A diverse group of the world's experts in marine conservation, including an Auckland University of Technology researcher, have called for a Hippocratic Oath for ocean conservation - not unlike the pledge physicians take to uphold specific ethical standards when practicing medicine.
They say a code of conduct for marine conservation would help prevent human rights violations that might occur during conservation, and promote fair, socially responsible decision-making when planning and carrying out actions to protect the ocean.
Their appeal, just published in scientific journal Marine Policy, comes as global marine conservation is quickly ramping up to meet targets to protect 10 per cent of the planet's oceans by 2020.
Science reporter Jamie Morton discussed the call with the paper's lead author Dr Nathan Bennett, of the University of British Columbia and University of Washington, and Dr Rebecca Jarvis, a postdoctoral research fellow at AUT and an honorary research fellow at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science.

There are goals to protect 10 per cent of the oceans by 2020. Is achieving this realistic?

Dr Rebecca Jarvis (RJ):

The UN Sustainable Development Goals and international Aichi Biodiversity Targets have been agreed to protect the future of our oceans.

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Marine conservation actions, promoted to conserve natural values and support human wellbeing, are rapidly increasing to meet global targets.

At the current rate of protection, we might well protect 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020 or the more recent goal of 30 per cent coverage, as suggested by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

From a regulatory standpoint, could you compare the current state of ocean conservation and management to the Wild West?
Dr Nathan Bennett (NB): The oceans are a busy place.

Organisations and governments are rushing in for development reasons, for geopolitical reasons and to achieve conservation goals.

In the race to achieve marine conservation targets, there is a risk that those promoting conservation forget their manners.

In other words, they might forget to follow due process, fail to consider indigenous people's rights, or ignore the livelihoods of local small-scale fishermen and women.

Marine conservation can put those who are already the most vulnerable more at risk, or marginalise those who depend on the oceans for jobs, subsistence and survival.

When local people are excluded from the marine environment they depend on for food, livelihoods and wellbeing, this can understandably lead to resentment opposition.

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A group of you have called for a Hippocratic Oath for ocean conservation, and called for a code of conduct. What's the thinking behind this and why is it needed?
NB: It is not just about how much area we protect, but about how we undertake conservation that will lead to success.

At this point, there is currently no broadly applicable and comprehensive set of ethical standards for how marine conservation should be done.

In this paper, a group of experts from around the world came together to argue that we need a solid social foundation to promote fair governance and transparent decision-making.

Doctors, lawyers and teachers all have a code of conduct to ensure fair and ethical practice.

Why does conservation not have a Hypocratic Oath?

This code of conduct puts social justice, accountability, and good governance at the front and centre of these processes to ensure marine conservation is both socially responsible and environmentally effective.

If we can't offer the protection that's needed, what do we stand to lose?
RJ: All life on earth depends on a healthy ocean.

Yet the world's oceans are in trouble - marine biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and climate change threaten the future of our marine environment and the lives of millions of local people who rely on the oceans for food, health, and wellbeing.

Effective protection will not only allow us to achieve our conservation goals, but also protect the marine ecosystems that are fundamental for securing the wellbeing of coastal communities and universal human rights.

We urgently need a new conservation ethic that will help us achieve a truly sustainable and socially-responsible approach to ocean conservation.

In some parts of the world, we've also seen examples of what's called ocean grabbing. Can you elaborate on what this means?
NB: Ocean grabbing is a term that refers to the dispossession of marine resources and areas of the ocean from small-scale fishers, indigenous peoples and coastal communities.

This can occur as a result of ocean development or marine conservation.

But, ocean grabbing can be avoided.

Dr Nathan Bennett, of the University of British Columbia and University of Washington, is calling for a code of conduct for marine conservation. Photo / Supplied
Dr Nathan Bennett, of the University of British Columbia and University of Washington, is calling for a code of conduct for marine conservation. Photo / Supplied

By embedding considerations of rights, tenure and access into marine conservation planning processes, we can improve the effectiveness of conservation while simultaneously achieving social and environmental goals.

Implementing a code of conduct will promote transparency and inclusivity in conservation policy and decision-making.

With the exception of the planned Kermadec sanctuary, less than one per cent of New Zealand's 4.4 million sq km marine estate - potentially home to another 50,000 species yet to be found - is covered by no-take reserves. Do you see a need for our country to show leadership here?
RJ: What we need is a new way forward for conservation around the world. New Zealand can definitely show leadership here.

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary was announced at an international meeting without consultation with Maori or consideration of their pre-existing rights.

As a result, the sanctuary has now been put on hold after negotiations between Maori and the Crown have failed to reach compromise.

A code of conduct can help to avoid these types of tricky situations in marine conservation.

Dr Rebecca Jarvis. Photo / Supplied
Dr Rebecca Jarvis. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand must show leadership in developing transparent governance and decision-making processes if we are to achieve long-term sustainability and effective marine conservation.

Marine protected areas can be no-take reserves or ones that allow some fishing or commercial activity. Do you feel all MPAs should be exclusively no-take zones or should regulators be flexible?
RJ: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

No-take reserves are one tool in a much bigger toolbox for marine conservation.

The code of conduct emphasises how we need a different way of thinking about conservation to make sure we select the right tools for the job in different places.

We know that the future of our oceans depends on the support and buy-in of local communities who depend upon the marine environment.

By working with small-scale fishers, we can improve the long-term effectiveness of marine conservation while protecting the livelihoods of those who rely on the ocean for food, health, and wellbeing.

Lastly, what do you believe it will take to make your recommendations a reality?
NB: This is an important first step in a much longer process.

We are calling for the development and mainstreaming of a code of conduct for marine conservation.

This will require champions for the cause and broad support across the conservation community.

The conservation funding community also has a role to play here.

The authors on this paper will be discussing the best way forward at upcoming international meetings, including the United Nations Oceans Conference in June and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's International Marine Protected Areas Congress in September.

Mainstreaming the code of conduct must be our priority if we are to achieve effective long-term protection of the marine environment while respecting human rights and the dignity of local people.


Dr Nathan Bennett is a Liber Ero and Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia and the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. He is a conservation social scientist and human-environment geographer whose research focuses on marine conservation, small-scale fisheries, and ocean governance. Dr Rebecca Jarvis is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Auckland University of Technology and an Honorary Research Fellow at Sydney Institute of Marine Science. She has more than 10 years' experience working across academia and conservation NGOs from the tropics to the poles, and is passionate about the human dimensions of effective and inclusive conservation.