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Summary: Traditionally, science is objective and thus separated from all our emotional responses to the world. But, as neurosciences can now describe physiological correlates of emotional states, researchers in other fields are beginning to view emotions as a biological reaction that they can use in many different areas, from medicine to conservation.
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Beside the seaside (excerpt)
Like Steffen is interested in our instinctive connection with the landscape, Nichols wonders why we do like to be beside the seaside, and whether the appeal of open water can be used to further the cause of wildlife conservation.
Nichols described how he came to study ecology due to an emotional connection he felt while catching snapping turtles in the Chesapeake Bay in his childhood and from visits to the Pacific coast in Baja California as a biology student. At the time, the black turtle (also known as the East Pacific green turtle (Chelonia mydas) was on the brink of extinction, so most experts considered his project a lost cause. Moreover, most funding agencies wouldn’t consider his childhood affection for the species and personal connection with sea turtle hunters a valid argument in favour of a research grant.
However, the Earthwatch Institute did provide funding at that point and sent many volunteers to help with the conservation and community outreach work over the years. It took a generation span of engaging with the people living along the coastline to turn sea turtle hunters and egg collectors into conservationists. In a cultural shift that Nichols calls “generational conservation”, parents are now teaching their children to look after the iconic animals the way they first learned about conservation as children 20 years ago, when the sea turtles were almost lost.
“Extended engagement with sea turtles helps build an emotional connection, which fuels the project. This is critical, because without it we’ll never have the funding for the environment we dream of,” Nichols said.
Two decades into his effort, the results show that the approach has worked. “The 2012–2013 black turtle nesting season has just concluded and our colleagues in Michoacan, Mexico report the highest numbers of nesting black turtle since 1978,” Nichols reported. There are now more than 4,000 nesting females.
“We’re barely halfway to our goal, but we have momentum and a massively dedicated team going in to the second half.” Remaining threats include risk of bycatch and the ever growing abundance of plastic waste in the oceans (Curr. Biol. (2013), 3, 135–137). Sea turtles can mistake a floating plastic bag for a jellyfish and try to eat it.
Beyond the compassion for marine species threatened by human activities, Nichols is also interested in the wider issue of our emotional links to the oceans. At an economic level, our attraction to the sea is easy to quantify, as there is no shortage of data showing how much money people pay in order to spend their holidays by the seaside, and how much more they are willing to pay for a room with a sea view.
The geographic distribution of population density also suggests a preference for seaside living, with 23 of the 30 largest cities sited on the coast. Moreover, recent research using census data from England shows that self-reported health and wellbeing is better for people living near the coast (Health & Place (2012), 18, 1198–1201).
Looking out on the vast blue sea,
Nichols suggested, is an antidote to our hectic, technology-driven lifestyles, an idea explored in the conference series Blue Mind, the fourth instalment of which will take place in Cornwall, in the southwest of England, next year. Beyond ecosystem services, Nichols concluded, the oceans also provide us with cognitive services, offering us calm and relaxation as well as opportunities for introspection and insight.
Conservation science and policy, according to Nichols, should plug into this positive, relaxed thinking, emphasising how the oceans and nature in general make us feel good, rather than focusing only on threats and scares, which can fuel fear and anxiety. In this spirit, he offered the attendants a blue marble each, representing our blue ocean planet as it is seen from space.
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