Laura Pereira [1,2], Guillermo Ortuño Crespo , Silvana Juri , Patrick Keys , Hannah Lübker , Andrew Merrie , Edoardo Superchi , Naomi Terry , Bwalya Chibwe , Juliano Palacios-Abrantes [5, 6], Maria A. Gasalla , Erick Ross Salazar , Moriaki Yasuhara [9,10], Farah Obaidullah , Gabrielle Carmine , Salomão Bandeira , Diva J. Amon [14, 15], Ghassen Halouani , David E. Johnson , Lynne J. Shannon , Jean-Baptiste Jouffray , Colette C.C. Wabnitz [6, 19], Beth Fulton 
Ever since humans ventured into the ocean to fish for the first time 40,000 years ago, the principle of Mare Liberum, an ocean without boundaries, prevailed (Corbyn, 2011). In 1982, the third United Nations (UN) Conference on the Law of the Sea successfully opened the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the ‘constitution for the ocean’. For the first time in history, humanity had drawn a jurisdictional divide between the coastal ocean and ocean in the areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ, referred to as the High Seas) at the 200 nautical mile mark from the coastline. Over the past four decades, various sectors, including shipping, underwater cable infrastructure, and fishing, as well as mining interests have expanded from the familiar sunlit waters of the continental shelf far into the open ocean, and into the deepest, most unknown corners of our blue planet (Jouffray et al. 2020). Despite the High Seas covering 40% of the surface of the planet, comprising nearly 95% of the ocean’s volume and being highly connected to coastal ecosystems and communities (Popova et al. 2019), the High Seas remain a distant concept that is out of sight and out of mind for most people.
Cultivating a relationship to almost half of our planet is essential if we are to protect this vital ecological system – both for its own intrinsic value, and for our own culture and needs (Allison et al. 2020). However, inculcating such a connection is no simple task. One way to start to build such empathy is to envision a sustainable future for the High Seas — one that embodies both empathetic connections and hope (Blythe et al., 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a fortuitous opportunity to convene a diverse group of High Seas stakeholders virtually across multiple time zones to explore the ingredients and composition of more desirable futures. We used an adapted science fiction prototyping approach with inputs from artists to foster a space for creative reimagining. Below we share the science-fiction narratives that emerged from this process, drawing on knowledge ranging from technological innovations, like gene editing, to marine cultural connections that have been eroded by industrialisation. Governance was a central feature of all of the stories, accentuating how important upcoming negotiations are in setting out an international framework to steer humankind towards more equitable futures and away from current extractivist paradigms. Our aim is for these outputs to help inform alternative framings of what is possible in the ongoing UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, as well as negotiations for a new international legally binding treaty towards the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ negotiations), and the Mining Code being developed at the International Seabed Authority, to advance pathways toward a thriving High Seas. We will also ensure the work feeds into the upcoming Intergovernmental Science-Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Transformative Change Assessment to strengthen marine aspects of this initiative.
A diverse group of 30 stakeholders, many of whom are co-authors of this article, joined an online workshop in three parts to undertake a creative process to define transformative visions for the High Seas. These participants ranged in terms of their expertise on marine issues, from fisheries experts, marine ecologists and modellers to practitioners and activists at all career stages, representing all six continents. Crucially, many of the participants play key roles in shaping the future of the High Seas, whether through participating in ongoing negotiations or undertaking scientific research that will inform these negotiations. The Nature Futures framework (NFF) from the IPBES expert group on scenarios and models (Pereira et al. 2020) was a starting point for the discussions. The NFF is a triangle space with each of the corners representing a different positive value perspective on nature and its contribution to people (Fig 1).
- Nature for Nature: in which nature has value in and of itself (emphasising the intrinsic values of nature);
- Nature for Society: in which nature is primarily valued for the benefits or uses people derive from it (focussing on instrumental values for nature);
- Nature as Culture: in which humans are perceived as an integral part of nature (recognising relational values for nature).
The aim of the NFF is to provide a simple way to illustrate a complex blend of values for appreciating nature, particularly in thinking about diverse desirable futures that recognise all of these values.
During the workshop, we combined the approach from “Seeds from the Good Anthropocenes” project (goodanthropocenes.net/; Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2019) in conjunction with science fiction prototyping (Merrie et al. 2018). Using the ‘Seeds approach’, we asked each participant to submit their idea of a seed – ‘a process, initiative or way of seeing the world’ that was currently marginal, but that they thought could contribute to a better future for the High Seas (Bennett et al. 2016).
Participants were then allocated into the three groups formed around each corner of the NFF triangle to discuss a future, where either instrumental values for nature (Nature for Society), intrinsic values for nature (Nature for Nature) or relational values for nature (Nature as Culture) were emphasised. Each of the seeds (see Appendix in Chibwe et al. 2021) was allocated to a corner by the participant as they introduced the seed, but for purposes of keeping groups equal in size and mixed in terms of geography and expertise, the three groups did not always have all the people who had submitted seeds to that corner. As is outlined more fully in the method described in Chibwe et al. 2021, each group had rich discussions about their seeds, what they represented and how they could grow to contribute to better futures. The result was a set of stories about the future of the High Seas focusing on each corner of the NFF triangle. To help with the development of the narrative, each group started their narrative journey on board the same ocean research vessel, the Manta. Additionally, to push for more transformative, creative thinking, a set of seven characters were defined prior to the workshop by the workshop coordinators and allocated to each story based on their corner and a throw of the dice (Figure 2). This allowed for common threads through the stories although not all original characters are in the final stories and some new ones emerged.
The stories are not chronological, they are intended as parallel futures, but it is possible to see potential links and pathways between them. Due to the level of technology and progress in each of the stories, the reader may pick up a temporal logic to the order in which each of the stories is presented here. This is more for ease of reading than to put them on any single timeline. However, it may help if the reader jumped ahead a few decades in their mind in-between reading each narrative. This is, however, not essential as each should also be able to stand alone and read in any order. These stories are not intended to be utopian, but they hopefully offer a pause to reflect on where we want to go and how we might get there…
(Please see the slides)
Figure 2: Short description and image of each of the seven characters © Care Creative
*Take a deep breath* As you read this, realise that some of the oxygen that is now flowing through your veins was generated from the High Seas. Embrace that connection.
Nature for Society
History Hiccups Episode 42: The Nemo Chronicles
Imagine for a moment. You are the world’s most sought-after gene pirate. You can disappear — have disappeared! — more times than you can count. You’re up against the world’s best spies and agents on a daily basis. You sometimes even have intel on new genomic information before scientists at the Station. But you always stay silent, and escape to thieve again! Of course, we’re talking about Agent Nemo. A gene pirate, THE gene pirate, extraordinaire. Today, we will trace the strange chain of events that led to his capture, and then dive down the eel hole of what might have made him crack… and talk.
I’m Vas Melnyck, and this is History Hiccups!
Now, I know that you want to dive right into the nitty gritty end of Nemo’s life of High-Seas crime and adventure, but I contend that this is a tale best told in counterpoint.
Thus, we begin at One Blue Station… It’s a normal day in the hub-bub of this floating community. School tours on day visits of the facilities, holiday-goers eating in the station’s atrium as they wait for their connecting hydrojets, labs filled with incremental improvements of our understanding of everything in the ocean… But something’s up! The Station’s calm efficiency is thrown into chaos as its environmental DNA monitoring network identifies a new species of deep-sea reptile. A creature most phylogenetically related to sea turtles, it seems. An amazing, outrageous, incredible surprise for the scientific community. Preliminary suggestions for a new name start resonating at the Station: ‘Magnaturtur abyssium.’ As the first images start to trickle in, the new bottom-dwelling turtle seems to have feet, ventral and dorsal fin-like appendages and echo-sounder imagery reveals a swim bladder! Perhaps most remarkably, after collecting the echo-sounder images, the marine reptile emitted its own sound waves to study us back, evidence of an echolocation system similar to cetaceans? It would be a first for any reptile. Certainly this was a new twig on the tree of life. Given that the Station discovery is instantaneously a matter of public record, the global uproar is immediate as the news is transmitted to other floating stations. Scientists clamour for caution and calm. Activists yell for a global moratorium on all human activities in the deep. And, of course, corporations begin slathering for the right to the newly-discovered genome. The ocean has proved, once again, to be a remarkably fertile source for marine genetic sequences that are now the foundation of new cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and synthetic building bio-polymers.
Meanwhile, as this political posturing and legal battle begins on the Station, a very different scenario is playing out on the High Seas. The crew of the research vessel Manta begins their workday unaware of the discovery, and because shiplife doesn’t stop to smell the rose coral, they wake up to their normal routine — namely monitoring subsection 265-06 of the High Seas, and analysing data for any suspicious activity.
Now, we’re not going full conspiracy theory here, at least not yet… But, the very same day that the abyssal turtle is detected by the One Blue Station environmental DNA sampling stations, the Manta and its crew, who had not heard the news about the new discovery, come across a now-discarded, highly illegal, deep-sea fishing net. And, entangled in the net was a strange, never-before-seen, turtle-like creature, its body barely recognizable after the trauma of being brought to the surface. As the crew begins to remove it, they find that Good Musk! It’s not dead! How could a marine reptile survive after being submerged underwater for so long? The Manta streams the data from the scan they have taken of the creature using the species identification tricorder they have on board and immediately get back a response with a red flashing warning signal: ‘ALERT – NEW SPECIES – GOVERNANCE DISCOURSE SPHERE AUTHORISES IMMEDIATE ACTION – END OF MESSAGE.’
Back at One Blue Station, the ping from the Manta is a ripple amidst a tsunami. The new discovery is rapidly creating disputes between nations around which sovereign power ought to be responsible for its conservation, and (sustainable) genomic exploitation. Entering the debate, a team of young scientists fights back, proposing a shared and locally based management framework based on the movement patterns of the new species, which are yet to be understood. The discovery also sparks automated, novel research directions. The Station’s AI begins working on predictive models of ecosystem functioning that consider the potential reappearance of species thought to be extinct. Some nodes even begin predictive forecasts attempting to infer as yet undiscovered species.
In the meantime, the Manta has already detected the source of the ghost net – a rogue fishing boat with industrial processing capacity, barely a visible dot on their long-range radar. The crew reviews satellite imagery from the previous 48 hours to conduct a rapid forensic analysis, reconstructing the crime and inferring attribution of the fishing material. Augmented by Argo float triangulation, it is clear that the activity must have taken place in globally recognised and protected areas of ecological or biological significance. These areas were identified many years before by the Convention on Biological Diversity through workshops led by academics, scientists and communities who had long visited the High Seas, and given further recognition during the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 2.0 (UNCLOS 2.0) negotiations. As the Manta flicks the data back to the Station — and I can almost smell the ozone as their drives warm up – the hunt for those illegal fishers is on. The crew launches the Manta’s fixed-wing drone to track down the vessel and start the chase. Non-violent recon, as it’s known in the biz: taking pictures to report what is happening, collecting evidence to then disclose to the world, and live-data streaming of the tagged vessel on social media via the High Speed High Seas Satellite internet. In this way, authorities can more easily track down the perpetrators whenever and wherever they return to port. Even if they head to one of the anarcho-libertarian seasteading communities, or sovereign corporate enclaves — the vessel would be tracked until it went dark. But this vessel unexpectedly — and this is where the (hi)story gets particularly hiccupy – stays put and doesn’t flee… with the deck also eerily empty.
Aware of the risk, the Manta crew decides to board the ship to see what the heck is going on.
We will continue our story in a moment, but here’s a quick message from one of our sponsors.
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Okay. We have just left our dauntless crew to board a pirate vessel, but we return now to One Blue Station. To call things pandemonium is probably too much, but the volume was definitely edging toward 11. Amid the turmoil, an exceptional guest had arrived at the station: Sefina Tausa’afia. Thanks to her efforts during the 2082 UNCLOS 2.0 negotiations, the governance landscape of the High Seas had been entirely reshaped. For one thing, indigenous islanders had gained strengthened sovereignty over waters adjacent to islands that had not yet been engulfed by the new seasteading communities threatening their borders, let alone the rising seas. But these victories had not brought lasting peace and justice to the High Seas: tensions were on the rise again as some politically influential actors among ex-islander communities had been pushing to lend High Seas rights to private corporations. Of course, things weren’t as bonkers as they used to be: these agreements are “trusteeship” and “guardianship” contracts, and the businesses have to have real time monitoring with day-end reports communicating outcomes and demonstrating compliance with all standing regulations in total transparency. Despite this, crime always finds a way and corporate espionage was alive and well, just driven deeper under the surface. Sefina was involved in negotiating these contracts, making sure that only ex-coastal and ex-island countries could partake in the sea lending deals and in the Floating Communities Program that otherwise powerful countries and corporations would have capitalised on. To say that Sefina was paddling into rough waters was an understatement, but she, more than most, was ready for the test.
Things are about to get exciting back on the open water too, where the Manta crew is boarding the pirate fishing ship. The Manta crew is surprised to find that there are actually a lot of fish on the vessel, and some seem alive. The fishing crew must have evacuated the vessel not long ago. After a fast e-documenting of the catch using their Animal Image Scanner identification, they return the live specimens to the sea, and keep those that did not make it to give to nearby nomadic ocean communities as regulations dictate. Nothing can go to waste. But the real bust — and the reason we know about this event at all — is about to unfold below deck. As the Manta crew cranks open the door, they find none other than the White Whale himself — caught in the spotlights was Agent Nemo. And he was, apparently, just standing there, frozen, as if waiting for them. Musk only knows what he was up to on this apparently insignificant fishing vessel, but the Manta crew had him in their grasp now, and one way or another they needed him to talk.
It is not hard to guess Nemo’s real purpose on that pirate vessel: he was taking advantage of the wide range of species being caught illegally to collect genetic samples for some despicable business. And, astonishingly, thawing before their eyes on his makeshift workbench is a frozen, dissected ‘Magnaturtur abyssium’. The crew quickly overcomes and secures Nemo, cuts through the ice and crash-hacks the terminal. They analyse the data and cross reference it with databases on illegal trade of genetic resources, piggybacking on the cloud computing power of the One Blue Station’s quantum computer to begin tracking the markets and the buyers with whom Nemo has just been dealing. They are able to determine that the marine genetic sequences from the newly discovered abyssal turtle was sitting in the file buffer and Nemo had not yet had time to upload it to the dark web before he was caught red-handed.
But how did they get Nemo to sing? What did this plucky crew, of a research vessel no less, do to get this agent provocateur to finally crack? We dive into the comments, as they say, after this quick message.
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We promised a trip down the moray eel hole, and we don’t disappoint at History Hiccups. We know that Nemo was cornered, and we know that ultimately he was sent away for a long time, but we don’t know what made him implicate himself. On the High Seas, he could have done his normal routine, claimed immunity and walked away. So what happened?
The most popular theory is that he simply cracked under the continued pressure of his high-powered lifestyle, and gave himself up. While accepted as dogma in some corners of the history world, here at History Hiccups that just means we can set that aside to the uninteresting pile.
One theory has it that Nemo was given an experimental treatment, where his nervous system was linked to a device that translates the ocean’s current health into a proportional physiological response; the healthier the ocean, the less pain you feel. This macabre idea is not without its proponents, but the agony of an entire ocean channelled into a single individual would render them catatonic, right? I can’t even imagine what that would feel like – let alone the human rights implications – so I’m going to skip to the next one.
Another theory is that Nemo lived for gourmet cuisine, and that the Manta’s chef got wind of this. The chef decided that drastic measures needed to be taken so he organised a celebratory banquet back on board the Manta. He managed to make use not only of the food that was produced with aquaponics on the boat, but by taking a few items from the illegal vessel where he found a treasure trove of farm-fresh mussels, clams, and- treat of all treats – Umibudo! Nemo is invited to join, but eating proves difficult with a gag and he staunchly refuses to say anything- until the Chef’s pièce de résistance; an Okinawan inspired Sakoshi oyster dish topped with umami-rich Umibudo in a simple soya sauce. The sight and smell of food he was brought up on breaks him and Nemo starts to sing as he understands that there is no escape and that he might as well be a captive with a happy stomach…
My personal favourite says that before being visited by the Manta crew, on one or another of his exploits, Nemo was accosted by a cybernetic whale — a cybernetic white whale. Apparently, the whale threatened Nemo with imminent demise — the message: give yourself up or meet an untimely end in the abyssal deep…
So, was it a threatening gangster whale? An ultra-savory meal for a vulnerable gourmand? Mysterious empathy torture, forcing Nemo to experience the agony of the anguished seas?
We simply don’t know.
Regardless, when Nemo arrived on One Blue Station, manacled and cowed, he broke. Sefina had stayed on Station to help as counsel for the prosecution. The case ultimately became one of the biggest for the High Seas Governance System, consolidating Sefina’s success, and serving as a prelude to the end of the corporate pillaging of our common ocean heritage.
And that’s it for today! Join us next week for Part 7 of our series, ‘Rise of the Zeks’! In this instalment we explore how the neo-communist student protests of 2083 in Bengalaru sparked a worldwide movement. What happened? Join us to find out!
Nature as Culture
Polycultural fractals of the ocean
The bioremediation vessel, The Manta 3.0, had been docked for repairs for several days now as the cyclone raged on, and Ehukai Tausa’afia sat gazing through the rain whipped portal at the dark skies, distracted from his attempts to repair the malfunctioning inter-species translator earpiece. At least the disturbance due to the cyclone might help disrupt the harmful algal bloom that the crew had been trying to break down before the storm settled in. Besides, Ehukai is glad for the opportunity to spend some time at home, as the Seastead they have docked at – the closest option for immediate refuge- is the Polynesian Seastead – Ehukai’s birthplace.
Ehukai learnt from the stories passed down through the generations that things used to be a lot worse before deep-sea mining was banned. He finds it hard to imagine what it was like back in the Corporate Era, during the first decades of the Anthropocene, when the fate of the ocean had belonged to a small number of financially well-endowed organisations and individuals. How could they have come to the conclusion that deep-sea mining and polluting extractive activities were a beneficial course of action when alternatives had been discovered decades back? Despite history teachers in school explaining that people had been guided by a much more individualistic way of thinking, and that they found it hard to connect with non-human sea dwellers, Ehukai was still baffled. Surely they must have known that by mining the deep ocean, they would be destroying the complex life systems that their wealth and prosperity relied upon and where life originally began? Then again, it was only back in the second half of the 21st century that humanity understood the role of the deep ocean in keeping the global carbon pump active.
Well, things had gotten pretty bad before they began to get better. Ehukai’s grandmother, Sefina Tausa’afia, was a celebrated lawyer and advocate, who fought for the right of ex-islanders to regain sovereignty on the High Seas, a globally renowned case of redistributive justice. She made sure such rights were included in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 2.0 (UNCLOS 2.0) in 2082, and helped reshape the broader ocean governance framework as well. She fled as a child, with thousands of others, from what was once Tuvalu to Fiji, where the government granted land to refugees. But Sefina had strong ideals, she didn’t want to settle for a life as a climate refugee, so she put herself through law school and went on to reclaim and create new floating artificial islands for her people. Sefina’s epic story resonated with struggling populations around the world and set a precedent for the establishment of 27 more Seasteads in the subsequent 40 years. Though Sefina has won crucial battles, the conflicts go on, since the case of floating sovereignty is complex and still unclear. Ehukai was just glad that the Global Council of Ocean Stewardship (GCOS) was formed in 2088 before things became any worse. Some people thought that the corporate death penalty for crimes of ecocide were too extreme, but Ehukai knew that it had to be that way. From experience working on the ocean clean-up vessel, they had seen glimpses of what could happen when such actions went unchecked.
Ehukai’s sister had continued in Sefina’s footsteps, fighting legal battles linked to fishing rights and protection from corpo-piracy. She was currently embroiled in a legal case hoping to dismantle the continued existence of Exclusive Economic Zones, those 200 nautical miles from the coast where countries still claimed jurisdiction, often only caring about their national benefits. It sounded like a headache to Ehukai; they preferred the humble and less politically complicated work of clean-ups and biological restoration. They liked to spend time close to other sea creatures, which taught them how to live in balance and harmony with the sea.
As a child, Ehukai couldn’t imagine living as a land-dweller; they had spent their whole life on the Polynesian Seastead in the Oceana Protected Area. Their parents had named them Ehukai after the seaspray in Hawaiian, and they relished the salty breezes they awoke to on calm mornings, and the colour that filled the city during the Autumn festival of the humpback-whale migration. The rhythmic swaying of the artificial island was imperceptible to those that had lived there since the womb; the swaying was part and parcel of their bodies, making them susceptible to an unpleasant land sickness if they spent longer than a few hours ashore. They couldn’t imagine eating the grain porridges that their sister had to eat when she visited her land-dwelling cousins. They prefered the fresh bivalves and seaweed salads that were cultivated in the Tuvalu ocean farms. Their city was the first Seastead, and though their home is in the ocean, they love to hear the old tales of their island ancestors, who had always had such strong ties to the sea. They had only met Sefina briefly in her old age, and they marvelled at how courageous she must have been to transition her way of life so drastically as humanity evolved back into the ocean. As they stare out at the impressive expanse of blue-grey sea and sky, they recall one of her landmark negotiations that almost went very, very wrong…
… In the early days of the GCOS, they hosted an annual conference at the long lost city of Atlantis that had been rediscovered by explorers excavating for deep-sea minerals. It was the year 2090 and the GCOS had just started their mandate to ensure sustainable governance of the High Seas following the renewed UNCLOS 2.0. Sefina had just finished her legal training and was travelling with a crew advocating the right to set up floating communities as compensation for what they had suffered as sea level rise claimed their ancestral territories.
The negotiations got off to a wavy start as they were immediately opposed by a powerful corporation that wanted to continue their extractive activities in the very same region that Sefina and her team were advocating to establish the first legal Seasteading community- around where Tuvalu used to be. An added provocation was that the area in dispute lay on a well known humpback-whale migration route, which was primarily used by females and calves. The sense of protecting the ocean, not just for people’s needs, but also to allow for marine life to thrive, was a buoyant topic. After a lot of tense discussions and some thermally vented debates, it seemed as if the vested interests of the powerful were going to maintain the status quo, in other words no legal seasteading community and instead continued mining rights for the corporation were going to prevail.
Suddenly, a lone and rather large figure entered the hall: the infamous Zalazar Crobuzon. Zalazar was the self-proclaimed mayor of the Scar, an anarchist floating community founded by ocean refugees. He was a bit of a legend and, despite his community’s continued unlawful status, a respected member of the ocean governance community who was at the founding of the GCOS. Even before Zalazar spoke, Sefina and her team knew that this was the chance they had been waiting for. Rumour had it that Zalazar had been rescued by a dolphin when he was just a child. The old cetacean had shown the young man the way of the sea, teaching him how to live in harmony with and have profound respect for all species. Zalazar’s quiet, but powerful, speech at that pivotal negotiation in 2088, backed up by the evidence presented by Sefina and her team, navigated the way for the legalisation of seasteading communities. Five years later, having worked closely with Zalazar and the people of the Scar, Sefina would be the proud founder of the Polynesian Seastead. Further oceanmark negotiations, such as that of ecocide would follow, but the legitimization of seasteading is the story that always comes back to Ehukai as it was fundamentally about the survival of his people’s culture and ways of life…
As they come out of their oceanic reverie, Ehukai turns their attention back to the ear piece. Their remediation work relies on a commitment to interspecies justice, which in turn depends upon good interspecies communication. The instant-ear translator was normally excellent at picking up on the different cues offered by the ecosystem and species they were working around. However, there was something at the algal bloom that it hadn’t been able to translate, perhaps due to some interference. They shift some of the settings hoping to remove the static buzz that lingered, and as they do so, the green light flashes – it is picking up a communication signal. Ehukai quickly inserts the earpiece just in time to hear the info-transfer:
species: Megaptera novaeangliae
Ehukai glances at the handheld device and the visual track flashed up, showing the route of the frustrated wise old creature. It looks like it is heading to the GCOS to have its say, like so many other sea-dwellers that had passed the vessel this week. Ehukai had heard from their sister that the Council would be meeting in a few days and there was a contentious treaty up for negotiation. It was set to be the biggest convention yet, and they weren’t surprised that marine mammals wanted to have their say.
Ehukai frantically downloads the telemetrics file, which might contain some useful hormonal cues or vital signs that could be interpreted, and makes a mental note to upload them to the Mareboard. As they do this, a newsflash pops up on his retina: Adaora “Shaki” Papa, the activist-turned-shark has just given a speech outside the GCOS voicing her disapproval of the new floating communities that have been spawning in the High Seas. She forcefully states that ‘their voluminous infrastructures are altering animal behaviours and other critical ecological functions.’ She should know, reflects Ehukai, as her hybrid nature affords her a set of senses that even our current technologies fail to match. Adoara had biohacked her body with many of the properties of the mako shark using CRISPR, a technology that enables editing the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence, and stem-cell 3D printing. She now has rough skin, has replaced her legs with a powerful tail and can detect electromagnetic fields, chemical trails, sea currents, and light pollution as naturally as a shark would. With this new perspective and these hybrid abilities, Adoara has been campaigning tirelessly as a living embodiment of multi-species approaches to conservation and the death of anthropocentrism. In her speech, she goes on to explain that the newest seasteads are having impacts on the marine ecosystems that human research has not even contemplated.
Adaora’s identity and campaigning has stimulated many seasteading communities to seek a shift of values to reconcile and balance animal rights with human rights. It has made many people realise that humans are hyper-aware of some impacts (like carbon emissions), but rather ignorant about many more. Adaora’s ‘Give Nature a Break’ campaign- advocating for seasons during which all human activities on the HIgh Seas are suspended- is what has led to this latest GCOS negotiation on the rights of all species. Ehukai reflects that individuals like Adaora are so important in educating humans about sea creatures and their sentience (like the fact that fish do feel pain) and overcoming these aspects of human ignorance. It just goes to show that we have a long way yet to reach true equality for all species. Her commitment gives resonanceto the need for honest exchange between all creatures. Recognition and respect for all cultures, values, knowledge systems and languages- human and nonhuman- will hopefully lead to more protection beyond just the human realm.
Ehukai realises that Adoara might be their generation’s Sefina and they are proud that their work is contributing towards multi-species approaches that will enrich the slower deliberative processes already taking place to give all beings a voice in decision making. Long live this life-changing legacy!
Nature for Nature
Sentient Stewards of the Sea
The sun flickered off the whitecaps, and Ofera squinted to starboard as she kept her eyes trained on the hydrojet — sprinting across the sky faster, almost, than her eyes could track. No sound, just a plume of condensing moisture behind the hydrogen powered turbines. She shook her head, still not able truly to appreciate that hydrogen was used in those things, nor that people were lounging up there, in high speed, carbon-free luxury. Turning to the bow, she took in the scene unfolding on the deck. Her deck. The sensing swarms formed a swirling cloud of silver as they poured into their deck housing, only to emerge moments later with the latest synthetic bio-polymer fouling prevention. Some plunged overboard, into the black, while the rest dispersed upward — capturing a full three-dimensional impression of, well, everything. She glanced at the control panels located on the Manta’s bridge, which showed real-time renderings of schools of fish with genetic diversity estimates, next to real-time tracking of local pollutants to their origins upwind — no doubt with notifications already being flung to the responsible High Seas regulators. She bumped into the Printer, partially disconnected from the wall.
“Sorry!” said Ofera.
“没关系, Captain,” said the Tech politely, whose orange pant legs were the only thing visible from behind its polyp extruders. Then less politely, went on to mutter “I swear, every time we print this Galaxea fascicularis these 该死的 extruders gum up!.” Captain Ofera smiled and patted the Tech’s legs in solidarity as she walked around to port. After their mission at the methane seep, they would continue onward to deploy reef seeders, of which the G. fascicularis (an ecologically significant octopus coral) scaffold was but one part.
She paused, lost in a moment of reflection, and to stretch her back – both of which she seemed to be doing more often these days. Ofera was part of the Ocean Stewardship Convivium’s Mare Mo-Reee team, sent out to Monitor, Rehabilitate, Repair and Restore the Ocean. Set up in 2120 after the latest reconfiguration of the Global Council of Ocean Stewardship to include non-human representatives and become a Convivium, it was thanks to work that her and her multi-species colleagues had undertaken that the ocean was truly flourishing. Richer in life than in any recent generation’s memory. Indeed, everyone around the world had these real-time, three-dimensional wonders available to them. She stopped, and pinned herself against the peeling, port-side wall, as a few more Techs piloted a drone lifter to the bow, with yet more sensing equipment, this time for phytoplankton-mat sequestration monitoring at the coast. Bound for the bottom, fathoms below. The mats were essential for nutrient cycling and storing enormous amounts of carbon, but Holy Sefina, did they smell terrible. As her hand brushed the gunwale, she pondered. Forty years on board her ship, the Manta. A lot of fondness and memories, even though everything had been patched and re-patched. Maybe this final trip was going to be a quiet one for her…
Miya’s voice broke her reverie. Ofera heard the argument at the stern before seeing it.
“This is unbelievable!” Miya shouted, “It was specifically designed to do a job and I have invested huge amounts of capital into this. Nobody is leaving this ship before I see some results!”
Jeremy raised their voice in reply, but their tone was even. “Do you even know who is to blame for the fact that the seep is spiralling out of control? It is you humans who drilled for natural gas there. Why should we be responsible for your mistakes? The drilling is disturbing the benthic communities too! We are not going down there.”
Ofera paused against the bulkhead and replayed the start of the conversation in her Feed, a captain’s prerogative always to know what was going on on her ship. She played it at high speed…
Her Feed opened on a scene captured from the stern camera. The willowy lawyer held a rugged transparent case protectively, with the venture capitalist, Miya, standing opposite her, hands on hips. The lawyer was speaking. What was her name? Right, Gambini…
Gambini said “I can’t believe we’re talking — again — about the rights of nature on the High Seas. This is ancient history, legally speaking. It’s done.”
Ofera nodded to herself. Years ago, microbes were granted their own legal rights — she still didn’t totally understand. Especially since microbes were still being farmed in vast mats, to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. And now they could think for themselves… wasn’t that exploitation or indentured servitude?
Gambini continued, “And I am here as a legal representative for Jeremy.”
Miya scoffed, “Jeremy – they’re a microbe, not a person. And let’s not forget why they exist.” She pointed her thumb at her own chest. “My company backed the experiments in microbe sentience and developed the genestock to home in on methane seeps. We’re here because of my innovations and that microbe is mine.”
Ofera shook her head. Even she knew that was wrong. Sentient species — dolphins, chimps, even octopi — now had the same rights as people; this was one of the fundamental pillars of the new Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which had been re-negotiated in 2115. High-Seas carbon communities were just that, communities of sentient species — microbial, human, and otherwise — working together to mitigate climate change by removing carbon in the atmosphere.
Right on cue from Gambini’s statement, the rugged transparent case began to bioluminesce, as Jeremy woke up. A voice was heard from the case, “If you have any questions about legal precedent, I am versed on all the case law and current international regulation. Happy to help.” Was that… self-satisfaction from a microbe?
Jeremy, the sentient microbe, proceeded, “I am aware of where we are and the rights of the CBD, and I refuse to be injected into the source of this methane pollution. It is dangerous and the long-term effects of methane on microbe health are not yet sufficiently understood. You will have to come up with another way to solve your problem.”
“This is unbelievable!” Miya shouted in Ofera’s Feed.
Back in the present Ofera sighs. Barely a second had passed since Ofera’s Feed had sent the associated images and sound directly into her cortex. She walked with her best captain’s stride to the stern, all the while surprised by how opinionated and strong-willed microbes could be. Honestly, she had sort of taken it for granted that Jeremy wanted to go along with everything- glad just to be able to help out.
Miya was not giving up so easily. She began to use Jeremy’s own argument to convince them that time was running out and that the seep would emit more and more methane into the ocean, irreparably damaging the deep-sea ecosystem. This was despite the fact that only very small sections of the deep sea had been allocated for carbon storage, even small leaks could prove disastrous if not repaired immediately.
Ofera, standing away from the scene, could tell that Jeremy was scared and uncertain, but then they interrupted Gambini’s argument with Miya. Apparently they had changed their mind, suddenly agreeing to go along with the original plan to head down and fix a methane leak in one of the older deep-sea storage units. Gambini stepped aside with the case, appearing to converse privately with Jeremy, overhearing the words “legal precedent” and “autonomous sentience”, but most of it was inaudible.
“What are we waiting for, let’s get that microbe down to that leak!” Miya said, unable to keep victory out of her voice.
The crew jumped into action, with Techs craning the small, but sturdy Tarawa submarine vessel into the dive pool, its reinforced domes and retracting tentacles ready for the deep. Miya and Gambini both went through their pre-dive check, putting on survival packs and checking their mixes, while a tech prepped Jeremy’s case, still emitting the bioluminescence. Ofera walked over to the Tech checking the hydrogen fuel diagnostics.
Tapping it on the shoulder, Ofera said, “You know what? I’ll take it from here. I haven’t been down in a while. The Manta will be in fine hands while I’m gone.”
The Tech looked unsure, “Are you feeling okay, Cap?”
Captain Ofera smiled, “Never better. Just a quick dip into the deep blue.” Miya, Gambini, Jeremy and now Ofera boarded the Tarawa, getting settled in the cramped space. Ofera cycled the airlocks, ran the pre-dive checks, and waved to the assembled Techs on deck. They waved back uncertainly. Really, they should not be this surprised, thought Ofera.
The descent was fast, quiet, and dark. Ofera paused at Feed break when they had gone deeper than the broadcasters could get decent signal. Closing her eyes for a moment to say a short prayer, she was interrupted when blazing, uncanny lights shone into the Tarawa, blinding everyone. Fear gripped Ofera.
“What is that?!” exclaimed Miya.
“Greetings. We are the Gaia Swarm” said an off-key choir through the Tarawa’s speakers. “We speak for the ocean.” Jeremy could be heard chuckling in their case-tank.
Ofera’s mind raced through recent Swarm news. Last week in the Aegean, they had boarded a drone gas tanker and piloted it back to port. Two weeks ago, a pirate tuna crew was ‘lost’ at sea, with Gaia Swarm claiming sole responsibility.
Miya was frozen in mute shock. Gambini, somewhat more collected, asked “What do you think they want?”. The word ‘retribution’ kept on making an unwelcome appearance in Ofera’s mind. She shuddered as she heard a voice, but quickly realised it was not The Swarm, but Jeremy.
“I called them,” said Jeremy. Miya, Ofera and Gambiniwere stunned. Jeremy continued. “They are angry. I am too. Despite current efforts, our world, our ocean is still too warm, pushing species past the brink of extinction. Polar bears are but one of many Arctic casualties. The ice caps keep melting and a wildly fluctuating pH has turned the ocean into a race for survival for most marine life. The Gaia Swarm speaks for the mute sea.”
Meanwhile, the submersible continued its descent, anchored to a rock, and turned its lights off. They sat staring at the bioluminescent cloud of former rare-earth miners swirling in a terrifying murmuration.
The discordant voice spoke again, as if from many voices at once, “Now that you’re settled, we can have a little chat. We were not searching for you. We were ‘cleaning up’ after we found out about an abuse of the global wildlife feeds that keep track of animal populations to make sure they are not abused. Open data on the ocean serves some important goals above the tide, but we must clean up those who abuse the knowledge of where fish make their homes.”
Ofera shivered at what ‘clean up’ could mean.
“But we’re glad that Jeremy signalled us. We have come to see that no harm comes to Jeremy, and if necessary free them.”
Ofera had heard rumours that the Gaia Swarm had been loosed upon the world by a creative biohacker collective; environmentalists targeting illegal fishers and whoever else dares to harm marine life. Others say they emerged independently, operating according to their own script of recompense.
Gambini, silent till this point, said “Maybe we should let them know that we are here to fix environmental problems, not create them.”
The Gaia Swarm responded, “Are you really? I know that you have some Capitalist scum onboard who want to see their investment made good. Perhaps we should plug them in the methane seep, and see whether that works, no?”
The bellicose Miya had gone wide-eyed and remained mute. Ofera sat there considering. In the beginning of her career, she was confident that these sorts of efforts were good. Fix the methane leaks on the ocean bottom. That was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? Even if the carbon only had to be stored there in the first place due to a human inability to act in the planet’s best interests and just stop burning fossil fuels early enough.
But, if Jeremy said no, that’s the end of the discussion — it is their right to decide, just as it would be her own. Ofera went to interject in the conversation between Gambini and the Gaia Swarm, when Jeremy spoke up.
“Listen to me.” They were quiet, but firm. “I am tired of being talked about instead of talked to. I might not be a human, but I am a conscious being, with wants and needs that you keep ignoring. Now I find myself in the middle of a clash of extremes — reckless extractionists versus moralizing rogues. You are both intolerant and blind to other ways of seeing the world. But — in this case you should all be more interested in my worldview right now.”
Everyone stared at Jeremy, ashamed they didn’t realize that what Jeremy was asking for was simply a recognition of their agency. Overcome with empathy, even though she still didn’t understand why, Ofera asked Jeremy what to do next.
“We need greater representation of the microbial community in decision making in Mare Mo-Reee,” said Jeremy, “to ensure similar deployments will be both effective and respectful. Risks must be shared among those that are benefitting. Right now, we — the microbes — are experiencing the greatest risk – which is to our very existence. We would argue that microbes employed in the deep sea should be involved in such decision-making. Morally, humans are the reason we are in this dilemma, and yet they are not the ones being sacrificed.”
Then, Jeremy declared that they would fulfil their purpose, for the good of all marine life. But added, “We just wish we weren’t doing this by ourselves”.
Unexpectedly moved, Ofera spoke up, “Would you permit us to stand vigil with you and witness your actions?”
Though they had no eyes, or face, Ofera felt that the Gaia Swarm turned and stared at her. Then Jeremy spoke. “Captain, that would be appreciated,” said Jeremy, “We give you our thanks.”
Miya, confused but also apparently competitively empathetic, promised Jeremy that their act would not be in vain. She would work with her fund and High-Seas leadership of the Ocean Stewardship Convivium to create a collaborative effort to make bioremediation safer, possibly not leading to the demise of microbes. Then Jeremy requested to join the Gaia Swarm, to continue existing if only in a new way.
A discordant “Yes” echoed in the small sub.
At this the Gaia Swarm swept away, lighting the path down to the seep, and the Tarawa was piloted downward out of Ofera’s control. Jeremy’s case was passed through the rear gate into the open deep, and was injected into the seep. A tendril of the Gaia Swarm reached into the seep as well, ostensibly absorbing Jeremy into its swarm intelligence. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the Gaia Swarm was gone, and the deep held its breath once more.
The trip back to the surface was not quite funereal, but there was no loud chatter. Back on deck, the Techs began cleaning and locking down the Tarawa for the next stage of the Manta’s journey. Ofera, still mentally stuck in the sub, climbed to the crow’s nest. A priority message blinked in her Feed. She tapped it, opening the message, “Again, you have my thanks.”
Ofera blinked and read the rest as it scrolled in the corner of her eye.
“We are sending a message to the Ocean Stewardship Convivium. We will be demanding all sentient creatures have a REAL seat at the table: human, animal, microbe and machine. Moreover, Jeremy’s consciousness will give first-hand testimony of the dangers of deep-sea drilling and carbon storage. Our aim is to achieve a ban once and for all on human activities on the seafloor.”
Ofera started at the abrupt end of the message. She sighed and thought that the Convivium had better pay attention, given the tremendous uncontested power the Gaia Swarm wielded in the High Seas. Lifting her gaze from the stern and the rapidly setting sun in the west, she realised she had been saying her goodbyes this entire cruise. Turning around toward the bow and looking out at her crew, she realised that the ocean apparently had other things in mind for her and the Manta and that a new mission was just starting to emerge.
The Power of Storytelling for Transformative Change
“The imagination is a means for breaking the seductive yet nefarious hegemonic view of the given as the only possible reality—to achieve the velocity necessary to escape the gravitational pull of the here and now… we must be able to imagine change before we can pursue it” (Bendor 2018, pg. 158).
Transformative change, as defined by IPBES, is the “fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values, needed for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human wellbeing and sustainable development” (IPBES 2021). Solutions to global problems that have local drivers and local impacts, will need fresh approaches and plenty of lateral thought. Storytelling shows much promise as a vector to initiate transformative change towards more sustainable ocean and planetary futures. For example, Riedy and Waddock (2022)’s survey identifies transformative social imaginaries emanating from shared stories as key in helping to identify and promote transformative pathways. The role of stories as a central means of visioning is being interrogated by experts undertaking the IPBES Transformative Change Assessment that is currently underway (IPBES 2021), with the hope that criteria defining influential visions in this regard can be identified and invoked to encourage much needed changes and innovative solutions to human-nature relationships, especially in reducing conflicts. These stories, although seemingly far beyond the deep blue yonder, both literally and imaginatively, speak volumes about the capacity for humans to reimagine, reframe and realign society’s governance and stewardship of life on Earth.
Storytelling as a tool for envisioning the future of the High Seas
Towards the end of the workshop series, the high-seas experts took part in semi-structured interviews about their experiences participating in creative and imaginative futuring methods (See Lübker 2022 for more information). They described specific potential applications – particularly for storytelling – in their line of work. Interviewees stated that the creative work was useful to think differently or ‘out of the box’ about their area of expertise, pushing their cognitive limits and broadening their horizons. What now may seem like impossible and intractable environmental problems with few realistic solutions, may actually prove to be solvable, or at least more manageable, if we are willing to work together more abstractly, across multiple scales and dimensions, including those that challenge us or make us uncomfortable. A clear example is the debate and deliberation around sentient beings and the ramifications this notion is likely to have on the way we as humans live in harmony with nature. We are hopeful that this philosophy will underpin the need for creatively thinking about “transformative change”.
Interesting and immersive stories were also thought to foster an emotional connection with the ocean, decreasing the psychological distance to this geographically quite distant ecosystem, thereby fostering human-nature relationships. On a broader level, interviewees mentioned that imaginative approaches could also help to increase empathy with oceanic wildlife, create consciousness in the population and engage diverse audiences, which would not come into contact with High-Seas issues otherwise. Crucially, many of the participants play key roles in shaping the future of the High Seas, whether through participating in ongoing negotiations or undertaking scientific research that will inform these negotiations, and intend to allow these activities to shape future approaches and outputs. Further, it was suggested that policy makers working for intergovernmental organisations should participate in exercises similar to the ones used in the workshops, to shift their perceptions and foster a more transformative and empathising mindset.
Some interviewees also mentioned how such approaches could open spaces for dialogue and reflection, potentially evoking a heightened interest in the High Seas beyond those stakeholder groups already engaged. Infusing science with creative, artistic elements could interest and inspire audiences beyond academia (Merrie et al., 2018), as stories are more accessible and memorable than traditional scientific communication (Dahlström, 2014).
Further, more specific applications for creative visions of the future were shared. For example, a participant described how she would like to start her next strategy or horizon scanning meeting with an introductory talk by a creative futurist, to set the scene in a way that fosters long term thinking, giving participants confidence to share even the boldest of ideas without fear of judgement. Another participant stated that she would like to include visual art into her presentations, to keep her audience engaged. It was mentioned that creative scenario building exercises might be actionable tools to use with younger audiences, for example in schools, to allow them to personally relate to the scientific content by having them write about relevant issues using characters and plotlines.
We therefore argue that creative endeavours of co-production that promote and encourage imagination for current challenges should be considered as important tools in the science-policy interface (Pereira et al. 2019), especially regarding the High Seas, which is part of the Global Commons (Claudet et al. 2021). Creative imaginings should not only be a critical tool in how we assess potential futures, but also a way to elicit empathetic responses (Pereira et al 2019). As researchers, we can enable co-production processes that enable deeper investment and more creative participation in these ideas, and also help inform decision-makers of the options available to them. We further hope that with this creative spark, we are able to take a step along that journey of first imagining and then actioning a better future for the High Seas and for the Earth as a whole.
Thank you to our funders without whom these workshops could not have taken place. The Future Ecosystems For Africa programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in partnership with Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation for co-funding of the in-person workshop in Cape Town. The Nippon Foundation Nereus Program network, also for co-funding the workshop in Cape Town and the finalization of this report.
LJS was funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) under the One Ocean Hub project.
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1 Global Change Institute, Wits University
2 Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
3 Carnegie Mellon
4 Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, USA
5 Center for Limnology, University of Wisconsin – Madison, U.S.
6 Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
7 Oceanographic Institute, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil
9 School of Biological Sciences, Area of Ecology and Biodiversity, Swire Institute of Marine Science, and
10 State Key Laboratory of Marine Pollution, The University of Hong Kong, Pok Fu Lam Road, Hong Kong SAR, China
11 Independent Ocean Advocate, Consultant and Founder of Women4Oceans
12 Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
13. Department of Biological Sciences, Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo, Mozambique
14. SpeSeas, D’Abadie, Trinidad and Tobago
15. Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
16. IFREMER, Unité halieutique Manche‐Mer du Nord Ifremer, HMMN, F‐62200 Boulogne sur mer, France
17. Seascape Consultants Ltd., Romsey UK
18 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa
19. Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
20. CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.