Spotlighting Ocean Defenders and the responsibilities of marine conservation organisations

By Taryn Pereira

Watch the webinar recording here.

The Hub continues to explore, together with the United Nations and civil society and researchers’ networks how to bring greater visibility to the challenges faced by ocean defenders globally and the need to recognise and protect them as environmental human rights defenders (see also here). 

On 29 November 2023, Hub early-career researcher Taryn Pereira (Rhodes University, South Africa), UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd and other experts participated in the webinar ‘A Global Spotlight on Ocean Defenders’ to call attention to the ongoing struggles and efforts of ocean defenders globally.  The webinar sough to explore potential actions that allied organisations and other institutions might take to support and protect ocean defenders. This blog post reflects on the key points raised at the webinar, and the ongoing work that the Hub is conducting on these issues.


The webinar was co-hosted by the Ocean Defenders Project, and the Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy of the IUCN, with which the Hub has been collaborating for a couple of years. 

Hub researcher Taryn Pereira has been a collaborator of the Ocean Defenders Project since 2022, and has contributed a case study about ocean defending small scale fishers in South Africa.  

Small-scale fishers and their supporters celebrate upon receiving the news that Shell’s permit to conduct a seismic survey on the Wild Coast had been set aside by the Makhanda High Court, in September 2022. Photo: Taryn Pereira
Key messages from the webinar 

In his opening remarks for the webinar, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd highlighted that ocean defenders are on the frontlines of protecting the oceans. He went on to say that ocean defenders, like other environmental human rights defenders, are subject to serious threats, of intimidation, harassment, criminalisation and even violence and murder; and that ocean defenders are heroes for the planet, whom we should respect and protect.  

Ocean Defenders project co-lead Nathan Bennett noted that while there was, thankfully, increasing research, advocacy and support for environmental human rights defenders globally over the past decade, this has tended to focus on terrestrial environmental defenders, and there has been a big gap regarding defenders of marine and coastal environments. He highlighted the ‘Blue Acceleration’ occurring in Peopled Seas (Jouffray et al., 2020) across all sectors of the Ocean Economy. Blue growth, when carried out unchecked and not properly managed, produces social injustices and human rights violations (Bennett et al, 2021). Ocean defenders include coastal communities, local citizen groups, small scale fishers, indigenous people, women and youth, who are actively opposing and defending against threats to their environments, territories and rights. Methods used by ocean defenders include creating social networks for collective action; researching, documenting, monitoring and raising awareness of issues; advocating for policy changes and engaging in legal battles (Bennett et al 2023).  Ocean defenders, like other environmental human rights defenders, face serious threats – and these are often perpetrated by private companies and states.  

Logo of the Ocean Defenders Project:

Taryn shared a case study entitled ‘Ocean defending small scale fishers in South Africa say NO! to seismic surveys’, in which she highlighted the testimonies of small-scale fishers and other ocean defenders in the affidavits that were prepared for the court cases against Shell’s seismic survey on the Wild Coast and Searcher’s seismic survey on the West Coast. She conveyed an important message from small-scale fishers to conservation organisations: as ocean defenders, small scale fishers should be natural allies for marine conservation community. But unfortunately SSF often find themselves the intense targets of top down conservation efforts, with their livelihoods heavily regulated and criminalised. Small scale fishers say – why do we not see scientists standing with us and speaking out more publicly about oil and gas, deep sea and coastal mining, or differentiating between the impacts of industrial and small scale fishing? A clear message and invitation for the conservation community is to find ways of being in solidarity with ocean defenders, even if that means taking a public stand on politically sensitive issues, and to stand with small sale fishers and other ocean defenders to protect both the oceans and the communities who live in closest relationship with the oceans.  

There were other case studies, including from: 

  • The Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, where coastal women who have been displaced from the coast and sea by a coal plant have responded creatively through an embroidery project and related advocacy; 
  • the indigenous Mapuche Peoples of Los Lagos, Chile shared their efforts to safeguard their territories and communities from the impacts of the salmon aquaculture industry; 
  • and from the World Forum of Fisher People sharing the resolutions from the World Conference of Ocean People. 
Different roles in supporting ocean defenders 

The webinar was intended as a space to raise awareness of  and give voice to ocean defenders, and also to invite others to consider how they might better support ocean defenders. Rocio Lopez de la Lama (Ocean Defenders Project co-lead) and Philippe Le Billon (from the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia), spoke about the distinct roles and responsibilities of states, companies, civil society, academics, media and funders, and highlighted the research solidarity role that the One Ocean Hub, particularly the Coastal Justice Network, has played with ocean defenders.  

Rocio highlighted, in particular, the following responsibilities for marine conservation organisations in relation to ocean defenders: 

  1. Actively integrate coastal communities in decision making processes 
  1. See ocean defenders as allies and strategically support their perspectives and ways of living (particularly in relation to supporting small scale fishers to carry out their livelihoods in the ocean) 
  1. Recognise and support indigenous and traditional community-led conservation practices 
  1. Grant ocean defenders visibility and provide public support for their struggles 
  1. Build and support networks and coalitions of ocean defenders 

A recording of this webinar is available here.  

Ongoing Hub research 

Taryn recently published an academic article on the challenges and opportunities for researchers to work in solidarity with small-scale fishers and ocean defenders, and continues to conduct research on these themes. Looking ahead, ocean defenders in South Africa are optimistic about the opportunity to build stronger international networks with ocean defenders around the world, and the One Ocean Hub and the Coastal Justice Network intend to continue to play a role in advocating for and supporting ocean defenders, including as part of ongoing international collaborations on the human rights of small-scale fishers, the human rights of women and children


Bennett, N. J., Le Billon, P., Belhabib, D., & Satizábal, P. (2022). Local marine stewardship and ocean defenders. NPJ Ocean Sustainability, 1(1), 3. 

Bennett, N. J., Blythe, J., White, C. S., & Campero, C. (2021). Blue growth and blue justice: Ten risks and solutions for the ocean economy. Marine Policy, 125, 104387. 

Jouffray, J. B., Blasiak, R., Norström, A. V., Österblom, H., & Nyström, M. (2020). The blue acceleration: the trajectory of human expansion into the ocean. One Earth, 2(1), 43-54.