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James Nikitine: The power of digital communications for marine conservation

James Nikitine shares his background in digital communications and how they can be used to support ocean conservation in this interview for A View To Sea…

Hi James, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts for the blog. Can you tell us about your background and what you do?

My name is James Nikitine, 32, originally from the French Alps near Geneva, I am a French-British citizen.

I studied film and media in Exeter and Paris, and Marine Science in Edinburgh. My main area of work is marine conservation and communications. My professional activity is varied, involves creation of content, producing, writing, scripting, filming, editing, and working with partners all around the world. It also involves social science, analysis, reporting, and scuba diving.

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James (right), with Mateo Barrenengoa and Dr. Sylvia Earle at IMPAC4, Chile 2017

At the moment, I am starting a new strategic communications and production company, “Manaia Productions”. The Manaia is a mythological creature in New Zealand Maori culture with the tail of a fish, body of a man and head of a bird that symbolizes balance between the Ocean, the Earth and the Sky. It is also understood to be an ‘aura’, or a guardian angel found in each and every one of us, that helps us return to our resting place, Cape Reinga, after we die. I was first in New Zealand for a year in 2009 and have since always been fascinated by South Pacific cultures, having spent 3 months in Samoa in 2011, and lived in Far North Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef in 2012.

What motivates you to work in marine conservation?

My mission as a marine conservationist and communicator shaped up to become educating a large number of people towards the balance we must achieve between mankind and nature. I feel our societies have since the 1960s acknowledged sustainability and environmental conservation, but still cling on to this growth/profit model that is defined by work/earn/spend and a latent consumerism which strips us from any purpose in this alleged ‘only life’ of ours.

For my part, I try and create products (documents and films) that convey the importance of the marine environment, and the idea that a lot has yet to be discovered and will require protection. Over the last year or so, my team and I made a documentary about a high seas expedition to an isolated seamount, ‘Walters Shoal’ and the need to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. This year, we are working on a large marine protected area in French Polynesia. We are also working more generally on tackling marine plastic pollution and developing frameworks on ocean literacy. Our work is incredibly varied!

To sum up, I think what drives me to do what I do is my passionate relationship with our incredible blue world. I started diving when I was about 8 in the Mediterranean, and then subsequently became a Divemaster in Samoa and an instructor in the Philippines. Those experiences changed me forever.

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The Great Barrier Reef, where a lot of the passion came from, Calypso, Australia 2017

How are digital communications changing the conservation landscape, and why are they so important for marine conservation?

‘Digital communications truly have an awesome power if well harnessed’

Since YouTube began in 2005, and Facebook a bit later, followed by the explosion of social media in the 2010s, the internet has now become an ‘arena’ of opinion, content and unfortunately ‘noise’. It is sometimes difficult to navigate real news from ‘fake’ news and therefore it is vitally important to recognize the sometimes-difficult context in which we’re working in. Typically, therefore, the conservation movement has to compose with a range of different voices and often not so friendly voices who advocate for their own values and versions, perceptions of the world.

Digital communications have also opened up new avenues for the conservation and more specifically marine conservation movement. We now have the ability to communicate issues directly from their source, through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and reach millions of people around the world who often feel too remote to engage. So thankfully, social media and digital communications have also enabled this connection to be established. The important aspect is therefore to follow suit once the connection is made and offer additional materials, supplementary information to either act at one’s level, (e.g. changing behaviour towards plastics for example), or to educate someone else about something crucially important for the marine environment. All this might seem obvious but digital communications truly have an awesome power if well harnessed. It is therefore our role to recognize this, and to structure each message according to intention and target audience to make it successful. That is what we do at Manaia Productions, with projects based on strong science, understandable policy and conservation ethics.

‘The internet has now become an ‘arena’ of opinion, content and unfortunately ‘noise’. It is sometimes difficult to navigate real news from ‘fake’ news and therefore it is vitally important to recognize the sometimes-difficult context in which we’re working’

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Underwater filming during the Walters Shoal expedition, Indian Ocean 2016

What is digital communications?

I work mainly producing content (infographics, writing, photography) but at the moment mostly audiovisual content, perhaps best described by these three latest relevant ‘marine conservation communications’ activities:

Seamount surveys in the Southern Indian Ocean

In April 2017, I boarded the R/V Marion Dufresne, a French vessel that usually supplies the French Austral and Antarctic territories of the Southern Indian Ocean. Under the supervision of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the French Global Environment Facility, and with the scientific teams from the R&D Institute and the Paris Natural History Museum, we spent 26 days at sea studying an undersea mountain, a seamount. The objective was to identify unique species of molluscs, crustaceans, worms and algae, but also to study the water column surrounding the seamount to understand nutrients dynamics and currents. The penultimate objective was to inform on a unique remote ecosystem to make a case for high seas biodiversity governance under the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea and their upcoming Intergovernmental Conference aimed at building a governance framework for the high seas and the sustainable use of its resources.

We subsequently made a film about it, ‘The Last Frontier’, that was presented at IMPAC4 and at the Maison des Océans in Paris last December:

Boosting the profile of Marine Protected Areas at IMPAC4

In September 2017, I attended the 4th International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC4) in Chile, where as a volunteer with the Marine Young Professionals of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, I supervised a production team on making a piece to communicate the importance of marine protected areas and also the importance of human involvement in their efficient management.

This was the film we made:

Capturing the Great Barrier Reef on film

Also, in September 2017, I spent 2 weeks in Australia (5 years after my first trip in 2012 where I worked as a Divemaster), to take a snapshot of the Great Barrier Reef after the successive global bleaching events (2014 to 2017). I visited Charlie Veron’s home, Prof. Terry Hughes at his office at the centre for excellence on coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and met up with Indigenous leaders, scientists, campaigners and people who work on the reef every day. The result was this film to launch the 2018 International Year of the Reef:

These three projects reflect the diversity of my work, trying to communicate the marine environment but also the crucial connection with our societies and the importance of bridging that knowledge gap to better conserve our blue home.

Who is your target audience? Do you have any top tips for understanding your audience and how best to approach them?

Everyone! Clearly the marine environment concerns everyone on this blue planet. More seriously though, each communication effort will have within its strategy an intended audience. Most projects I work on aim to present marine science, policy and conservation to a wide audience because of their universal value. Too often have these issues been difficult to understand, because of their complex nature but also because people have busy lives. My role is to communicate those issues, so people can take the time to understand them and care for the marine environments that are at risk.

‘Through creative storytelling, strong imagery and pedagogical approaches, we can educate at a global level on some of the new attitudes we must adopt if we want to collectively survive on this blue planet’

I think each audience has a specific interest, and it is our role as content creators to find what people are interested in and why. Every project then has its own life expectancy, with a beginning, a launch and then becoming a memory. In this time of ephemeral content creation, the most difficult task is to create content that lasts. That is our challenge at Manaia Productions!

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Ocean and Climate infographic made during COP21, Paris 2015

When tackling broad and widely damaging issues such as plastic pollution, how can we effectively identify the best message to use and the most appropriate channel for communication?

This is a big one. Plastic pollution starts every day when we wake up, when we open the cupboard and make breakfast. Plastic is everywhere: packaging, most stuff that we use every day is made of plastic, and if we’re not careful, once used and disposed of, it ends up in the ocean. Plastic straws, spoons, cotton buds, small fragments that end up choking turtles, marine mammals or end up in our bodies through the food chain at the smallest level. We are so overwhelmed that when as conservationists we tackle this topic we must clearly identify whom we are speaking to and what we are trying to achieve. Gaining public support through extensive scientific data collection and reporting is key, and the policy solutions often manage to gain traction in the right circles. But it is never easy to fight against strong lobbies and that is our big challenge.

Using social media as a conservation communications tool – any tips?

I think one of the most important things about social media use is to verify the sources of information. In this day and age of ‘fake news’, sensationalism and sensitivity about everything, one must remember that good reporting is real reporting. The television series ‘Black Mirror’ in this sense is a relatively accurate representation of our world.

We must avoid falling for the all too easy read / like / share pattern to reach something more of a read / care / raise awareness (and reflect about the issue) structure.

I feel strong imagery, videos, and clever infographics can be a part of that, but the automation of the process needs to be avoided. Digital communications inherently are about message, intention, and audience. I usually take the time to verify my sources, the intent, whether my audience response is relevant before I express my own view. For me consensus is important. There is no black nor white absolute truth, only grey opinion matters. Timing and posting intervals only matter if one is engaged in a campaign or witnessing an event that is unravelling before us. Ultimately, being in a niche but having external interests (e.g. being engaged in marine conservation but also reading about climate change, social justice or even land degradation) can be very useful as it gives a ‘horizontal’, more general view of a specific issue. Everything is connected.

How can people find your work?

Since 2015, I launched my own personal website with some of my work www.jamesnikitine.com

My communications and production company can be found at www.manaiaproductions.com. This is where a lot more of the work produced for various organisations, partners and clients will be showcased.

And finally, I usually also can be found on Twitter @jamesnikitine

All images belong to James Nikitine, not to be reproduced without permission. 

Cover image: The High Seas, Walters Shoal expedition, Indian Ocean 2016, James Nikitine

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