Opinion

Sustaining Seas: Beauty and Urgency Beneath the Waves

Reflecting on the launch of the new edited volume, Sustaining Seas: Oceanic Space and the Politics of Care, edited by Elspeth Probyn, Kate Johnston and Nancy Lee.

Carbon-capturing seaweed forests. Photo by Shane Stagner on Unsplash.

How can we assist in sustaining the seas, as they have sustained us? How can we holistically understand the complexities of what lies below the surface and effectively communicate not only the beauty of this space, but the the urgency of the issues the ocean faces?

The recently launched Sustaining Seas: Oceanic Space and the Politics of Care traverses an eclectic array of voices, topics and ontologies, forging deeper understandings of what it means to care for aquatic places and their biocultural communities. Strategically curated by editors Elspeth Probyn, Kate Johnston and Nancy Lee, this myriad of voices and perspectives signal a shift in how environmental issues are approached and communicated.

Originating from the multidisciplinary conference Sustaining the Seas, hosted in 2017 by the Sustainable Fish Lab and the SEI, academics, practitioners, urban planners, artists, scientists and lawyers were brought together to consider how to care better for the oceans, fish and marine ecological systems. Sustaining Seas assumes that understanding complexity, including social, cultural, colonial, ecological and economic interconnections, is crucial to any interrogation of the marine.

By calling on new discipline perspectives and styles of storytelling, these new forms of narration give voice to species and issues that we often find very easy not to have empathy with. The book harnesses these different disciplinary perspectives so as to provide new ways of narrating the seas to new readers.

Associate Professor Alana Mann from the Department of Media and Communications, authors a chapter that addresses the protection of small-scale fisheries in global policymaking through food sovereignty. Her analysis of the La Via Campesina movement highlights a huge gap around the concept of ‘aquaecology’ which is central to food sovereignty. A key element of both ‘aquaecology’ and ‘agroecology’ is not just about an alternative to conventional industrial agriculture in terms of not endorsing harmful inputs or engaging with First Nations’ understandings about land management, but also the political aspect of it. Dr Mann found that the synergy between the chapters of the book assisted in answering questions she held about her own work in which scientists and policymakers offered their insights about closely related issues.

“The myriad of different writing styles is really beautiful. The book is about entanglement and I think the way that the chapters weave these different stories from different disciplinary perspectives is just so powerful.”

– Alana Mann

For Associate Professor Adriana Vergés, a marine ecologist based at UNSW Sydney, the opportunity to collaborate with people outside of science opened up new audiences for her revolutionary work with seaweed forests. “The book for me was an invitation to step out of that kind of normal way of working as a scientist and instead engage in different ways of thinking,” reflects Dr Vergés.

Her chapter, ‘Operation Crayweed: Merging Art and Science to Restore Underwater Forests’, boasts nine authors from different backgrounds. The restoration project of crayweed along the Great Southern Reef combined solutions-focused science, community engagement, and art to raise awareness about the importance of underwater forests. Dr Vergés’ evidence-based scientific writing was challenged throughout the collaboration by artists Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford who translated the success of the underwater restoration through artwork for the 2016 Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.

“We realised that to connect with people as scientists, we can tell all the facts we want (i.e. how many species are supported by seaweed forests, or the carbon-capturing potential of seaweed forests in the context of climate change), but unless we make people feel something, then that information just doesn’t really stick.”

— Adriana Vergés

The success of Operation Crayweed has continued four years after its original success with new restoration sites welcoming new artistic collaborations that showcase the scientists’ work under the water and fostering new relationships with local communities.

Sustaining Seas’ effective multidisciplinary communication ultimately comes down to its ability to champion so many competing voices. The book’s calculative placement of perspectives and knowledge nurtures a space for complex conversations to develop between experts. However, editor Dr Kate Johnston notes that “one of the challenges was to bring in all these different kinds of writing styles…that was really interesting as editors, to allow for that diversity”.

Despite these challenges, multidisciplinary collaborations provide many opportunities to expand the scope and depth of audience engagement around revolutionary research. Dr Michelle Voyer, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, advocates the success of Sustaining Seas in challenging disciplinary boundaries with unfamiliar language and alternate ways of thinking.

“The combined experience of reading all the chapters provides a much deeper appreciation of the diverse perspectives and notions of care and caregiving that exist around the oceans.”

– Michelle Voyer

Sustaining Seas: Oceanic Space and the Politics of Care is available here.


Genevieve Wright is the Events and Content Creator at the Sydney Environment Institute. She recently graduated from a Bachelor of Communications majoring in both Media Arts and Production, and Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. With a keen interest in the psychological responses to the climate crisis, Genevieve hopes to imbue her creative film background into community programs that centre on transforming school curriculum and empowering communities to lead the way to a renewable future.


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