EqualSea (ERC)​


Sebastián Villasante

European Research Council

Inequality is one of the key major social challenges of our time, with far-reaching ramifications for human well-being. Our oceans produce vital food, enable jobs and economic activities, and provide opportunities to shape cultures and identities of people.



But at the same time, oceans are facing 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, such as:


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

The EQUALSEA project 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, the project 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 where coastal communities are directly impacted by ocean inequality.


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

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.

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:

  • Presence of a high vulnerability of ocean users (e.g. women, indigenous communities, and migrants), and a significant lack of studies focusing on these specific regions.
  • Geographical underrepresentation.
  • Inequality mostly driven by environmental shocks, asymmetric social power relationships and concentration of capital assets and ownership of fishing rights, and lack of cooperation and collective action in sustaining local commons.
  • Variability in marine Social-Ecological Services (SES) with unique characteristics to test the framework under different contexts.


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, it has become a global issue of widespread scientific, political, and popular interest for society. The 2016 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.

The ocean… is a global common resource, producing oxygen | stores carbon and heat | produces food |, offers space for economic activities | facilitates international trading and transport of goods

provides non-monetary benefits


advances in scientific knowledge | opportunities for collaboration | sense of place | feelings of wonder and worship | a place to play or gather with beloved ones

has potential benefits from ocean-based economic activities


taxation and rents for governments | payments for access fishing agreements | financial and employment benefits for national economies | livelihood opportunities | social benefits for local communities and tourists visiting coastal and marine environments.


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 multidimensional approach to inequality

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.

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

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.

Team members