On 27 October, fisheries biologist Cornelia E. Nauen visited Leiden University (LU) to give the 7th Environmental Humanities LU talk about her work with Mundus maris - Sciences and Arts for Sustainability, the non-governmental organization she co-founded in 2010, and which promotes restoration, conservation and sustainable use of aquatic ecosystems, respect and support for small-scale fishers and their traditional cultures.

In an inspiring presentation, Cornelia Nauen addressed the problem of the disconnect between scientific findings and their impact on politics and society, especially when it comes to our current climate and biodiversity crises. Even though scientists point out the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and overexploitation of resources by providing empirical evidence, their calls for change often go unheard. On the other hand, if solutions are offered, they often focus on new technologies that are implied without proper implementing them in way that effectively tackles the problems they are built to solve.

Even though technological answers are urgently needed, they alone are not enough and the effects of “green technology” can be destructive as well: “None of the technical solutions we have developed in the past 50 years have effectively reduced material and energy consumption – instead we always consume more and more. Whatever we in gain in efficiency is then lost because more people use it, and it is implemented on larger scales. [….] What would happen if we built 800 million electric cars?”



The search for solutions to the climate crisis, ecosystems degradation, human poverty and inequality often takes place on levels where the perspective of the “ground floor” is lost. Global treaties on resource use and biodiversity protection are important, but it often remains unclear if and how they are really implemented and what their effective impact is on local communities. One example is the existence of so-called “paper parks”: legally protected marine areas where harmful exploitation is officially banned but where fishing continues due to lack of control and enforcement. Another example are well-intended development aid initiatives that often continue old colonial patterns of inequality and have little to offer to the people they are claiming to help. At the same time, local and traditional ways of food production are facing increasing competitive pressure, for example small-scale fisheries which are far more sustainable than industrial alternatives but are outcompeted by heavily-subsidized industrial fleets, mostly from what may be considered the Global North, including China.



A more promising approach is to focus on strengthening the capacities for individual and collective action of people denied opportunities to support their aspirations for a better life. Their ambitions tend to be oriented towards meeting basic needs of work, food, shelter and access to health care and education, in line with several of the Sustainable Development Goals. Efforts to support such scales of lifestyles and production modes have the potential to provide more sustainable alternatives to current waste and overexploitation generated by an unlimited growth model on a finite planet. Inspired by this idea, Nauen, her collaborators at Mundus maris and men and women in artisanal fisheries founded the Small-Scale Fisheries Academy in Senegal.



The Academy intends to lend operational support to implement the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries. It supports the change journeys of learners by facilitating the development of their tailor-made business strategies in a changing ecological and economic environment and by encouraging cooperation along value chains and in better advocacy of their legitimate demands. Initiatives like the Small Scale Fisheries Academy use facilitated dialogue and deliberations between of different stakeholders, people with different professions in and around the fisheries, scientists, administrators and civil society supporters. Blending the different forms of knowledge and experience helps to advance towards locally adapted solutions to the problems Academy learners have identified. Every step on the change journey is expressed in drawings so as to be inclusive to people not having spent much time in the formal education system. Drawings are highly conceptual. Oral exchanges are mostly in the local language, here Wolof, to put people at ease and ensure inclusive learning.



Mundus maris seeks to make relevant research results more easily accessible to enrich the reflections and planning. A case in point are catch reconstructions of the Sea Around Us Initiative in Vancouver, Canada, which enhance national statistics often poorly covering small-scale and subsistence fisheries. Large portions of the catch, including discards at sea by industrial vessels or recreational catches – sometimes more than 50% - remain thus unreported and do not show up in the statistics collated globally by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on the basis of national records. As the Sea Around Us figures for Senegal show, local and artisanal fisheries are under heavy pressure from industrial fleets while productivity of the ecosystem continues to decrease since the late 1990s. Instead, Nauen argued, real solutions require different approaches and need to explore possibilities of rescaling and actually reducing activities that further exacerbate the current crises. While many of the presented solutions are well-intended, they follow the same logic as the mechanisms behind the problems they try to solve: a logic of scaling up, expanding capacities and aiming at further growth.



One of the most pressing problems in this context is the persistence of subsidies primarily to industrial vessels and distant water fleets that maintain a system that would otherwise not be commercially viable anymore. European, North American and East Asian nations invest an estimated USD20 billion annually of which about 85% go to industrial vessels (1). This is where citizens not only in the Global North can make real change: pressing their governments to end harmful fisheries subsidies, a solution that would allow ecosystems to recover and eventually even lead to more sustainable fisheries if small-scale fisheries would dominate. This is why Mundus maris, as part of a broad coalition of civil society organizations, campaigns for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to deliver on their long-standing mandate to stop funding overfishing through harmful subsidies. Indeed, something starts moving in the right direction.



Again, the disconnect between scientific insights and societal and political constraints and opposing interests remains a problem: as Nauen argued, science alone cannot tackle this problem but it can inform debates and negotiations at different levels. Developing good story lines that make the scientific results accessible, inspire art forms and exchange, and research questions brought up by disadvantaged groups to enable inclusive deliberations, all play an important role in raising awareness for the great ecological and social questions of our time. The sciences and the humanities need to join forces and strengthen collaborative efforts, including with practitioners, to enable visions for futures that allows experimenting with alternatives to current destructive practices. Instead of accepting that living resources become scarcer collaborations should aim at celebrating life and expand the living sphere again, not the least for better public health, overcoming poverty and food insecurity of many people, even in the rich countries in the Global North. The slides of the talk are available here for easy consultation.

This message resonated with the audience which mainly consisted of students and researchers from both the humanities and the natural sciences. Bringing these two fields together and exploring their collaborative potential to engage with the current crises in meaningful ways is one of the main goals of the Environmental Humanities LU initiative and Cornelia Nauen’s talk was one of the highlights of the group’s lecture series. Watch it again on the YouTube channel of Mundus maris.

Text by Johannes Müller, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

(1) Sumaila, U.R., Ebrahim, N., Schuhbauer, A. et al., 2019. Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies. Marine Policy, 109, 103695, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103695.