The Political Ecology of Coastal Societies

The Political Ecology of Coastal Societies
Our group on an oyster fishing expedition

Our group on an oyster fishing expedition

We interviewed a local oyster farmer on his techniques

Studying seawalls on the Karakuwa peninsula, Japan

Studying seawalls on the Karakuwa peninsula, Japan

Our third seminar was held in Sendai 26-27 October

Discussions at the Ythan Mouth, Aberdeenshire

Discussions at the Ythan Mouth, Aberdeenshire

Our debates were both inside and out along the coast

Aberdeen Network Seminar 17-19 June 2019

Aberdeen Network Seminar 17-19 June 2019

An international seminar - The Politics and Pitfalls of Maritime Governance - was held in Aberdeen with 32 participants


Both the UK and Japan define their identity by their relationship to the sea and both have struggled with the effects of rising sea levels and climate change. This new research network will bring together British and Japanese scholars to develop new social science approaches to the political ecology of coastal societies. Our network will examine two topics. First, the social and political context surrounding the harvesting of seaweed, with special attention to traditional rights and methods of building a "blue economy". Second, we will also investigate the legacies of community-based flood management and mitigation systems in both UK and Japan with an eye to identifying best practice. Both issues are connected and of central concern to authorities in each area. Our network will build around two network seminars and two "scoping events" where British and Japanese researchers will together converse with stakeholders, managers, and visit local communities to investigate the possibility of designing a major research project around one or the topic.


This project will involve academic researchers from the UK and Japan, and its central goal is to increase collaboration as a means to develop new, high quality research. However, the main ultimate beneficiaries of the work will be policy makers and coastal communities in both countries. To ensure this outcome, our group will work closely with stakeholders and managers involved in the mitigation of floods, and in the design and elaboration of new forms of aquaculture. Both topics have been of central concern to both regional and national authorities in both countries.


More informaton about our project can be found on the UK Research and Innovation page


This project is to support the establishment of an international research network on the ‘political ecology of coastal societies’ expanding upon the existing expertise of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland and Tohoku University, Japan.  Our network will focus upon four central themes:


Areas of research:

  • Foreshore harvesting and intertidal tenure
  • Flood management, mitigation and human impacts
  • Brent geese, eelgrass and coastal conservation
  • Local community controversies in maritime governance

Each of these themes take into account long-standing traditions in both the north and west of Scotland and the North of Japan, reflect the considerable academic and community work our universities have done on these topics. They are further deeply interlinked with recent events and policy initiatives.  

The topics will be linked through the holistic vision of ‘political ecology’ which nests ecological, economic, and social sustainability within the visions and hopes of local communities.  Advocates of political ecology argue that environmental risk and environmental change are not simply suffered by communities but are structured by the way that communities organize themselves . There are of course a large number of important developments which are impacting coastal communities today -  ranging from sustainability in fisheries, to the emergence of offshore windfarms.  We have selected these two issues for two reasons.  First, the literature on each has been heavily dominated by top-down “objective” engineering models where the role of social and economic interests has been muted. This project, therefore, offers a social science approach to each topic – which would help cover a “gap in knowledge”.  Second, in our two regions, these topics are interlinked.  In Northern Japan the relatively recent “3/11” (2011) earthquake and tsunami necessitated both a rethinking of coastal flood risk management and the restructuring of the traditional coastal seaweed industry.  The North of Scotland, also recently battered by flood events, is embarking on a new experiment with an industrial form of seaweed harvesting which may not be fully embedded (unlike Japan) in existing, socially constructed sea-tenure systems. Therefore, our project also represents a timely intervention to exchange experience, as well as a unique attempt to apply the intuitions of political ecology to marine environments. It is our hope that through highlighting these two topics we can spark further collaborative research to positively reshape coastal livelihoods which are rapidly modernizing in the face of economic drivers and climatic pressures.  Our work will be interdisciplinary, relying primarily upon social anthropological community work supported with expertise in environmental geography and ecology.


Pilot Case Studies

North Rondaldsay Pilot Study - May 2019

Laura Goyhenex conducted two trips of fieldwork to document the sea dyke surrounding the island of Ronaldsay in Orkney. This old structure extends the bounds of the land to allow sea algae to collect and also to allow sheep to graze on the sea algae to create a unique local product.  This locally built structure was compared to the highly engineered sea walls in Japan and other places.


Shichigahama Pilot Study - November 2019

Dr Potts, Dr McKinley (UK)  and Dr Delaney (Sendai, Japan) developed a pilot field project to explore the impact of the 2011 tsumani on the coastal communities of Shichigahama, Sendai, Japan. The team were interested in how coastal communities in this rural locality connect to the marine and coastal environment, how the concepts of ecosystem services are interpreted in different cultural contexts, and how these relationships changed over time and from the tsunami. Via a series of focus groups and field visits, the team uncovered the unique social and cultural responses to coastal change and the implications for long term coastal adaptation.


Notsuke and Hakodate Pilot Study - December 2019

In December 2019, Andrew Whitehouse and Shiaki Kondo spent a week in Hokkaido researching Brent Geese and the coastal environments they inhabit on their migration.  They visited various sites for the geese around Hakodate with local ornithologist Stuart Price.  In eastern Hokkaido, they spoke with seagrass researchers at Akkeshi to learn more about the work being done on these ecosystems that are so important to Brent Geese and other marine life.  They were also able to visit the most important site for Brent Geese in Japan at Notsuke. Finally, Andrew was also able to meet with Yusuke Sawa of Birdlife International in Tokyo to discuss conservation issues and goose migration.



The first network seminar was held in February 2019 in Japan, organised by the project International Co Investigator Prof. Hiroki Takakura from Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.  The main event took place at Tohoku University in Sendai on 20 February 2019. People interested to become involved as project members formally introduced themselves and described their affiliations and relationship to the project theme. This meeting identified possible synergies and produced a roadmap based on these for our work for the following months.  Smaller meetings were held first with the Cyberforest  project at Tokyo university and then with scholars promoting Brent Geese conservation at Sapporo University.  A full set of meeting notes are available here.

The second international network event titled: “Politics and Pitfalls of Maritime Governance“ was held in June in Aberdeen hosted by the University of Aberdeen. Twenty four short papers were presented by 21 delegates, followed by several round-table events.

Our discussions were organized around six themes:

  • Session 1: Introduction – Theoretical perspectives on Political Ecology. Presentations available here.
  • Session 2: The Foreshore -  Tenure Rights between Land and Sea. 
  • Session 3: The Resilience of Coastal Livelihoods. Presentations are available here.
  • Session 4: Sea walls – Barriers or  Enablers of Coastal Life.
  • Session 5: The New Blue-Green Economy in Sea Algae Harvesting. Presentations are available here.

Session 6 Coastal Conservation. 

Our third network event continued the agenda and discussions of the "Politics and Pitfalls of Maritime Governance".  It was held in October at the Centre for Northeast Asia Studies at Tohoku University, Sendai Japan.  We had three round-table meetings and heard papers from four presenters.  The event had a short pilot fieldwork trip to the Karakuwa peninsula to study the controversies surrounding the construction of seawalls.

We also met to discuss two pilot projects which will take place in November and December, as well as to plan the next meeting of the group in Aberdeen.

On the 10th December 2019 we held our final meeting in Aberdeen entitled ‘Developing Future Research Proposals to understand the Political Ecology of the Marine Environment’. The meeting was organised by Dr Tavis Potts (University of Aberdeen). We explored the evolving nature of connections between communities and coastal systems within rapidly changing political, social and ecological contexts. The discussions focused on coastal resource sectors, particularly kelp harvesting and fisheries, in light of increasing interest in the so-called ‘Blue Economy’.  We also discussed local and indigenous tenure systems designed to include the intertidal foreshore.


Prof. David G. Anderson, UAberdeen, Project PI (UK)

Dr. Robert Wishart, UAberdeen, Co-PI (UK)

Dr. Tavis Potts, UAberdeen, Co-PI (UK)             

Dr. Andrew Whitehouse, UAberdeen 

Dr. Jo Vergunst UAberdeen

Mr.Malcolm M Combe UAberdeen

Johanne Verbockhaven UAberdeen   

Mr. Simon Peres UAberdeen 

Katherine Anderson UAberdeen                       

Prof. Hiroki Takakura, TohokuU, Project PI (JP)

Dr. Alyne Delaney, TohokuU, Co-PI (JP)

Dr. Minoru Ikeda, TohokuU,

Prof. Masakazu Aoki, TohokuU                           

Nao Sakaguchi, TohokuU

Prof. Satoshi Katayama, TohokuU

Prof .Taku Iida, Minpaku Osaka

Prof. Kyoko Ueda, SophiaU Tokyo                    

Prof. Akamine Jun, HitosubashiU

Dr. Shiaki Kondo, CAIS Hokkaido

Prof. Satsuki Takahashi, Hosei

Dr. Jennifer Clarke RGU Aberdeen

Dr. Rebecca Ford UHighlands and Islands

Dr. Emma McKInley Cardiff U

Dr. Liam Carr NIU Galway

Dr. Leslie Mabon RGU Aberdeen

Dr. Tim Stojanovic USt.Andrews

Dr. Laura Watts UEdinburgh

Dr. John MacAskill UEdinburgh

Stephanie Weir HW (ICIT) Orkney

Laura Goyhenex UVersailles SQY

Dr Alex Watson Crook SIFT

Dr Raul Ugarte Acadian Seaplants ltd.

Crawford Paris EGCP

Paula Schiefer UAberdeen

Dr. Malcolm Gibson Acadian Seaplants ltd.

Dr. Kate Johnston HW (ICIT) Orkney

Dr. Sandy Kerr HW (ICIT) Orkney

Press Releases
  • Kelp row inspires research project to explore best practice in 'blue economy' (read here)
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