Religion and science are often thought to be at odds. This is a common misconception that while true for some groups, is not always the case. This is evidenced by the astounding success that religious organisations and conservation groups have had by joining together for the good of the planet. The work of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation has shown that religion can play a significant role in conservation efforts globally.
However, the marine environment has been little considered in these efforts despite the fact that nearly three billion people depend on the sea for their livelihood. That said, there are a lot of amazing grassroots initiatives, if you know where to look. I’d thought I’d share a few examples here today.
Sacred sites have been found to act as de facto protected areas. Such space can have a long history of sacred status or it can be granted or created in response to a recognized need. Recently, a sacred statue of the Santo Niño (the infant Jesus) from the local Roman Catholic Church was taken to the Danjon Bank area of the Phillipines by a group of local priests called the Sea Knights . This resulted in a ton of festivities, which also included a film on environmental stewardship. After the visit poaching decreased so mayor of the municipality (also a Sea Knight) decided to place two replica icons of the Santo Niño and the Blessed Virgin Mary under the water in an area with a high amount of illegal dynamite fishing. The result? No more abuse of the fisheries in the area, which is also a newly established MPA. Definitely an innovative approach to enforcement!
There are some species that carry sacred status. Take for example the Seri Indians and Leatherback Turtles. For the Seri Indians, Leatherback Turtles are legendary beings that are able to understand the Seri dialect. Appropriate modes of behaviour and conduct are clearly laid out in regards to the treatment of these animals by the people, not the least of which is the prohibition against eating them. Also, the knowledge that these people have in relation to this species and its environment has been immensely valuable when it comes to protection.
Sometimes the weight that a religious group or individual carries can lead to unique approaches that result in conservation success. In 2007 a Hindu religious leader popularized the whale shark by giving it a sacred name (“Vhali”, loved one) and partnering a new event – ‘whale shark day’ with a sacred day on the calendar. This effort acted in concert with new legislation, education programs, and a WWF awareness campaign for the protection of whale sharks on the Indian coast. The result has been a significant reduction in the whale shark hunt with fishermen now rescuing, instead of killing, the large fish.
Marine conservation has to be able to interact with and learn from all different aspects of society and a deeper understanding of the different beliefs and perceptions surrounding the oceans can only help to improve our efforts. Recognizing that religious viewpoints have shaped and continue to shape our worldviews and the place of the oceans within them is a great way to engage with innovative solutions that account for the variety of people who depend on our oceans for their livelihood.
About The Author
Julie-Beth McCarthy is a marine conservationist with ten years of interdisciplinary research experience. She received her MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management from Oxford University in 2010 where her dissertation explored the role that marine culture and heritage could play in marine planning in Newfoundland, Canada. She is interested in all aspects of marine conservation, particularly those that exist at the intersection of different disciplines. Having lived and travelled across Canada, Europe, the UK, US, and Australia, Julie-Beth recently moved to the west coast of Canada and is looking forward to contributing to Canada’s marine conservation efforts.