Stories and the Sea: Harnessing Local Ecological Knowledge to Save our Ocean

Stories and the sea: harnessing local ecological knowledge to save our ocean
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Stories and the sea: harnessing local ecological knowledge to save our ocean. Image: Hannah Cocks

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Stories and the sea: harnessing local ecological knowledge to save our ocean

Sharing Maldivian fishers’ wisdom, reflections on the role of storytelling in ocean conservation, and SeaVoice, an innovative platform dedicated to elevating coastal voices worldwide.

The sea has long fascinated humanity. Stories of the sea have been told throughout human history and passed down through generations. Older stories, of a different kind, are held in fossils and constituted in sediment. Stories and the communication of knowledge make up the fabric of our existence. But how can we harness this storytelling power to shape our future? 

The threats facing our marine environment have gained global attention as countries are striving to achieve the 30×30 goal—protecting 30% of the natural world by 2030. However, to designate, manage and protect our marine areas effectively, we need to understand the whole picture. Traditional Western science alone isn’t enough; we must also understand the social and cultural dimensions shaping human interactions with the marine environment.

Local ecological knowledge encompasses the wealth of experience local communities have gained through observations and interactions with their natural surroundings over time. This knowledge can help us understand the natural world whilst also opening avenues for meaningful interaction with communities whose lives are shaped by the sea. Through this, we can develop sustainable solutions that benefit both ecosystems and communities.

Jinaad testing a fisher’s knowledge on marine species as part of our local ecological knowledge survey.
Jinaad testing a fisher’s knowledge on marine species as part of our local ecological knowledge survey. Image: Hannah Cocks

In the Maldives, collaborating with the Manta Trust’s Maldives Manta Conservation Programme, I discovered how fishers’ wisdom can indicate conservation hotspots, inform effective management strategies, highlight pressing environmental threats, and even yield some fishing tips. I arrived in the Maldives with little idea of what it would be like beyond the postcard images of overwater bungalows typical of resort islands. What I found were rich communities, kind people, and a wealth of knowledge and kinship with the ocean.

The Maldives supports the largest known population of manta rays, constituting a major tourist attraction. However, anthropogenic pressures like fishing line entanglement and boat traffic injuries threaten these species. Working with Jinaad from the Manta Trust, I spent two months visiting the 11 inhabited islands of Laamu Atoll, conducting 123 interviews with fishers, and engaging with island councils to explore local ecological knowledge about manta rays and broader conservation issues.

Jinaad presenting our research and the work of the Maldives Manta Conservation Programme to a local council.
Jinaad presenting our research and the work of the Maldives Manta Conservation Programme to a local council. Image: Hannah Cocks

We learned that manta rays were once hunted with large harpoons, their massive gait plowing small boats through the ocean when caught. One elder fisherman recalled using manta ray skins to preserve large tanks of water. Thankfully, these practices ceased long before ray species were officially protected in the Maldives in 2014. 

Fishers were shown a map of the atoll and consistently pointed to a specific area where they had frequently spotted manta rays. Through this, we identified a potential new site of conservation importance. This discovery illustrates the untapped knowledge fishers possess, which can fill gaps in scientific literature and inform marine management.

Fishers’ positive attitudes towards manta rays stem from tourism and economic benefits, as well as seeing them as indicators of bait fish, which are vital for the fishers’ livelihood as they’re used as bait to catch larger species. Most fishers were eager to participate in marine conservation efforts, valuing both the education they could receive and the insights they could offer policymakers. Understanding these attitudes is crucial for developing inclusive management strategies that empower communities and ensure they benefit from the research.

Though we were there to discuss manta rays, the knowledge exchange and storytelling extended far beyond the scope of our research, with discussions deeply rooted in both nature and culture, illustrating how these aspects of life are inextricably linked. 

A young boy took me on a tour of his island, detailing his love of the small creatures that clung to the sea wall. Maldivian children speak excellent English, and whilst I tried to learn the basics of Divehi, they were miles ahead in my own tongue. Fishers gave us bags of mangos by the dozen during the mango season, leading to lazy afternoons swinging in Joali’s (traditional Maldivian rope chairs), devouring our hoard. After a hot day of meeting fishers and hearing their fascinating stories, Jinaad and I stopped at a rockpool, where we watched juvenile batfish flit like leaves below the surface.

One afternoon, we came to a dockyard where three fishermen were sitting in a makeshift shed shaded from the sun. They made traditional Maldivian dishes and sat by the sea, laughing, talking, and passing around the infamous betel nut, which was chewed for its stimulating properties. Eager to partake in local traditions, I accepted a handful and promptly tipped it into my mouth. The bitter taste was intense, and only my determination to save face kept me chewing like the other fishers despite my dry mouth and watering eyes. One of the fishers gave me a knowing, humorous look. 

That evening, they took us out on their boat for longline fishing. I caught nothing, but a few hours in, one of the men beckoned excitedly and handed me a plastic wire to haul in a catch. Without fishing rods, the wire cut into my hand as I pulled in the surprisingly heavy fish. The fishermen laughed genially as I inexpertly dragged the fish onto the boat. I must have looked very out of touch to men who have lived on the waves their whole lives. We boated back with bioluminescence illuminating the waves, and I felt a deep sense of appreciation for their way of life and the stories they had shared.

two men on a boat
Heading out on a boat with a local from Gan, Laamu atoll. Image: Hannah Cocks

I will never forget these experiences, grateful for the kindness of the locals who welcomed me into their daily lives. However, some encounters were sobering. I met a man who described how the sea had risen drastically during his life. He showed me where the sea had once risen to, some way into the water, and where it was now. The beach was barely a sliver and discarded plastic bottles washed up on the shore as the waters crept closer. 

The people of Laamu Atoll have a deep connection to the sea and fishing, but their stories carry a sense of urgency. Countries like the Maldives made up of small islands, have often contributed little to the rising carbon emissions, yet they will see the greatest impacts. Their islands will be among the first to face the rising sea levels and erosion of their shores. They will pay the price for the great contributions of carbon from the West.

Studies that collaborate with local communities offer hope. Local ecological knowledge can contribute meaningfully to species management as seen through our research, but the connections made during these studies are equally as important. Collaboration between scientists and local communities is more important than ever, and only ongoing knowledge exchange and community education can yield sustainable marine protected areas, giving local voices a key role in their natural environment.

Understanding and sharing stories like these is vital for sustainable marine management. I’d like to introduce a platform I’m currently working on that harnesses the power of storytelling to engage, enlighten, and educate. Through thought-provoking articles, captivating stories, and insightful narratives, SeaVoice sheds light on the intersection between the ocean and culture, inspiring collective responsibility for our blue spaces. On June 8th, to celebrate World Oceans Day, we’re debuting our first-ever book, the Annual, to encourage others to read stories spanning the globe from people who work, live, and survive by bodies of water. If you’d like to learn more, you can do so here

Integrating both cultural and natural aspects into marine conservation is not just beneficial but essential. Recognizing and valuing the stories and knowledge of those who live by and with the sea can create more effective and inclusive marine protected areas, ensuring a healthier future for our oceans and the communities that depend on them. 

This article was written by Hannah Cocks, ocean PhD researcher, Head of Creative at SeaVoice, and Research Assistant at the Cultural Heritage Framework Programme, an endorsed action of the UN Ocean Decade. If you’d like to read about the research in this article, you can find the full paper here

To engage with more ocean stories exploring the intersection between ocean and culture, visit SeaVoice, an innovative platform endorsed by the Ocean Decade Heritage Network’s Cultural Heritage Framework Programme and an official programme of the United Nations Ocean Decade. An online magazine and, coming on June 8th, an annual book. If you’d like to contribute or collaborate please reach out to

Read other articles from the SeaVoice community:

Conservation-Minded Fishers with Generations of Wisdom

Pearl Farming in the Philippines:  Cultural Heritage in Community-Centered Marine Protected Areas

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