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Sea Scotland: breaking down barriers to young people’s engagement in policy discussion

Written by Fanny Royanez and Esther Brooker, Scottish Environment LINK

The climate and nature crisis affects the lives and prospects of young people worldwide. A global study shows that a large majority of young people are distressed by climate change, feeling that their futures stand between environmental fragility and policy decisions. The world today is home to an unprecedented 1.8 billion young individuals, ages 10 to 24, constituting the largest youth generation in history – an impassioned group who are key environmental policy stakeholders.

From ecological crises, a resounding global youth movement has emerged, resolute in its call for urgent action on environmental policies. In Scotland, an increasing number of young people echo a strong desire to influence policies that safeguard Scotland's marine environment. Their actions in tackling marine issues and engaging in policy decisions are paired with a determination to have their voices heard in policy-making spheres.

A crucial question arose: How to meaningfully integrate these young voices into forums that are traditionally dominated by scientists, conservation professionals and industry representatives, all working at a national level? How to break the barriers that often exclude the enthusiasm, innovation, and fresh perspectives that young individuals bring to the table?

Scotland’s coast © Fanny Royanez
Scotland’s coast © Fanny Royanez

My journey in marine policy began as a student at the University of Edinburgh, where I first attended Sea Scotland in 2019. I remember the stress that accompanied my entry into a room teeming with marine policy experts. Despite my desire to actively participate in marine policy decisions and projects, I did not know where to begin or whom to approach.

When, a few years later, I joined Esther at LINK as a marine policy officer, I eagerly embraced the opportunity to extend the work initiated by Esther and the Sea Scotland Conference steering group.

Sea Scotland delegates, 2023 © Scottish Environment LINK
Sea Scotland delegates, 2023 © Scottish Environment LINK

Gen Sea + Sea Scotland

Sea Scotland was created in 2016 as an annual conference series to unite the marine community and facilitate debate on critical issues facing Scotland’s marine environment, overseen by a steering group composed of the University of Edinburgh, Fauna and Flora International, Howell Marine Consulting, Nature Scot, and Scottish Environment LINK members.

In 2018, aligning with Scotland’s Year of Young People, the Sea Scotland conference was themed “Empowerment in marine stewardship: Emerging opportunities for citizens and communities in Scotland”, featuring an inspirational keynote talk by Jack Dudgeon, who was the Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for East Renfrewshire.

We realised this interdisciplinary forum may be the answer to our question of integrating younger voices into Scottish marine policy.

Asking Questions

Leading up to the conference, we teamed up with Young Scot and Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) to launch a ground-breaking survey exploring young people’s views, awareness and participation in decisions and strategies concerning the marine environment in Scotland, aiming to highlight barriers and opportunities for youth engagement with marine conservation.

Within just two weeks, the survey got 338 responses, reflecting the strength of young people’s interest in their seas.

A fundamental barrier to empowering young people to engage with marine conservation is the lack of access to be able to experience it. The survey results, published in Marine Policy, showed a clear relationship between the distance young people lived from the sea and how much they visit the sea, with some respondents having never visited the coast, a finding also reflected in a Scottish Government report. Recognising that people protect what they love, how can anyone care about and connect with something that they haven’t experienced?

The survey results have been highly influential on trailblazing initiatives that are supporting increased empowerment of young people in marine conservation policy fora.  As respondents expressed a strong interest in attending events and discussing marine development proposals, while also expressing low awareness and attendance of formal events focusing on marine development, we have prioritised youth inclusion.

In 2022, we launched a new poll on young people’s views on the marine environment. Respondents expressed a strong will to be involved in decision-making processes, but listed costs, transport, and conflict with other responsibilities (e.g. school or work) as key barriers to attending events such as Sea Scotland. The lack of confidence to join policy events was also a significant issue. Young taskforce member Drew

“Many young people assume that they don’t have the necessary qualifications or skills to attend meetings, workshops and conferences. Whilst we may be just beginning in our education or career, I think it’s important that we remember that our experiences and ideas are important.”

Sea Scotland Youth Events and Successes

Having felt ourselves, a few years ago, the stress and desire to engage in marine policy discussions, we want to create an environment where young people feel welcomed and empowered to actively engage in shaping the future of marine policy.

Since 2018, we have invited young people as Sea Scotland speakers, such as Mhairi McCann, director of YouthStem360. We also liaise with universities, inviting students to register, and provide concession rates to young people and community groups every year.

Last year we established a youth taskforce; composed of the Marine Conservation Society, Scottish Wildlife Trust, and young people: Caitlin Turner, Elliott Welch and Drew Ferguson; and held the inaugural youth Sea Scotland conference.

Young Taskforce members, Drew, Caitlin and Elliott giving a keynote address at Sea Scotland 2023  © Scottish Environment LINK
Young Taskforce members, Drew, Caitlin and Elliott giving a keynote address at Sea Scotland 2023  © Scottish Environment LINK

Caitlin and Drew reflected on their journey in marine conservation and contributions to the Sea Scotland events:

I grew up in a landlocked, rural town in East Ayrshire. My connection to the sea only arose from trips to the beach with my parents and the ocean became my everything. I began volunteering for marine conservation organisations while studying my marine biology degree, trying to make change, but had to do a lot of self-teaching to understand marine policy and what’s in play in Scotland. I wanted to engage, but I didn’t really know how, and at the same time wrestled with imposter syndrome - did I even belong in the rooms where these discussions were happening? In 2022 I joined the Sea Scotland team as a Youth Rep and was invited to speak as a Keynote Speaker. And in beginning to occupy these spaces, I recognised that I - and all young people - absolutely deserved to be there and be heard.” Caitlin Turner

“As someone deeply passionate about our oceans, my journey into a marine conservation career has been a series of waves, each shaping my understanding and commitment to the protection of our ecosystems. Joining the Sea Scotland Youth Taskforce was something that particularly excited me. The initiative's commitment to fostering ocean literacy and empowering the younger generation deeply resonates with my personal ethos. I love that it our goal is to help young people be involved in navigating the challenges, celebrating the successes, and working towards a future where our seas thrive.” Drew Ferguson

The taskforce wanted to create a platform for young people to join the conversation and gain confidence to attend the main Sea Scotland conference. Both events provided workshops, facilitated by Young Sea Changers Scotland covering a wide spectrum of topics, from simplifying complex policy terms to fostering meaningful networking strategies. Following these pre-events, we had the largest young people delegate group attending our conference since its inception in 2016. Thanks to the support of Sea Changers and Scottish Wildlife Trust, a travel bursary allowed us to break down financial barriers, offering concession rates to young people and covering their travel expenses.

Sea Scotland's first young people event on 4th March 2023. © Scottish Environment LINK
Sea Scotland's first young people event on 4th March 2023. © Scottish Environment LINK

Beyond Sea Scotland

We gained valuable insights from the 2023 youth events. Offering free entry and covering travel costs were pivotal in breaking barriers. Strategic scheduling and accessible venues with good public transport were also crucial, as well as avoiding clashes with young people’s schedules and academic commitments. Interactive workshops, icebreakers, and informal exchanges with speakers were highly popular during the sessions.

These lessons helped us further develop our youth engagement strategies, creating a journey that continued beyond Sea Scotland. For example, in August, the Scottish Wildlife Trust partnered again with Young Sea Changers Scotland, as well as the Marine Directorate and the Scottish Seabird Centre, to offer the GenSea youth marine policy event which included fun and informative activities by the beach.

GenSea event in August 2023. © Scottish Wildlife Trust
GenSea event in August 2023. © Scottish Wildlife Trust

This year, the second edition of Sea Scotland youth events, “Making Waves – Sea Scotland Youth Voices” will be online on 17th April and in-person on 3rd June. Registrations are now open. We welcomed new taskforce members, emphasising the importance of co-designing these events with young people.

Sea Scotland 2023 young delegates. © Scottish Environment LINK
Sea Scotland 2023 young delegates. © Scottish Environment LINK

The Sea Scotland conferences and Scottish Environment LINK stand as testaments to the transformative power of collaboration. The successes achieved underscore the significance of diverse partnerships—both within and outside organisations—in pursuing shared objectives. But beyond celebrating achievements, a critical responsibility emerges. It's incumbent upon experienced entities to champion the voices that often remain unheard in the realm of marine conservation.

We've emphasised the importance of amplifying the voices of the younger generation, recognising their pivotal role in navigating the consequences of present-day decisions. Yet, it's equally imperative to extend this advocacy to encompass underrepresented communities of place. The conservation of our marine ecosystems isn't a specialised concern—it's a matter of public interest. Decisions impacting these environments must reflect the desires and necessities of the broader public, aligning with both their wishes and the imperative to safeguard nature's intrinsic value.

Ultimately, our collective responsibility lies in fostering a collaborative ethos while actively uplifting diverse voices. By doing so, we honour not only the immediate needs of our marine environments but also the future well-being of the generations that will inherit the outcomes of our actions today.

Scottish sunset © Adam Brooker
Scottish sunset © Adam Brooker



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