‘foregrounding the centrality, beauty, and significance of the ocean, and of marine life to humanity’ (Boswell, 2022).

Innovative arts-based approaches

As part of the event, panellists discussed the role of arts and innovative methodologies for ocean science and policy.

Dr Kira Erwin (Durban University of Technology, South Africa) drew attention to the success of the Empatheatre playLalela uLwandle” (Listen to the Sea) in shaping plural governance discussions in South Africa. Lalela uLwandle is a research-based theatre performance and public dialogue event that  open discussion about just and equitable processes to manage and conserve the ocean that are inclusive of diverse forms of knowledge. Dr Erwin explained how decision-making process dominated by discourses on economy and science and as a consequence blue heritage and culture are not taken seriously. Empatheatre research in Kaw-Zulu-Natal about what do people feel about the ocean and how they envision their relations in the future with ocean has developed creative narrative that lead to the production of Lalela Ulwandle that tells intergenerational stories about human relations with the ocean, allows recognition of traditional belief systems, and enables conversation among different stakeholders that recognise power inequality.

On the creative praxis in ocean management and the role of culture in fisher-folk personhood and power in Ghana, Dr Georgina Oduro and Dr John Ansah (University of Cape Coast, Ghana) joint presentation brought to light the importance of Tuesday no-fishing Day in Ghana, a custom anchored in the belief that the sea is a supernatural being and requires a day to rest, in Ghana fisheries management. Although the no-fishing day idea is rooted in custom, there are multiple benefits derived from this customs to sustainable livelihood, economic and environment. Recent scholarly works have identified that customary laws restricting fishing on Tuesdays are still adhered to in many fishing communities in Ghana, but that this has also been disrupted across a number of fishing communities owing to some politico-legal stressors and contemporary development demands. Dr Oduro and Dr Ansah emphasised the need of advancing the ‘no-fishing day custom’ by involving fisherfolks.

Dr Eric Otchere’s (University of Cape Coast, Ghana) presentation shed new light on how fisherfolks in Ghana have used music to create space and navigate within that space to achieve the most in advancing their livelihoods and connections to the ocean. In studying intangible ocean heritage, Dr Otchere stressed the important of studying fisherfolks’ songs because of their long history, largely under-researched area, unique stylistic features, connections to current debates, and threat to its extinction.

Communicating human inherent bonds with the sea that are often overlooked in conventional approaches to marine science and governance is of central concern to the One Ocean Hub (McDonald, 27 January 2021). Recognising the ocean’s intangible heritage and role of arts in contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Hub has initiated the ‘Deep Emotional Engagement Programme (DEEP) Fund’ to promote creative practices that share emotional connections with the sea (McDonald, 27 January 2021). Few examples of the projects supported in the first round of the Hub’s DEEP Fund include the Keiskamma Art Project in South Africa; Netai en Namou Toc [Stories of Mother Ocean] in Vanuatu; and Cocooned in Harmony in Ghana. Communicating human inherent bonds with the sea that are often overlooked in conventional approaches to marine science and governance is of central concern to the One Ocean Hub (McDonald, 27 January 2021).

Paul Antion explained the work of Blue Ventures in supporting coastal communities in advancing sustainable fisheries and restoring ocean life. He introduced his young colleague’s role in amplifying the voices and talent of the local communities engaged in marine resources management. Mr Symphorien Nihala Maniry Soa, an Outreach Media Technician of Blue Ventures in the Southwest of Madagascar, spoke on his own community’s behalf as an indigenous Vezo, creator, and leader. Symphorien explained that Vezo means to paddle. He described the close connection between his community and the ocean and how people in his communities have been relying on fishing livelihoods for many generations. Symphorien brought to our attention the important role of youth in sharing stories about their connection to the ocean through theatre, songs, and other relatable forms of arts as their ancestors once did through more traditional means of communication. He described how youth in his community have been involved in recording songs about sea turtles, seaweed farming, and other pertinent topics. They are also actively advocating for sustainable marine resource management and conservation.

Linkages with Indigenous peoples’ and other small-scale fishers’ customary laws

In response to presentation made by panellists, reflecting on the linkages between cultural heritage and customary laws, Dr Bolanle Erinosho (University of Cape Coast, Ghana) pointed out that fisheries in Ghana is a very gendered profession where the actual harvest is primarily done by man. Women are involved in pre-and post-harvest activities including smoking, processing, and marketing. The very strict gender division in fisheries has implications on fisheries governance in Ghana. Women small-scale fishers are often marginalised from decision making process in fisheries sector.  Dr Erinosho further noted that although theoretically, traditional customary law is part of the national law in former British colonies, such as Ghana, however, in practice priority still is given to state made law to the detriment of the customary law. According to Dr Erinosho the traditional communities in Ghana still observe this traditional customary laws. The traditional law, however, is being diluted by state law that focused on centralised management system led by government department.

Dr David Wilson (University of Strathclyde) echoed Dr Erinosho’s concern regarding the lack of recognition given to traditional customary law. Dr Wilson shed light on the role of colonisation in disrupting local ecological ‘traditional’ knowledge. He stressed that colonisation created hierarchies of knowledge in which dominant ‘scientific’ knowledge has gained more attention and traction than local ecological ‘traditional’ knowledge, including through the categorisation of knowledge as ‘scientific’ or ‘traditional’. He stressed the need to reverse this trend and provide legal recognition to customary law, local and community traditional knowledge / science, and fishers’ perspectives in ocean management.

Adding to the points made by Dr Erinosho and Dr Wilson on customary law and traditional knowledge, Ms Anthea Christoffels-Du Plessis (Nelson Mandela University), explained that in South Africa the existing fisheries legislative schemes are not centred on recognising traditional knowledge and their values. Legislation such as the Marine Living Resources Act, does not give substantive recognition to traditional knowledge. Thus contributing to the struggle for recognition and protection of the rights of (customary) traditional small-scale fishers.

One Ocean Hub is working with our partners to enable the proper recognition and integration of customary law into fisheries law and greater ocean management.

Implications for ocean governance, policy and science

Mr Eden Charles, Faculty of Law, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago and chair of the Hub’s Advisory Board, who chaired the event, echoed the importance of ocean culture and heritage in international negotiations affecting the way we manage and conserve our ocean. Mr Eden called upon decision makers to listen to the voice of the local community and traditional knowledge holders if they want to comply withcarry out obligations stipulated in international agreements such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Dr Chelsea Koch noted the important of the intersection of art, ocean culture and heritage to achieve one of the goals of Ocean Decade ‘An inspiring and engaging ocean where society understands and values the ocean in relation to human wellbeing and sustainable development’. Dr Koch mentioned that one of the flagship programmes of the Ocean Decade is cultural framework programme that recognise indigenous knowledge as an important knowledge sources needed to transform ocean sciences and conservation and encourage support for action.


The One Ocean Hub’s Customary Laws of the Coast and Sea Research Group are currently organising a series of five workshops on customary laws and (in)tangible heritage within ocean governance as part of the One Ocean Hub’s programme for International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA) between May and November 2022. These workshops are part of a series of initiatives to support the protection of human rights in the context of the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines). The first workshop that was held in May 2022 focused on the current developments and recent questions surrounding customary laws and tangible/intangible heritage within ocean governance processes (particularly within Strategic Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Assessments, Marine Protected Areas, and Marine Spatial Planning). The Customary Laws workshops are open to everyone, please contact Dr Senia Febrica if you like to participate.  The Research Group is also planning to develop a policy brief on ocean culture: what it means for ocean science’.

As livelihoods of millions depend on healthy and sustainable oceans, it is crucial to highlight the important of intangible cultural heritage of the sea when we make decisions about our ocean.  (Kira Erwin, 2 April 2020; McDonald, 27 January 2021). The Hub’s Deep Emotional Engagement Programme for this purpose, to support community-based art projects in the One Ocean Hub partner countries and give rise to voices of groups that are often underrepresented in conventional approaches to marine science and management. Hub researchers are also reflecting on the importance of arts and culture for the protection of human rights (see here)

The Blue Heritage webinar brought together 83 researchers and representatives of non-governmental organisation and international organisation. 

See the recording of the event here.