EIUI Book Chapter Post: Can Non-State Governance through Information Increase Ocean Sustainability?

“The Science-Policy Interface in Coastal and Ocean Management” is a series of posts highlighting the chapters in the new book: Science, Information, and Policy Interface for Effective Coastal and Ocean Management, edited by Bertrum H. MacDonald, Suzuette S. Soomai, Elizabeth M. De Santo, and Peter G. Wells, published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis).

Most parts of our oceans are out of sight, but not out of mind. A wide diversity of actors, ranging from governments, scientists, market players, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the public at large, are concerned about the well-being of the marine environment. Due to the invisibility of the challenges threatening our oceans’ beauty, these actors must, however, rely on observations and experiences intermediated by technology and experts. Taking care of, and action on, marine environmental deterioration is further complicated by limited government power, as the farther we go offshore, the less authority states have to deal with marine environmental problems. A well-known respond to this is the call for more (effective) state collaboration on the international level, but this is not the only promising path to pursue: limited state authority also opens room for non-state forms of environmental governance, both by market parties and NGOs. A dominant feature herein is the strong reliance on societal and market pressure, which is constantly fed by information in order to motivate economic actors, as well as consumers, to act more responsibly. Since about two decades there is a boom in labels, pollutant registers, benchmarking schemes, company environmental reporting, et cetera, which are designed to capture and communicate sustainability information. These labels have become major tools, even driving forces, to bring about change in ecological rationality and behavior of economic actors in the marine realm. This widespread disclosure and use of information is dubbed “informational governance,” a way of steering by which actors like NGOs and market parties address major environmental issues, such as resource depletion due to overfishing, ocean pollution (through waste/waste water/ballast water discharge, oil leakages), and habitat disturbance and destruction caused by a variety of seafaring actors.

While broadly considered a promising route to get past slow, unambitious, and ineffective marine management by states, informational governance is not inherently good or successful (though also not automatically bad or ineffective). In our Chapter in the book Science, Information, and Policy Interface for Effective Coastal and Ocean Management, Arthur Mol and I carry out an assessment of informational modes of governance in three marine sectors (fisheries, shipping, and coastal and marine tourism). The assessment shows that the transformative force of information packed up in labels and rankings is neither fixed nor pre-given. Informational flows are multidirectional, include a large diversity of actors and move through a variety of channels, resonating one of the key messages of the volume.

However, informational governance takes a different angle if compared to conventional state-led decision-making where the focus is on science-based definitions of environmental problems, and on management measures targeted at those actors or marine practices with the largest contribution. In informational governance, who or what is most visible, and most vulnerable for societal and market pressure, is put at the center of attention. In fisheries, for example, labels/certifications, recommendation lists, and rankings are designed to use the buying power of consumers to achieve sustainability in the seafood chain, yet thereby depend on public sensitivity for specific issues. Starting off in the mid/late 1980s with consumer campaigns about threats for mediagenic species like dolphins and whales, there is now a move to addressing resource depletion and habitat disturbance and destruction. These themes are, however, far more complex to communicate or to show the specific impact of the informational scheme in resolving the problem. In tourism, the focus is also on consumer practices but this sector is very diverse. Informational tools potentially run the risk of being single-minded because they are often very localized, focused on one activity, and target individual tourists. At the same time, trends in cruise tourism are quite different and resemble practices in shipping, where informational governance is part of strategies to safeguard a social license to operate and forge relations between market partners, so in working higher up in the value chain becomes mostly invisible to consumers.

Given this variety in informational governance on marine environmental protection, power relations are far from straightforward. In itself this might not be problematic but it should not be underestimated or overlooked when celebrating non-state modes of marine governance. The assessment revealed at least three potential weaknesses in the use of informational tools for marine environmental protection. One relates to data deficiencies, uncertainties, and problems with information quality and verification. While this is intrinsic to marine management, it very much complicates the design and use of informational governance tools. NGOs and market parties often, but not necessarily, draw on science, and use it as just one of many information providers. As such they open up the knowledge base, but at the same time are including and excluding actors based on their ability to access, provide, or handle information, which is especially relevant when considering marine challenges in the global South or regarding specific practices. Another weakness is the mushrooming of initiatives in informational governance, leading to an overflow of instruments and tools which causes competition between organizations, and confusion for consumers. This scenario could weaken overall credibility of non-state attempts to foster ocean sustainability. A third challenge is that actors who are sensitive or responsive to information are in the spotlight, rather than those causing major environmental risks and problems, resulting in a potential misrepresentation of actors who could/should bring about change.

The well-being of the oceans and seas has become closer to our sight and minds because of efforts of non-state actors. By a continuous supply of sustainability information through labels, indices, registers, and reports, there is no doubt that they will keep complementing, strengthening, and intertwining with government-led marine management. This outcome is certainly an applaudable achievement, yet our chapter points out that still critical questions are to be asked and more lessons are to be learned about the important role of information in achieving more effective and equitable use and conservation of oceans and seas.


The individual book chapters are available from the publisher’s website: Chapter 6

The full book is available in print and e-book formats from the publisher at this link


Author: Hilde Toonen


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