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Response to US Ocean Justice Strategy

Republished from Leah Huff, Yoshitaka Ota, and Hekia Bodwitch

On June 8, 2023, the U.S. federal government issued a call for public comment to inform the development of an “Ocean Justice Strategy.” The aim of the federal government’s Ocean Justice Strategy is to “propose equitable and just practices to advance safety, health, and prosperity for communities residing near the ocean, the coasts, and the Great Lakes and for the whole country, now and for future generations.” 

This call aligned with other efforts the Biden administration has advanced to achieve environmental and climate justice efforts related to the ocean, including fostering renewable energy development, developing an ocean climate action plan, and the deployment of marine protected areas (MPAs). 

Six members of the Ocean Nexus research consortium submitted a response. In doing so, we drew on our experience exploring ocean justice related through multiple lenses, including: 

  • Indigenous rights and decolonization – Dr. Hekia Bodwitch (Ocean Nexus Research Fellow at Dalhousie University)

  • Environmental impact assessments and just transitions of offshore energy development – Dr. Leah Fusco (Ocean Nexus Research Fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland)

  • Labour, financialization, supply chain policy, and corporate responsibility in seafood production – Dr. Christine Knott (Ocean Nexus Research Associate at San Diego State University)

  • Environmental justice and climate adaptation – Dr. Brian O’Neill (Ocean Nexus Research Fellow based at Arizona State University)

  • Ocean policy, advocacy, and equity – Dr. Yoshi Ota (Ocean Nexus Director at the University of Washington)

  • Renewable energy production and just transitions – Dr. Matthew J. Schneider (Ocean Nexus Visiting Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke)

Per the request for input, we answered questions focused on the definition of ocean justice, barriers to its implementation, future opportunities to implement social justice in our oceans, gaps in knowledge, and finally, tools and practices that can move ocean justice forward. Our central argument was that ocean justice should be action-oriented in order to address the linked social and environmental exploitation resulting from social aspects of ocean and coastal management and conservation. Often, the approach to justice is descriptive and thus shallow and without impact, tending to simply focus on documenting extant, and often long-standing, socio-spatial inequalities.

A focus on justice necessitates an account of historical harms that have affected ocean resource users and coastal communities, as well as future risks. It is also necessary to identify the cultural and institutional mechanisms that reproduce and exacerbate these inequalities. Thus, it is necessary to design and implement actions in a concrete manner through revisions to policy, legislation, and resource allocation. Such a position is consistent with the leading scholarship on environmental justice across the fields of environmental sociology, anthropology, maritime social research, ecological economics, law, as well as in the interdisciplinary ocean scholarship. 

In our comment, we explained that achieving ocean justice and equity requires dismantling systemic social inequities through ocean governance. We defined ocean justice as “the action of (1) identifying processes of marginalization to establish responsibility of who causes and perpetuates human and natural exploitative processes and their associated harms, (2) demanding that those responsible are held accountable through formal (legal) and informal (public dialogues) ways, and (3) addressing systemic intersectional climate injustices (race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability) in marine environments and ocean governance.” It requires attention to historical and ongoing injustices that have shaped today’s society, including climate injustices, environmental racism, and colonialism. 

We also noted that the US faces certain barriers to achieving ocean justice, including the increasing number of social and environmental risks negatively impacting the well-being of marine and coastal communities. Despite existing policies and planning processes that offer communities opportunities to participate in decision making processes (like impact assessments), many communities lack the capacity to fully participate in meaningful ways. A lack of engagement from the public, researchers, practitioners, and decision-makers perpetuates the systems that produce inequities.

Opportunities to address these challenges include prioritizing community well-being, allocating resources for capacity building, and shifting the organizational culture of ocean governance. 

Our public comment is in the Ocean Justice Strategy Public Comments Archive, available here



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