Blog post

Exploring the different images of North Sea Nature for effective policy making

February 9, 2024

Different stakeholders put an increasing demand on the resources of the North Sea, while at the same time the sea is an important biodiversity hotspot. Therefore, future nature conservation policies for the North Sea need to be carefully considered. The Dutch government commissioned FNP to provide insight into the different visions and perspectives that stakeholders have on the North Sea. This blog introduces the five images of North Sea Nature that can be distinguished, and in what way this is relevant for government policy-making.

by Arjen Buijs

Hiking on a Sunday afternoon, looking out of a train window or cycling to work, we cannot help but witness the beauty of our natural environment, hear the sounds of non-human animals and admire the stately old trees. For many of us, these direct experiences influence our drive to protect non-human nature and its beauty and diversity. Marine nature, however, is less visible and most of us are not aware of the diversity of living beings in seas and oceans.

The North Sea hosts a huge diversity of species and many habitats are under threat of human activities. Moreover, the use and desired services of oceans and seas - such as wind energy, fishery and shipping - have increased enormously. The UN Decade on Ocean Science has as its central mission to foster transformative ocean science solutions for sustainable development, by connecting humans with our oceans and seas. Marine conservation policies have increasingly acknowledged that addressing complex sustainability problems like biodiversity loss requires inter- and transdisciplinary approaches. Furthermore, there is growing attention for the genuine inclusion of plural perspectives and knowledge practices (i.e., acknowledging the diversity of vision and preferences of all stakeholders) as key conditions for the transformative change that is needed for sustainable co-existence between humans and oceans.

The various forms of use and desired services in the Dutch North Sea put an increasing pressure on its nature and limited space. This leads to complex challenges for management within international, European and national policy contexts. To be able to develop effective policy it is essential to understand which different views stakeholders have on the North Sea. Therefore, we have studied stakeholder views on desirable and undesirable future developments for the North Sea, and options for multifunctional use of the sea. What does their ideal North Sea nature look like and which perspectives on future developments can be distinguished? In order to do so, we used earlier research into images of nature (Buijs, 2009) and the Nature-Futures Framework (Pereira et al., 2020).

Based on interviews, document analysis and workshops, five images have emerged: pristine nature, autonomous nature, optimised nature, animated nature and functional nature. These images differ in the dominant value attributed to nature, in the perceived importance of scientific knowledge, and in the perceived relationship between humans and nature. For example, both pristine and autonomous nature emphasise the intrinsic value of nature: above all else, nature is considered valuable in and of itself and has an inherent worth that does not depend on its utility to humans. However, they differ in their perception of ‘optimal’ nature. The pristine image of nature holds as an ideal from the past, before humans influenced non-human nature, while autonomous nature has a strong process focus, inspired by a rewilding vision on nature conservation. Notably, strongly diverging views exist between the images of optimised nature and animated nature. While the optimised image of nature puts a strong focus on nature-based solutions (for example, attempts to combine windmills with artificial reefs), the animated image focuses on the relational and on the authenticity of nature and marine culture (such as small-scale fishery), resisting the visions that see nature merely as a resource.

Interestingly, visions of stakeholders on the preferred future for the North Sea converged on several issues. For example, a nature-based solution such as artificial reefs with oyster cages was supported by many, including conservation NGOs. Differences especially emerged when discussing the preferred type of nature-based solutions, the size and restrictions and the relevance of the different functions. Theoretically, the study shows that the Nature-Futures Framework that was used has the potential to map the diverse visions of stakeholders and function as communicative device to explore communalities and differences. Discussions between stakeholders at the workshop suggested potential collaborations and combinations of visions that could be explored further.

For the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Food Security, which funded this study, the results can be used in the development of nature conservation policies and to articulate the potential of nature-based solutions in engagements with other ministries responsible for Dutch North Sea policies. The full report (in Dutch) can be found here.

Buijs, A. E. (2009). Public Natures. Social Representations of Nature and Local Practices. (PhD dissertation). Wageningen University, Wageningen.

Pereira, L. M., Davies, K. K., den Belder, E., F. . . Lundquist, C. J. (2020). Developing multiscale and integrative nature–people scenarios using the Nature Futures Framework. People and Nature, 2(4), 1172-1195.