An ocean without history – the importance of underwater cultural heritage

Healthy oceans are key to the future survival of the human race. As a result looking after our oceans for future generations is high on the United Nation’s agenda, and now, an underwater archaeologist from the University of Nottingham is urging scientists to delve into the past to help better protect the oceans of the future.

Oceans and seas play a crucial role for human well-being and the environment as a whole. Covering more than 70 per cent of the surface of our plant, they provide half of the world’s oxygen, sequester carbon, and provide a home for 80 per cent of life on earth. Marine resources also provide food for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The strain on oceans is rapidly growing and its natural resources are being affected. Overfishing, loss of habitat, invasive species, pollution from nutrients and plastics, and climate change are all taking their toll.

‘Our oceans, our future: partnering for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SGD14)’ is a target set by the UN to help reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, planet and prosperity. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are from the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, which commits the international community to tackle key challenges facing our planet and those who live on it.

Dr Jon Henderson from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham was part of the UNESCO delegation at the United Nations HQ in New York for the UN Oceans Conference earlier this month, which looked at how the SGD14 could be implemented.

Dr Jon Henderson with members of the UNESCO at the UN Oceans Conference. Left to right: Dr Jon Henderson (University of Nottingham), James Delgado (NOAA), Ulrike Guerin (UNESCO programme specialist) and Michael Arbuthnot (Search Inc.)

Dr Henderson said: “The focus of SDG14 is very much on fighting human-induced and natural threats to the ocean ecosystem. Practical scientific solutions to these threats are favoured, but it is now becoming recognised that an Arts and Humanities approach also has a vital role to play in ensuring the effectiveness of those solutions. Purely scientific methods run the danger of ignoring cultural sensitivities and traditions. Considering the marine heritage of coastal communities can inform potential solutions and ensure they fit into the existing social milieu and are therefore more likely to be accepted and supported by local communities.”

At the conference, Dr Henderson presented on the role of marine cultural heritage in helping to achieve the aims of SDG 14 in a session entitled ‘An Ocean Without History? – the Importance of Underwater Cultural Heritage

He said: “It was valuable to speak with UN officials, scientists and international ambassadors about the challenges facing marine communities worldwide. SDG14 has a focus on helping fishing communities develop sustainable economies without adversely affecting fish stocks. The communities are quite often surviving repositories of traditional knowledge and practice, maintaining craft traditions that have evolved over centuries. While the richness of their marine heritage demands to be understood and recorded, these communities are currently amongst the poorest in the world. Mere preservation of ways of life is not an option and would only serve to fossilise them in poverty. That being said, development often results in the erosion of cultural traditions and heritage. One of the biggest challenges will be balancing preservation and development. This is not easy and will require anthropological work alongside the co-creation and co-production of solutions with the communities themselves.”

“It would be very easy to go into small fishing villages and tell them how to make their processes more sustainable, but if this is something they have done for hundreds of years, and the new processes have no respect for their cultural heritage, then there is less chance that they will take on board the changes. Achieving successful sustainable economic development practices through a respect for communities and their past is key to achieving the aims of SDG14.

“Never has the relationship between cultural heritage and science been more valuable. Not only will this provide an enhanced understanding of the past exploitation of marine resources and ecosystems, it will also provide insight into present and future use and management.”

UN Oceans Conference