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Aquatic Intersections: Temporality and more-than-human intersectionality in marine ecosystems

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AQUATIC (Aquatic Intersections: Temporality and more-than-human intersectionality in marine ecosystems)

Reporting period: 2021-09-01 to 2023-08-31

Human-induced change in marine ecosystems has greatly increased in the past 60 years. According to the European Environment Agency, the seas have become busier places, driven by a combination of technological advances and society’s increasing demand for food, energy and other resources. The EU-funded AQUATIC project investigated the environmental threats to marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea. More concretely, it followed the collaborative work of researchers, public administration, and civil society in the Balearic Islands to protect the emblematic seagrass Posidonia oceanica from anthropogenic pressures like nautical tourism, beach replenishment practices, and the effects of waste discharges to the sea. Given the central role that Posidonia plays in marine and coastal ecosystems, at stake is not just the health of the Balearic Sea, but the future of the tourism industry in the Balearics.

The project was designed to use social theory about human-nonhuman interaction, temporal narratives and intersectionality to understand how different collectives collaborate with each other and how they engage in direct interventions to care for and protect Posidonia.

Temporal narratives emerged in the data as a factor explaining the rationale behind recent changes in public knowledge, the rise in funding across sectors, and the emergence of a new sector of civil society focusing on marine issues. Narratives of responsibility were also established in temporal ways. Evoking a past of abuse allowed stakeholders to frame current actions and initiatives in a positive manner. However, this is not enough to remove existing anthropogenic pressures. These continue since the economic and political trends that initially motivated stakeholders (generally associated to economic growth associated to the dominant tourism industry of the Balearic Islands) are hard to redirect.

In order to accomplish that redirection a broad societal engagement is necessary, something that is well known among stakeholders. Furthermore, it was also clear that key initiatives for seagrass protection in fact rely on the involvement of stakeholder collectives beyond regulatory mandates and professional duties, that is, on the involvement of volunteer labour. This emerged in great part as a way to compensate for a lack of resources to fully implement protection initiatives: as such, non-governmental actors like volunteering populations, the private sector or scientists became key contributors to the implementation of some parts of the regulation, like monitoring and surveillance. This demonstrated that the typical social categorization between different sectors in terms of responsibilities and economic resources obscured the complex relations and mergers amongst social categories.
The conclusions and results of the project are based on the analysis of 98 documents, three months of ethnography in the Balearic Islands, and 23 interviews with experts in the academic, public administration and civil society sectors. Based on the information gathered, the project presents three main results.

First, care and affective relations are a key element in the protection of marine environments. These relations are established through historical narratives that situate Posidonia and its habitat as key cultural and social elements for the environment. Care and affect drive stakeholders to work beyond their own responsibilities and volunteers to get involved, partially compensating for scarce resources for marine conservation across sectors. The way care emerges in the promotion of specific species as objects of protection affects the way other species and ecosystems are also protected or neglected.

Second, the action has served to theorize the way technical and scientific professionals engage with care practices as an expanded form of scientific citizenship. Therefore, scientific citizenship should be considered beyond the engagement of citizens and their participation in scientific knowledge production. Scientific and technical professionals engage regularly in citizenly activities enacting yet another form of scientific citizenship that blurs the division between scientific and lay knowledge.

Third, the action also served in developing the practice of collaborative autoethnography (known as duoethnography) as a valid form of enquiry for understudied topics in minority collectives. This part of the action has helped to illustrate how intersectional aspects like class, linguistic background and ethnic identity can play a role in how humans engage with diverse practices of environmental care.
The results have been disseminated in academic forums such as conferences and seminars, in journalistic media, and online through the project’s website and social media.
The results of the project contribute to advancements in ongoing efforts in Science & Technology Studies to understand the relationship between humans, nonhuman organisms and the environment. In this line of research, care and ethics (two of the key elements of the analysis that was carried out) are at the center of ongoing discussions. Theorizing how care and ethical responsibility are distributed across different societal actors, and how this contributes to different ways of engaging in citizenly and political ways in knowledge-making production, are therefore key contributions. The action provides key insights into the societal, scientific and political aspects of species-centric marine protection, and related challenges and affordances. It has helped establish the value, and illuminated the mechanisms, of cross-sectoral collaboration in the Balearics, the relevance of affective and care relationships towards nonhumans, and the challenges posed by limited resources and the pressure of economic systems.

The Action provides direct policy input to the priorities set by both the European Council and the Commission as established for the period 2019-2024.

First, the Council’s’s objective of building a green and social Europe that, among other things, supports initiatives that improve water quality is hardly achievable without committed cross-sectoral collaboration and a concerned citizenship. Understanding the way in which different collectives come to care about such issues and the way they get involved is key for such an objective. Environment, sustainability and social Europe / European Green Deal.

Second, the action’s results can be situated at the cross-roads of the Commission’s priorities of producing a European Green Deal with a competitive and resource-efficient economy that preserves the natural environment and of supporting an economy that works for the people. By showing the interlinkage between human activities and the sustainability of marine ecosystems, the action provides insight into how marine sustainability is linked to economic sustainability. Employment in touristic areas depends on the continuity of the sector and the sector depends on the limitation of its own impacts on the environment. More-than-human coexistence should be taken into the core of European strategies. In other words, an economy that works for the people is an economy that works for the environment, and vice versa.
Volunteer scuba divers collaborating with the publicly funded Posidonia Meadows Monitoring Network