Courtesy of Valerie Brodnikova.

World - Social equity is key to sustainable ocean governance

Calls to address social equity in ocean governance are expanding. Yet ‘equity’ is seldom clearly defined. Here we present a framework to support contextually-informed assessment of equity in ocean governance.


Guiding questions include: (1) Where and (2) Why is equity being examined? (3) Equity for or amongst Whom? (4) What is being distributed? (5) Whenis equity considered? And (6) How do governance structures impact equity? The framework supports consistent operationalization of equity, challenges oversimplification, and allows evaluation of progress. It is a step toward securing the equitable ocean governance already reflected in national and international commitments.


Oceans are shared spaces subject to competing claims and preferences over use1; since the time of the Roman Empire’s Mare Clausum, the oceans have alternately been contested by trade and colonial powers, or framed as global commons2. Historical narratives positioning oceans as empty spaces of nature devoid of human life, and frontiers to be discovered, exploited, and conserved3, overlook less resourced, less powerful ocean-reliant peoples and their rights and claims4,5.

Ocean governance that proceeds without a clear and thorough understanding of the complexities of equity is thus unlikely to achieve stated ambitions6,7 that include reducing global economic inequalities, improving human wellbeing, and sustaining the biosphere8. This is particularly so in the context of a rapidly accelerating ocean economy9 and emergent efforts to ensure that this ‘blue growth’ is environmentally sustainable10 and leads to improved human development outcomes11.

The Oxford English Dictionary proposes this ‘concrete’ definition of equity: ‘What is fair and right; something that is fair and right’. Such a broad definition, based on concepts that must themselves be defined or interpreted in diverse contexts, provides insufficient basis for application12. Influential work from Rawls similarly equates equity and justice with fairness13, as does recent work on equity in marine conservation14. In the ocean governance literature, Jentoft addresses equity with the question, ‘who are the winners and who are the losers?’15, which elides many of the aspects of equity discussed in detail below. And salient international legal definitions of equity vary, from jurisdictional entitlements in the Law of the Sea to intergenerational equity in international environmental law16.

Furthermore, despite the inherently transboundary and entangled nature of ocean governance issues, ocean governance continues to suffer from a lack of effective coordinating mechanisms across scales and sectors10,17. Many existing international ocean governance frameworks lack strong accountability, relying instead on voluntary commitments and self-reported achievements18,19. Such agreements also often lack the specificity necessary for implementation20. Uncoordinated, poorly specified, unaccountable governance allows the powerful to entrench and maintain their dominance. For example, as renewed attention to and acceleration of the blue economy creates new spaces and opportunities to exert control, or derive or direct benefits, the powerful seek to capture those processes and outcomes in order to maintain their position21. Less powerful constituencies may be further marginalized as a result22.

Although complex governance systems can act as a corrective for overly centralized power, diversification and expansion of the set of governance actors may counterintuitively increase power imbalances23. The diverse institutions and organizations (including governments, NGOs, community cooperatives, etc.) governing oceans may exclude specific groups, worldviews, and development pathways24, and may operate on pre-defined constructions of resource sustainability that omit consideration of short-term challenges faced by many22. As governance decisions seek to address recurring problems that are not tractable to simple technical fixes, necessitating deliberation among governance actors25, solutions do not always reflect the perspectives or needs of all affected groups24.

Although improving social equity is a stated goal of recent international agreements for sustainable ocean governance10,26, instances abound of how current ocean governance creates, allows, and perpetuates inequity24. For example, powerful vested interests may adopt exclusionary tactics or state-sanctioned violence to displace Black and Indigenous peoples from the resource access and coastal homelands to which they have legal and customary rights, with negative effects on food security, livelihood, and cultural heritage27,28. Ocean and coastal conservation and management schemes based on scientific principles can erase or exploit the situated and relational knowledge systems of local and Indigenous peoples29,30. Although small-scale fishers are prioritized in fisheries management rhetoric, they often remain locked out of governance processes31. Women are regularly excluded from fisheries management, from global fisheries commitments to participation in ‘community-based’ decision making, and subsequently suffer disproportionate management costs32,33. Marine renewable energy development creates new ownership claims and rights to ocean spaces, conflicting with other uses34. The seafood available to consumers may have been produced under conditions that violate international norms, policies, and conventions protecting the fundamental rights of workers and vulnerable populations, including children35,36,37,38.

In general, arguments for engaging with social equity treat it as an inherently valuable governance end in itself, and/or as a means to other desired governance ends. These positions are not mutually exclusive. The former approach frames the pursuit of social equity as a moral duty and the primary motivator of social institutions13,39,40. The latter asserts that social equity underpins or facilitates desired outcomes including political legitimacy and political, social, and environmental sustainability7,41,42,43,44,45,46, usually as defined by hegemonic institutions47. In the specific case of ocean governance, promoting social equity is typically framed as instrumental to achieving sustainability goals45: oceanic and coastal peoples living in economic, social, or other kinds of precarity are unable to invest in longer-term resource stewardship while their short-term needs remain unmet48, or while allocation of ocean space and resources foments conflict and threatens human security49. Existing international agreements relevant to ocean governance link prioritization of social equity to economic expansion50, accounting of ocean benefits51, emerging technologies52,53, and much broader development aspirations46.

npj Ocean Sustainability volume 1, Article number: 4 (2022) Cite this article

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