EqualSea (ERC)

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Inequality is one of the key major social challenges of our time, with far-reaching ramifications for human well-being. Our oceans, which produce vital food, enable jobs and economic activities, and provide opportunities to shape cultures and identities of people, face unprecedented cumulative pressures from human activities and climate change due to industrialization of the seas. Although some researchers have explored ocean equity and inequality, significant gaps remain.


Firstly, interdisciplinary approaches combining ecological and social sciences are fundamental to induce transformative changes towards ocean equity, but lacking. Secondly, there is a clear lack of data for both small scale and commercial fisheries.


Thirdly, more than 4.3 billion people globally rely on fish as their major source of protein, but social, cultural and institutional factors which explain ocean inequalities remain largely unknown. Consequently, there is an urgent need for an interdisciplinary approach that addresses asymmetric social power relationships and concentration of capital assets and ownership of fishing rights focused on the most vulnerable groups.


EQUALSEA will develop a new transformative framework for ocean equity, identify multiple critical drivers which induce social tipping points dynamics and transformative changes across space and time, and contribute to monitor progress towards ocean equity for local communities and top international organizations.


To do this, we will combine modelling and simulation techniques and cross-case comparison to develop a typology of different inequalities tested in 20 MPAs and implemented for 3 in-depth case studies across Africa, Europe and Latin America. Together, the ontological framework and integration of modelling methods will significantly advance research on ocean inequality, developing the necessary tools to deliver sustainable impacts towards achieving equity for economies and societies.

Case studies

The three case studies are Galician shellfisheries activity (Spain), which involves 5000 women, currently affected by extreme events such as increasing of the sea surface temperatures and extreme rainfalls that modify coastal salinity,  Artisanal fisheries in Brazil (states of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte and Alagoas), where up to 70% of the catches can come from Brazilian artisanal fisheries mainly by indigenous communities and women, recently affected by a large oil spill, and Fishing communities in Senegal, mostly affected by the activity of foreign fishing fleets, leading to poverty traps and migration of local populations.


The main selection criteria for the case studies were:

Galician shellfisheries

Artisanal fisheries in Brazil

Fishing communities in Senegal


Inequality has increased in nearly all world regions in recent decades, and become one of the key social challenges of the twenty-first century, with far-reaching ramifications for human well-being. In recent years, inequality has become a global issue of widespread scientific, political, and popular interest for society. The most recent World Social Science Report also identified rising inequality as a major concern for the sustainability of economies, societies and communities, and called for urgent research to improve our understanding of inequality.


At the same time, the ocean can be regarded as a global common resource. It produces oxygen, stores carbon and heat, produces food, offers space for economic activities, facilitates international trading and the transport of goods. It also provides non-monetary benefits in the form of advances in scientific knowledge, opportunities for collaboration, sense of place, feelings of wonder and worship, and a free place to play or gather with family and friends. The potential benefits from ocean-based economic activities include taxation and rents for governments, payments for access fishing agreements, financial and employment benefits for national economies, as well as livelihood opportunities and social benefits for local communities and tourists visiting coastal and marine environments.

The economic value of key ocean assets has been estimated at:

0 $
Trillion per year

The value of derived services at:

1.5 $
Trillion per year

The scientific discussion around the relevance of equitable distribution of ocean benefits has significantly increased in the last years as these impacts influence human well-being of coastal communities. These concerns arise because income and wealth inequality, having largely fallen from the 1920s until the early 1980s, have been rising since that time. There is overwhelming evidence that current access to resources, as well as ocean benefits and harms, are distributed inequitably.

Although some researchers have explored ocean equity, there are significant gaps. First, interdisciplinary approaches incorporating ecological and social sciences are fundamental to address adaptation to ocean equity and inequality, but lacking. Second, there is a large vacuum of data on different inequalities at seas both in small-scale and industrial fisheries. Third, more than 4.3 billion people globally -especially in the developing world-, rely on fish as their major source of protein, but social, cultural and health factors which explain oceans inequalities remain largely unknown.


EQUALSEA aims to support increased resilience of marine social-ecological systems (SES) by developing a new transformative socio-ecological framework to analyze the role of ocean equity and inequality in the use and distribution of marine resources benefits focusing on three key issues:
a) to explain differences about ocean equity and inequality.
b) to explore differences between the role of human adaptive behavior and social processes to deal with inequality impacts across communities.
c) to explore how and why inequality impacts change over time.

These issues will be tested in 20 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and explored in depth in 3 case studies across Africa, Latin America and Europe where coastal communities are directly impacted by ocean inequality.

How are perceptions of ocean equity and inequality formulated?

Despite inequality being multidimensional, most of the case studies from the literature focus solely on economic inequality. Understanding social, cultural, political, or other kinds of inequalities is notably lacking. The current understanding of inequality and its interactions with the ocean is limited and one-dimensional, when in fact, these relationships are inherently non-linear and complex. Inequality can be measured through objective indicators (e.g. Gini Index, increase of income) but also through subjective indicators-referring to perceptions of individuals and groups for these impacts. The use of perceptions from citizens can illuminate the formation of public policies because it is the collective choices made by individuals about the resources they use and consume and the orientation of environmental behaviours that guides the interactions with and pressures on marine environment. However, there are no frameworks which explain ocean equity and inequalities at different spatial and temporal scales.

Analysis of drivers influencing ocean equity and inequalities across space

The level of inequality has been reported to differ significantly within and between coastal communities. There is also a growing awareness that direct (e.g. biodiversity loss, climate change fishing pressure) and indirect (e.g. social norms and laws) drivers increasingly act at a distance by which off stage ecosystem service burdens can be identified and quantified in ongoing and future assessments, such as those carried out by the International Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). However, these impacts have never been addressed comprehensively.

Exploring differences across time

A third challenge in studying inequality literature is to understand how it changes over time. Current understanding gathered from the usual static, aggregated, and a-historical studies, could be largely benefited by systemic analysis of long lasting social and economic inequalities including structural (e.g., inequality difficult to change) and non-structural (e.g., due to external shocks) that will contribute to the analysis of stability and resilience of marine social-ecological dynamics. Also, identifying tipping points and transformative changes can also be extremely useful to detect early signals of marine regime shifts, traps or collapses, which also help to create new windows of opportunities to successfully navigate into new safe and equal transitions and states of marine SES before tipping points are crossed. Considerable management efforts to reverse such changes are usually made, but most of them are highly expensive since they are taken after the shifts, traps or collapse take place, but not before them. In addition, only Leith et al. (2014) and recently Grafton et al. (2019) proposed a diagnosis approach for adaptation and transformation in SES. However, we have neither theoretical evidence nor empirical examples linking sustainability transformations and ocean equity and how to empirically test them in marine SES.