· The study carried out by the IDEAL Center and the SECOS Millennium Institute shows how citizens are linked to marine ecosystems and how they perceive the health of the ocean from their territories. The results reveal a close relationship between the perception of a healthy ocean and the happiness of those surveyed, added to a high assessment of the benefits that the ocean provides them. In addition, they point to industries and people as those that most harm the health of the sea.

· This consultation will contribute to build the first Ocean Health Index in the country; an international instrument that allows monitoring the condition of oceans and monitoring the actions that nations carry out to comply with the objectives of sustainable development.

Chile is the fourth country in the world with the largest extension of coastal zones, covering a length of 6,435 km. A large part of the national productive activity is related to the resources generated by the Pacific Ocean, which is why it is a fundamental part of the lives of millions of people. However, little is known about the perception that Chileans have about the state of health of the sea.

In order to know this vision, the Center for Dynamic Research of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) of the Austral University of Chile (UACh) and the Millennium Institute in Coastal Socio-Ecology (SECOS), created the first citizen consultation on Ocean Health, an initiative that gathered the opinions of 1,246 people between 16 and 78 years old, belonging to all regions of the country. The consultation was carried out between January and April of this year throughout the country, and its objective was to understand how citizens relate to the marine-coastal space, how they perceive the health of the ocean, what threats they recognize to the health of the ocean, and how you link the health status of the sea to your own well-being.

“The results of this citizen consulting will allow the construction of the Ocean Health Index in Chile, a scientific framework for international evaluation that measures the health of the oceans through ten indicators and that has been applied in various countries,” explains Laura Nahuelhual, coordinator of the initiative and researcher at the IDEAL Center, UACh and the SECOS Millennium Institute. With this methodology, a periodic evaluation of the state of health of the oceans in Chile can be carried out, including the pressures to which marine ecosystems are subjected, the current state and the resilience of our oceans. Finally, this index is used to monitor the actions that improve or worsen the health status of the sea in the evaluated areas, over time.

“In recent years, research on public perceptions has gained importance in marine sciences and in decision-making, given that changing the behavior of society has the potential to reduce pressures on marine-coastal ecosystems. Various studies reveal that public commitment and acceptance, as well as participatory governance, play a key role in promoting marine conservation and restoration programs. For this reason, understanding how the public perceives and relates to the ocean is essential for the success of social commitment, the integration of human dimensions in ocean conservation and the achievement of sustainable development goals,” adds the researcher.

Most of the people who participated in this consultation (83.1%) consider that the sea provides benefits.

What is the sea for Chileans?

Those who participated in the instance were able to make known their perception of what the ocean means to them through three concepts. In general terms, Chilean men and women perceive that the sea represents life (17%,) tranquility (7%,) peace (5%,) beauty (3%,) immensity (3%,) freedom (3%,) food (3%) and diversity (3%.)

Most of the people who participated in this consultation (83.1%) consider that the sea provides benefits. In this sense, according to the results, from a list of ten benefits provided by a healthy ocean, the most valued were the opportunities for tourism and recreation (89.4%;) climate regulation, which generates an environment suitable for living (86.5%) and the sense of rootedness and local identity (86.1%.) Finally, 95% of the inhabitants of Chile consider that a healthy ocean contributes a lot to their happiness.

“These responses suggest the significant level of dependence that people have on the health of the ocean. It is not just that the sea provides certain resources, but rather that it symbolizes the survival of oneself and other species, in addition to its contribution to subjective well-being, represented by individual peace and tranquility. In a hectic world like the one we currently live in, the results seem to indicate that interaction with a healthy ocean is an important component of the quality of life of people in Chile,” explains Laura Nahuelhual.

Sea health status in Chile

According to the survey, 51% of those surveyed are related to the sea outside their communes of residence. “With these results, we can deduce that most people do not have a daily relationship with the coastal zone and, however, most perceive that the health status of the sea is fair or bad,” says Gonzalo Campos, research assistant of the IDEAL Center in charge of analyzing the data from the citizen consultation. Specifically, 49% consider that the health of the sea is in a fair state, while 21% believe that it is in poor condition and 12% in very poor condition.

“What is most interesting is that of those who consider that the ocean is in a very bad, bad or fair state, 83% believe that this affects their way of life moderately or a lot. In subjective terms, this indicates that people have a degree of connection and empathy for the unfavorable situation of the sea, despite their distant relationship,” adds the researcher.

Which coastal areas would be healthier and which would be damaged?

Another of the query items was related to the association of coastal cities with concepts such as “healthy” or “damaged” ocean. The consultation showed that the beaches and coasts of the communities of Antarctica and Cabo de Hornos, Punta Arenas, La Higuera, Valdivia and Caldera are frequently associated with a healthy ocean. While localities in the communes of Quintero, Puerto Montt, Valparaíso, Puchuncaví, Coronel and Talcahuano, were more frequently associated with a damaged ocean.

“The areas mentioned as healthy, according to the people surveyed, are mainly isolated areas, or with little human population and less industrial activity, far from these experiences, in the southern south (Antartica, Cape Horn and Punta Arenas,) small north (La Higuera and Caldera,) or that are recognized more for their tourist value or quality of life, such as Valdivia. These results suggest a negative relationship between human presence and the health of the ocean”, Campos says.

Regarding the perception of a damaged ocean, those surveyed blame companies or industries (33.5%) and people (31.5%) for the problems that afflict the coasts of our country. The consultation also revealed that what most damages the sea, regardless of location, is household waste (25.3%,) pathogens or nutrients (20.1%,) chemicals (16.2%) and industrial waste (16%.)

“Achieving the goal of a healthy ocean is a shared responsibility and, according to the opinions we collected, certain actions to maintain the health of the sea clearly fall on the conduct of individuals and companies. Personal, business or State actions regarding the health of the sea must be planned in the short, medium and long term and focused according to the needs that arise in the different territories and according to the characteristics of each coastal area. The reasons why the ocean is damaged are not the same throughout the national territory, therefore the actions should be differentiated,” concludes Nahuelhual, professor at the UACh Department of Economics and also a researcher at the Transdisciplinary Center for Environmental and Sustainable Human Development Studies (CEAM-UACh.)