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A Reflection on Kevin St Martin’s talk: Creating Openings for Community and Commons in the Digital Ocean

By Poppy Keogh & Evan J. Andrews

Kevin St. Martin is a Professor of Geography at Rutgers University. He is a human geographer whose work is at the intersection of economic geography, political ecology, and critical cartography. His work includes critical analyses of economic and resource management discourse as well as participatory projects that work to rethink economy and foster economic and environmental wellbeing. Dr. St. Martin’s projects have in common the regulation and transformation of the marine environment. In particular, he uses the paradigmatic case of fisheries in the U.S. Northeast to better understand the power of discourse, data, and devices to shape economic and environmental outcomes.


Jennifer Silver is an Associate Professor in Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph. She is a political ecologist with interest in oceans, fisheries and global environmental governance. Her current projects address access, (in)equity and financialization in Canadian Pacific fisheries and explore the promotion/adoption of digital and surveillance technologies by prominent actors within the international ocean community.

Bonnie McCay is a professor emerita at Rutgers University - a well-known anthropologist, with a long career in fisheries social science research. Her research, mainly in Canada, the US, and Mexico, focuses on coastal communities and nearshore fisheries. A guiding theme is understanding intersections of property, environment and community as they play out in the use and management of common pool resources in changing environments.


There is currently a large amount of ocean data being collected and stored in online dedicated databases, often open-source and these data are being used to aid in Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) for resource extraction, marine conservation area designation and to secure boundaries for sovereign states economic exclusion zones. This data could lead to “Communities being related, connected and integrated into an emerging understanding of the ocean”, said Dr. Kevin St. Martin.

In other words, it can help create communities at sea.


This In Focus piece is on the seminar by Dr. Kevin St. Martin and the discussant responses to St. Martin by Dr. Bonnie McCay and Dr. Jennifer Silver, for the OFI People and the Ocean Speaker Series, on March 23rd, 2022. St. Martin’s seminar was titled ‘Creating openings for community and commons in the Digital Ocean’. St. Martin discussed how ocean data, for example survey-based knowledge and logbook data, can be leveraged by different ocean stakeholders to gain better access and understanding of the ocean which they use. Furthermore, this can lead to the development and fostering of community offshore.

St. Martin’s work focuses on using accessible ocean data as a base for interviews with ocean users and for understanding the offshore community as well as how to best map these findings. There is a concern that since the development of MSP for designations such as offshore oil, wind energy and marine conservation areas, the offshore communities and the data, which comes along with their livelihoods on the water, is becoming lost. Along with other researchers in this area, St. Martin wants to see the social aspects of these fishing communities at sea applied to planning in the designation of ocean space. This knowledge includes insight on home ports, port associations, fishing vessels, shifting target species, catches over time and gear types. He and his team use an algorithm to group these traits into at sea communities with commonalities. These can then be mapped to visualize them at sea, revealing shared experiences and stories of ocean use and how they shift together over time.

St. Martin concludes his seminar detailing the various types of insights which can be pulled from the maps such as the one shown below. The first of the discussants, Dr. Bonnie McCay, explains how this research highlights an important question and issue, which is the lack of people’s voices and stories in the digital ocean space. McCay speaks of how St. Martins’ work will help to integrate the social sciences with the physical sciences within ocean research. She details how the use of GIS and algorithms used to create community data has bridged one of the gaps between the social scientists with policy makers, bringing critical geography to the table of ocean policy.

McCay reminds the webinar participants of the two cross cutting themes which run throughout this research, an ocean of data and an inclusive and equitable ocean. She ties this in with the potential of this project moving forward, in involving historically marginalized stakeholders in the research planning and implementation, all while co-producing knowledge in the ocean space. This is a space which countless individuals and communities rely on for many resources, but their voices are not being reflected in the data. Just as McCay put it:

“Where are the people? And who are they in official data? A big question.”

- Dr. Bonnie McCay

Shifting fishing communities. Source: Kevin St. Martin: Creating Openings for Community and Commons in the Digital Ocean

Discussant Dr. Jennifer Silver points out that St. Martin’s talk explores the ways in which the use of data from the digital ocean can change the way we territorialize the ocean. Speaking to the theme of open source and readily available data, she gives the example of Global Fishing Watch, which maps fishing vessel movement and provides data for anyone who wants to engage with or use the data. Silver finishes up with a remark about how the digital space (data portals, social media, live maps etc.) has become more than a tool to be used in research. It has the potential to reconfigure who is perceived as an expert in ocean policy, who can participate in debates on the decisions made in the areas such as MSP, and whose preferences are advanced in these debates.

The message is clear - people and their stories should be part of the ocean space and included in the future planning for it. This theme is something which has been discussed frequently in recent years, notably in the Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water. St. Martin’s seminar echoes this sentiment by visualizing communities at sea with the vessel logbook data, creating stories through readily available data. Silver summarizes this idea by stating that:

“He (St. Martin) unpacks economy and environment and asks and answers questions in ways that create space for thinking and relating beyond capitalism”

- Dr. Jennifer Silver

A more recent example and continuance of this theme, of engaging communities in the decision-making process for the marine space is the launch of the Getting Conservation Right digital platform. The platform asks: What do the communities of Newfoundland and Labrador think about marine conservation? What do they already know and what remains to be known? Coastal communities should be part of the decision-making process when it comes to MSP. This webinar looks beyond the economic and environmental questions that often populate the current conversations on MSP and the Blue Economy, and ties in the lives and stories of fishers and their communities in the ocean space. In doing so, it creates and engages with communities at sea.

The full seminar can be viewed with this link.


Poppy is a research assistant for the Ocean Frontier Institute Module I. She recently completed her MSc in Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her research focused on the benthic ecology of the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, with emphasis on deep-sea corals and sponges, and how the results from her thesis can contribute to the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in the North Atlantic. Poppy is particularly interested in the decision-making processes behind the establishment of MPAs and their long-term viability. She is passionate about all things science communication.


Evan J. Andrews is an environmental policy scientist working at the intersections of governance, social change, and transdisciplinarity, largely in the context of inland and coastal fisheries. He holds a postdoctoral research fellowship in the Ocean Frontier Institute and Too Big To Ignore, and is based at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Canada. He is the co-founder and -lead for SSF-CAN: A Research Network for Small-Scale Fisheries in Canada, and is currently serving an appointment as the Vice President of the Society of Policy Scientists.

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