Knowledge Crosses Oceans at the Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress

Knowledge Crosses Oceans at the Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress

I traveled to the port city of Marseille, France, to attend the Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC3), expecting to be immersed for several days in formulating policy recommendations that would have little practical impact on marine management. Ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and plummeting fish stocks were all familiar topics from my years working in Hawai‘i with a climate change research program, and I anticipated spending hours rehashing these issues with conservation professionals who daily fight an uphill battle, rather than forging meaningful solutions.  On all counts, I could not have been more wrong.

My journey to IMPAC3 began months before I set foot in Marseille when I applied to work with the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) as part of the International Organizations and Conferences class at Yale F&ES. I was looking for a way to stay connected with environmental policy developments in Hawai‘i and on other islands as I shivered through my first semester of graduate school in New Haven. I knew of GLISPA’s work with leaders in Hawai‘i on sustainability initiatives, but was unaware of their global reach.  GLISPA is a partnership of all islands, regardless of their size or political status, with the mission to inspire leadership and catalyze commitments for biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

With the other GLISPA fellows—Yale F&ES master’s students Leah Meth and Sam Teicher—and delegates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the international conservation organization Rare, I helped to coordinate a knowledge exchange at IMPAC3 around island “bright spots” to showcase successful conservation initiatives.  The session introduced me to an innovative method for facilitation—the World Café—which allows participants to rotate among small, theme-based groups thus efficiently exchanging ideas.

Each group had a “bright spot seed,” someone who has been involved in a successful project for marine conservation or sustainable livelihoods.  Participants chose a theme with relevance to their work and joined others at a round table, as if chatting over coffee in a café.  First, the bright spot seed briefly explained the initiative, how it had been successful, and the essential elements to its success.

In one group, for example, I learned about marine spatial planning in St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean that brought together stakeholders to plan the future of their coastal waters.  The project, funded by The Nature Conservancy, came at a critical time for St. Kitts and Nevis. Their costal fisheries had declined sharply in recent years, strong storms and boat anchoring had severely damaged coral reefs, and conflicts between various users of near-shore waters prevented cooperation. The islands had also virtually lost a culturally important species—the queen conch—due to over harvesting. By coming together for a visioning exercise, the community was able to resolve conflicts and designate “no-take” areas for biodiversity protection.  The bright spot? Queen conch returned to their nearshore waters.  The recovery of queen conch so deeply affected the people involved, that it inspired a local marine area manager to write a poem and recite it at a recent marine planning conference.

Then came the questions.  The other participants, all with experience in managing or supporting marine protected areas, wanted to know how they had mapped the various activities taking place in the costal waters. And, what was their budget and timeline?  A discussion among participants followed about how they could facilitate similar processes in Fiji, Micronesia, or elsewhere in the Caribbean. By sharing successes, rather than focusing on the problem, delegates took away concrete ideas and strategies to implement in furthering their work.

In accordance with the World Café facilitation style, delegates were asked at several points to rotate to a different group.  As participants discussed several different bright spots, they began to recognize themes in the elements that had made the marine biodiversity initiatives successful. These observations coalesced into several conclusions at the end of the session, including, for instance, the importance of involving key influential people who can champion the cause of protecting marine areas.

The exchange of knowledge among islands is now more critical than ever.    In a changing climate, islands need to cope with rising seas, more violent and potentially more frequent storms, as well as conditions that threaten marine ecosystems, fisheries, and traditional methods for growing food.  Further, islands that are small in size and population have particularly limited resources and technical capacity.  Due to the speed of innovation and conditions that change by the day, they need the sort of information that is not available through a Google search. In this uncertain future, the ability to share successes and best practices in governance, adaptation finance, and ecosystem management could play a key role in helping them to adapt.  At IMPAC3 I participated in one hopeful example of islands joining in a process to learn, share, and inspire action.