‘The presence of the oceans touches every living thing no matter where it lives. The air we breathe and the water we consume are ultimately linked to the seas. The ocean drives our weather and stabilises our climate. Nowhere is more powerful and unforgiving, yet more beautiful and endlessly fascinating.’

Those are David Attenborough’s words. He told us that all is not lost: that we can reduce marine pollution and minimise the impact of ocean acidification: “The ocean’s power of regeneration is remarkable if we just offer it the chance. It’s not too late.”

Attenborough’s message of hope was delivered almost five years ago on World Oceans Day.

This year, on March 4, in what is being described as an “historic” agreement, nations signed up to a treaty on marine biodiversity at the UN headquarters in New York. Historic is accurate – it has taken more than 20 years of negotiation. The treaty aims to establish protected areas covering 30% of the high seas and deep seabed by 2030, where limits will be placed on fishing, the routes of shipping lanes, and exploration such as deep-sea mining (with its potentially devastating effects on the marine ecosystem).

Doubts have been expressed in some quarters that the rush in the final few weeks to conclude the negotiations may have led to certain key equity and sustainability issues (including climate change) being overlooked. But at the very least, the treaty is a start.

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Not before time. In January, The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that in 2022 the oceans were the hottest on record. The impact of this on marine ecosystems – and the wildlife that form part of those – is almost unthinkable.

Further, sea surface temperatures have a major influence on the world’s weather, supercharging extreme meteorological events like hurricanes and typhoons. Warmer water expands – pushing up sea levels and endangering coastal communities and ecosystems.

While the scale of the challenge can feel overwhelming, Attenborough says that there is still everything to play for and – crucially – that we can all play a part. We can choose to believe him (the science is on his side) or we can stick our heads under the pillow.

The researchers at One Ocean Hub believe passionately, like Attenborough, that there is everything to play for. Led by Strathclyde University, this international programme of research brings together coastal communities around the world, along with researchers and decision-makers.

Working equitably and inclusively towards a healthy ocean so people and the planet can flourish, One Ocean Hub is a collaboration between almost 40 partners and research partners across the globe. Their approach is both radical and groundbreaking. “Our research seeks to bridge current disconnection in law, science and policy – and integrate governance frameworks to balance multiple ocean uses with conservation,” explains the Hub’s director, Professor Elisa Morgera.

The Herald: Plastic waste pollution underwater, a sea turtle with plastic bag and bottle in the ocean.Plastic waste pollution underwater, a sea turtle with plastic bag and bottle in the ocean. (Image: free)

In other words, it’s about looking at the big picture – not disparate pieces of the jigsaw.

The Hub’s research has, for instance, shed light on the health impact of sea level rise and marine plastic pollution on women and girls living and working along the South African coastline, as well as female fish processors in Ghana. It’s also been working with small-scale female fishing communities in South Africa to research ways of protecting their livelihoods.

Now professor of global environmental law at the University of Strathclyde, Morgera was born in Trieste, northern Italy. As part of her undergraduate studies in that city, she spent a year in Belgium: “Environmental Law came up,” she says, “and that’s where I found my calling.” Up until that point, Morgera didn’t know that she could use law to do environmental work.

“Before choosing law I thought I’d either like to be a marine biologist or a lawyer. Then I had the realisation that I can still be a lawyer and work in the environmental context.”

After taking her Masters in London, she worked for the UN, then completed her PhD in Florence and returned to work for the UN in Rome. “So I didn’t even know I would become an academic until much later in the game,” she says.

When a job came up at the University of Edinburgh starting a new programme on environmental law, Morgera saw a chance to use what she’d learned at the UN to teach research and perhaps get her students to work for the UN.

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Professor Morgera takes a human rights perspective on conservation. “There’s this ‘fake’ understanding: you either protect nature or you help people – it’s one or the other,” she says. “Whenever you do that and whenever conservation wins, it’s always a short-lived win.

“After a while I was seeing this repeating and thought, maybe we need to be looking at conservation and equity together – and that’s when the penny dropped about human rights. Even to this day, not many people look at human rights in the context of nature – and how we depend on nature for all aspects of our wellbeing.”

It is a challenging concept, nonetheless, to consider conservation through the prism of human rights. Morgera offers a striking example in the context of the right to health, drawn from research published by the World Health Organisation.

“When patients come out of surgery, if the hospital is near a biodiverse area or green space as opposed to no green space at all – their recuperation times are much shorter.

“That in itself is incredible: it just shows that a biodiverse space makes a very tangible, measurable, positive impact on our wellbeing.

“The microbes inside our bodies communicate with the microbes outside: there’s communication between our microbiome and the microbes out there. And it affects both physical and mental health.

“We have a right to the highest obtainable standards of health and that means being near biodiverse areas – so our governments owe us to protect biodiverse areas – if, for nothing else, to give us the best chance of a healthy life.

The Herald: David AttenboroughDavid Attenborough (Image: FREE)

“This is universal,” she adds. “Human health is dependent on biodiverse areas whether we know it or not.”

In 2019, Morgera was instrumental in the establishment of One Ocean Hub at Strathclyde University, a model described as a “working prototype”. It challenges all that went before – from research to modes of working together.

For instance, researchers with One Ocean Hub developed innovative ways to approach consultation and partnership working. They had to find ways of working together while acknowledging that mistakes made in the past had to now be part of the conversation.

“You want to learn from the people who have been left out,” says Morgera. “It needs empathy. The experience of a poor, illiterate fisher, or child has validity in helping us understand. Previously, knowledge had been ‘taken’ from indigenous people and – too often – used against them.”

Now, however: “We’re asking them – do they want to be allies? We can then co-develop knowledge. We’re not taking this knowledge from them; were not ‘collecting’ it.

“We’re trying to build something with them through the recognition that their knowledge is valuable.”

Morgera says that from this approach, “a whole other system of knowledge emerges. That is the game-changer. ‘I’m privileged to hear this story, to learn from this person and basically just see everything that I’ve missed until now’”.

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What she is describing is a new kind of knowledge created by a new and equitable method of generating it: scientists, lawyers, social scientists, artists, civil society members and people with lived experience, working collaboratively – with equal import given to the experience and knowledge of each. It is called transformative research and it leads to transformative change.

This new and radical approach must surely have challenged The Hub’s funders?

“Our funders realised that it had to be a partnership, that we had to build trust, be able to respond to learning. They offered the funding with a fairly open approach, said you need to put monitoring, evaluation and learning in place and every year you tell us what you’re learning through this approach. What mistakes have you been making and what have you learned?”

One Ocean Hub and the funders sought fair partnerships and The Hub had to report each year on how they were achieving this. Morgera describes the backers as “very enlightened funders”.

The Hub is one of 12 entities funded by the UK Research and Innovation agency (UKRI), through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), whose international champion, Professor Christopher Smith, says: “The health of the world’s oceans and their importance to all human life has been increasingly recognised in recent years. Here at UKRI, we have been supporting a programme of sustainable development research since 2018 through the One Ocean Hub.

“This has helped coastal communities dependent on oceans to identify and engage with the decision-making that impacts on their lives and livelihoods and has informed environmental and cultural protection.”

Morgera describes the impact of the programme on those involved: “All of us felt we’d never done research as exciting as this in our lives. We have experienced that this approach has been game-changing across all the different research areas that have been brought together in The Hub. And every single person says that this has changed them personally and their career and how they understand how to make change happen.

“And we were receiving so much international recognition relatively early on about our work. At least five different agencies wanted to work with us, wanted to use our findings.

“So, we can still say that our model was really incredible.”


“One Ocean Hub’s budget was cut halfway through: it was supposed to be five- plus five-year funding, now it will end after the first five, in 2024,” she explains.

“At the moment, the model has been shut down and we haven’t seen anyone else adopting it or resurrecting it, or coming up with a similar one. At least, not all the ingredients that had been put together for this. My feeling is that all the ingredients are essential.”

Perhaps in these days of instant solutions, 10 years was regarded as just too long when a quick fix would be far more expedient?

Morgera is clear: “Every single global science assessment programme has concluded that, on the evidence, quick fixes are not going to effect change. Anything that we pour money into, if it’s not transformative change, is not going to help.

“There’s no point in going for quick fixes because quick fixes don’t fix – they go against the best science we have – globally.

“What I realised, when I applied for the funding, was that this scale of funding [£20m over five years] allows us to trial this model. We needed all these disciplines to come together which had never come together before, we needed everybody to be committed to this different path; we needed to be able to work across countries and regions so that whenever something went wrong somewhere, we were still able to make progress in another area.”

The scale allowed for this beautiful experiment to be, to start, to go on. For all these people to get on board, across ideologies, across geographies, to conserve the oceans. Now there’s no-one to fund the whole, integrated project. And even if multiple funders are found – each with their own method and goals – the question remains.

“How do we keep the whole?” Morgera asks. “The Hub solved the multidisciplinary/multifunding problem. Now it’s back to square one.”

One Ocean Hub, collectively, is passionate that the work begun must continue, but will, in the meantime, look to the legacy the “working prototype” will leave. “One thing we want to do in this next year,” says Morgera, “is provide specific advice to funders: ‘If you’re serious about either transformative change, generally or ocean research, specifically, then these are the things you should put in place.”