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The Ocean Needs a Storyteller

Comm Lead students are launching an ambitious effort to amplify and refine the way we tell stories about ocean health.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are inextricably tied to the ocean. Local native tribes have known this for countless generations, as they’ve relied on these waters for sustenance and viewed the life they hold with gratitude and respect.

But pollution, commercial overfishing, habitat degradation, and the sheer mass of human influence upon our local waters has prompted a crisis for the fragile ecosystems below the surface — a crisis that is directly impacting the many locals who look to our waters for their food and livelihoods.This same faltering relationship between people and the ocean is echoed in coastal communities around the world.

This problem is much greater than we can imagine, but it is not without resolution or reversal.

Traditionally, dialogue around climate change has been about man-versus-nature on an epic global scale. But it is tremendously difficult to convince the average person to get past their political beliefs, personal biases and immediate interests when it comes to taking action for wildlife and ecosystems. The same can be said about the topic of ocean health.

Supported by a grant from the Nippon Foundation, by way of the global Nereus Program, a team of students from the Comm Lead program are taking a unique communication approach to confronting this problem. It involves reframing the challenge as one of supporting people within our local community who are impacted by the symptoms of declining ocean health — rather than attempting to solve the vast, overarching dilemma of environmental degradation as a whole.

Earlier this summer, students Alina Kaiser (Cohort 16) and Ari Adachi (Cohort 16) began this mission by conducting research on the numerous organizations in the Puget Sound region who are already doing good work in the space of declining ocean health and the resulting human impacts.

From there, they formulated an important question: What problem are we actually trying to solve based on the needs of impacted communities? After broad research and numerous interviews, it became clear that the most successful of these groups are strategically tackling smaller, more tangible and immediately relevant facets of the problem. Some of these facets include ocean acidification or overfishing in local waters, which subsequently impact the livelihoods, traditions, and food guarantees of local communities.

With each organization working on a crucial piece or very particular issue surrounding ocean health, the questions then changed to: How can we serve them? What can we bring to the table?

This is the unique communication challenge facing CommLead students: how to amplify and unify of the efforts of these other organizations under a common goal, to create a story around that goal, and to push it out to the public.

It’s a lofty challenge. But drawing on the power of collaboration and amplification of existing efforts, it’s not impossible.

So why use storytelling as the primary method? In some ways, the story has already written itself, with human beings as the protagonists in a quest to save each other from the life-threatening peril we’ve created by harming our own physical environment.

Put another way, the most powerful story we can tell is not about the health of broad ocean ecosystems, or even specific species. It’s about the security of communities whose livelihoods and traditions are impacted by the specific symptoms of ocean health.

It is up to us to tell that story, inspire empathy within our community, and empower people to take action.

Article by Michelle DallasPhoto by Shihyun Kung

Photo Caption: Bryna Lawrence, a hatchery technician at the Suquamish Tribe’s Grover Creek Hatchery answers questions from UW Communication Leadership student Colby Neal as part of a video for the Nereus Program. (Photo by Shihyun Kung)

Alex StonehillThe Ocean Needs a Storyteller
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