13 February 2022

Emotions, not Science, Drove my Love of the Sea. And I’m not Alone.

Written by: Sage Shea

A Long-Founded Love of the Shore

With my dad working days as an electrician and my mom taking the night shift as a custodian, my family never had much. Still, after retirement, my grandmother bought a camper. We spent weeks on the shores of Cape Cod. Unlike those who would rent a cottage for a week, being there all summer gave us a different lens. We’d visit the Sandwich Glass Museum and learn of Sandwich’s long history as a major glass producer (an honor earned by their excess of trees that fueled the ovens and pure sand from the Berkshires of Massachusetts). We’d eagerly feed the fish at local hatcheries and built hard earned callus as we climbed barefoot down rock jetties or the Canal’s rocky shores. I learned how to sex crabs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

And while college brought me to Queens, NY, I became landlocked again when I returned my roots in Western, MA. While I was always nostalgic for the ocean, I had resigned myself to accepting that it would only feature in my life sporadically as infrequent and short weekend trips.

From Bulk Data to Marketing Analytics

As a trans person, I was socialized as a woman. While in many subjects I excelled, I didn’t feel particularly encouraged to pursue STEM. I leaned into the soft sciences with a major in clinical psychology. And sure, I flirted with more traditional STEM research. I spent 4 years as a lab manager for a neurology lab and endless hours crunching numbers. As many with a BA in psychology, graduated with limited options in my field and pivoted to data management – I skill I acquired after countless hours in the lab removing artifacts from EEG data. Day in and day out, I did bulk data processing for an international nonprofit. With 2 years of a job that never changed, I sought creative hobbies to round out my time. It wasn’t long before I found a passion in photography.

In 2015, I photographed my first wedding. Then my second one. Over time I shot more and more weddings and, in the quest to market myself, I studied more and more about digital marketing, UX, and marketing analytics.

In 2018, during the day I worked full time in my first web analytics job and at night I pursued an MA in marketing analytics. As I advanced on my career, I found myself wanting to market something that made me excited.

It was then I saw HAF’s job listing for an Advanced Communications Fellow for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – a biodiverse area of protected waters roughly the side of CT just over 100 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

Making the Link

There is no silver bullet solution to the environmental threats that the Monument faces.

Any management strategy cannot sustainably tackle every facet required for such a holistic, multifaceted approach, but it can't be understated how vital it is to use outreach to shift public behaviors towards more eco-concious ones are. While we culturally silo science from politics, climate change is inherently contentious because it tackles the fundamental question of how we want to live as a society and a world. The impacts of inaction threaten nearly every sector of our lives. That's why human dynamics are a large part of wildlife management.

Turning towards evidence-based practices, I rethought what I knew about communicating the importance of our marine ecosystems.

For example, scientific literacy has been found to polarize people’s views on climate change, not unite them behind a cause. Many think that lack of facts fosters empathy about our changing client. This belief been the foundation that countless marketing campaigns are built upon. Yet, a 2012 study compared scientific literacy and climate attitudes and found that public divide over climate change is more strongly rooted in individuals wanting to hold beliefs aligned with the beliefs of those they have close ties with. The driving community beliefs that predicted how concerned respondents were with climate change were whether they related to the world in a community-focused (Egalitarian Communitarians) or individualistic (Hierarchical Individualists) way. The researchers found that those with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest, perhaps because they were able to selectively pick evidence that secured their cultural worldview and personal interests. 

So if scientific literacy isn’t driving climate action, what will? For the ocean, the answer is clear: emotions.

Research done by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, Wonder: Strategies for Good, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation Early audited digital public-facing materials and messaging on the websites of ten prominent ocean-focused organizations.

Ocean conservation messaging has been devoid of human actors, thus implying destruction by a series of abstract processes; and it is largely devoid of human emotion. The absence of humans from marketing deprives us of personal narrative which research has shown to play an important role in shaping opinion.

More than scientific literacy, people, as a result of a complex of psychological mechanisms, tend to form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify. They make choices based on their emotions, lived experiences, identity, beliefs, and values.

In my role, I’ve researched extensively for how formative experiences at the shore directly correlate with donations, action, and policy efforts. I’ve spent weeks pouring over endless peer review that have illustrated how my days at the shore have directly engendered my passion so I can dedicate my life towards facilitating the same experience for others.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Location: Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex

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