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Memorial University researcher examines Newfoundlanders and Labradorians’ attitude to ocean

Monica Engel, shown in her office at Memorial University, just accepted a research grant from National Geographic to assist in her study of marine values in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Monica Engel, shown in her office at Memorial University, just accepted a research grant from National Geographic to assist in her study of marine values in Newfoundland and Labrador. - Juanita Mercer

National Geographic grant aids study into people’s marine values

With bleak reports of fish stocks, and underwater footage from around the province’s coast showing a littered ocean floor, one woman’s research is particularly timely.

Monica Engel’s “People and Ocean” study of marine values asks, do we care about the ocean as we care about the land?

“Historically, people here, I believe, have a deeper connection with the sea because people here depend on the sea for transportation, for food, for income, for recreation, for spiritual reasons,” Engel says. “So, I think it’s a special place to start this kind of research, to see how people who live on a small island in the ocean that depends so deeply on the ocean, how do we relate to the ocean here?

“We have the history of fish collapse as well, and seal hunting, which around the world is a big thing, is a controversial thing, so I believe that we can learn a lot from Newfoundland and from Newfoundlanders especially.”

Engel’s research is receiving national attention, even perking the ears of National Geographic, which just last month awarded her its competitive Early Career Research Grant, which gives funds to scientists in the early stages of their career.

Moreover, according to the National Geographic website, the grant “focuses on learning more about who we are and what our future will be on this planet.”

Brazilian-born Engel is a biologist, but is currently completing her PhD studies in the human dimensions field of geography at Memorial University.

Engel says further understanding of the human-sea relationship is required to guarantee the sustainability of coastal communities and the ocean.

“Without a full understanding of individual and collective behaviours, efforts to conserve the marine biodiversity are likely to fail, as people ultimately hold responsibility for both the causes and solutions to environmental problems.”

The National Geographic grant will help pay for Engel’s research, which involves travelling from Bonavista to Fogo and communities in between, as well as some places on the Avalon Peninsula, asking people of all backgrounds about their relationship with the sea.

“We can see that there is a decline not only in fish, but in all marine biodiversity as a whole, and everything is changing — climate change, and so on,” says Engel. “Do we care? How do we care? And when you talk about care, it reflects not only our values, but our moral beliefs and our sense of responsibility.”

Engel’s goal is to have a better understanding of how people relate to the ocean.

She says this information would be a valuable consideration for future ocean management strategies and policies, and she hopes the government pays attention to the outcomes of her research.

Engel points out that right now in Canada there are more protected land areas than ocean areas. According to federal government statistics in 2016, 10.5 per cent of Canada’s land and freshwater areas were protected, compared to 0.96 per cent of its marine territory.

The government plans to increase coastal and marine protected areas to 10 per cent by 2020, but it came under fire this month when it was discovered one newly protected area, the Northeast Newfoundland Slope, was closed to fishing but open to oil and gas exploration.

These are the sorts of situations that could benefit from the results of Engel’s research because they directly relate to the values people have regarding how ocean resources are used.

“Even when we try to transfer the way we manage the land to the way we manage the sea, we’re just transferring our strategies to the sea, but is that the right way to do it?” Engel asks. “If you have a different value system and a different approach to look, and to behave, and to perceive the ocean, maybe we should be doing our policies and management strategies in this different way, not just copying everything we do on the land into the sea. That’s one of the big questions that I hope to answer.”

Engel is in the second year of this four-year project that will see her add greater understanding to the scientific literature on how humans interact with oceans.

For example, while there are countless scales to assess how people value nature in general, and more specifically wildlife, Engel said there is currently no instrument developed to measure the values people have concerning marine life. So Engel will develop what she calls a “marine value orientation scale” as a part of her research.

This scale is essentially a well-researched and scientifically developed questionnaire that Engel will administer to people across the island this summer.

“I really want to learn from people who live here, from people who live at the edge of these two environments, who depend on the sea, who when they come back to Newfoundland from some time away and feel the salty air from the ocean get really excited because they’re back to the ocean again.”

Engel’s data collection involves asking people to complete the survey, but she will also consider archived information about the province’s history with the ocean, and is especially keen to gather more qualitative data — stories that people might be willing to share with her about their experiences and values regarding the sea.

Engel passionately speaks about her desire to “tell the story of people and ocean here in Newfoundland” and says the project is not for herself, but rather “to do something meaningful.”

“You open the newspaper and every day there’s something related to fish, to seals, to sea ice, to icebergs — the ocean is everywhere here,” she says, spreading out her arms as if to mimic the magnitude of its importance.

“I hope that with my results, we can get into this conversation and start to pay attention to how people who actually live here think, how they act, how they behave, what they support, what they don’t support, what they agree with and what they don’t agree with.”

Engel is sharing the progress of her research through a website that will go online in the coming months, and through social media channels already set up. Anyone interested in her study can follow her on Instagram and Twitter under the handle PeopleandOcean.

Engel is eager to hear from people in the province who want to share with her their stories about life by the sea, as well as meet with her in their communities while she crosses the island this summer collecting information. She can be reached by email at m.engel@mun.ca or by phone at 709-330-0716.

juanita.mercer@thetelegram.com

Twitter: juanitamercer_

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