Ocean science for planetary health

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24 Nov 2021


Jon Baston-Pitt

We have only one planet. And really there is only one ocean, which many people believe holds the key to a safe and liveable world. We need to start managing the ocean scientifically, for the benefit of future generations.

We know a lot about the land, yet we still know relatively little about the ocean, which covers 70 % of the planet. In fact, we have observed just 4 % of the deep ocean and directly mapped just 20 % of the ocean floor.

Ocean health is declining

The United Nations (UN) predicts that we will have 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Currently most of our food comes from the land, yet the ocean offers considerable food potential, as well as untapped energy and medicinal resources.

There’s no doubt that human activity has contributed to the decline in ocean health or that climate change is exacerbating disasters worldwide. As Jon Baston-Pitt, Global Strategic Marketing Director at Fugro, says: “Improving the health and understanding of our world's oceans is critical to meeting the needs of the growing human population and maintaining the populations of all other life forms in our ocean.”

That’s the starting point for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development initiative, which launched in January 2021. It aims to develop a common global framework for ocean science, to help reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health.

A race against time

Back in 2016, the UN stated clearly that humankind is running out of time to start managing the ocean sustainably.

We are polluting the ocean. Everyone knows about plastics, nanoplastics and microplastics, but not many people know that fish are swimming in a solution that contains a lot of medications.

“The ocean is full of unknown things,” says Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. “We need to understand what is happening in the largest ecosystem on our planet. And the largest ecosystem is in big, big trouble.”

Humankind is slowly waking up to the realisation that the planet is at a tipping point. The health of the ocean is a critical factor, according to Alison Clausen, Programme Specialist, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO: “We don't want to be melodramatic or to create panic, but what we're really talking about here is the future of life as we know it, if we don’t get it right for the ocean now.”

A vast unknown resource

The ocean is such a huge, largely unmapped and invisible expanse that it can be difficult for us to comprehend. Yet we need more knowledge about all of the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the seas and oceans, because only then can we begin to understand the greater underlying processes, as well as the impact and level of the changes that are occurring.

Researching the ocean is difficult and expensive, but we have no choice but to overcome these obstacles. That’s why the Decade initiative has provided a framework enabling the UN, governments, scientists, NGOs, businesses and environmentalists to join forces in trying to reverse the decline in ocean health.

Political lobbying also has a big part to play, according to Mathias Jonas, Secretary-General of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO): “The ocean is less visible to the policymakers, who are the people in charge and who have access to resources and to the distribution of resources. The Decade initiative is also an approach for political lobbying – positive lobbying for the relevance of the oceans.”

Our biggest climate regulator

We need to understand the interrelationship between the ocean and climate change. After all, the ocean is believed to be our biggest climate regulator.

There is also a growing need to obtain more protein from the ocean, to accommodate the food requirements of the expanding human population. But the world needs to take a cautious and respectful approach, one based not on plundering ocean resources but rather on preserving what is left untouched, repairing historical damage and preventing further damage.

The key to achieving these three ambitions is to make ocean knowledge more productive. It’s time to start sharing ocean Geo-data more freely, for the good of humanity.

Opening up data access

The Decade initiative has identified 10 key challenges for ocean science, ranging from ocean climate, fisheries and a sustainable ocean economy. Humankind will need to generate – and share – huge quantities of Geo-data to meet these challenges. And this will require significant behavioural change.

When people sit on Geo-data, hiding what they know from others, they are not contributing to the greater good. “We need to explain that it's much better to be open, to conserve the planet, to conserve the ocean and live longer and happier lives,” says Vladimir. “If we are successful in this, then data sharing will come automatically.”

The Decade initiative is about building a collective digital representation of the ocean that uses historical and current data to predict the future. The private sector will be a key partner in making this happen. Fugro is one of many early adopters that are now actively gathering oceanographic Geo-data, sharing it and – importantly – encouraging other organisations to follow suit.

A systematic approach

The success of the Decade initiative will depend on creating the technical means to make sure the masses of acquired Geo-data are interoperable, so that the wealth of new information from different regions can be matched up and put to good use. There will also need to be continuity in the measurement programme.

But all of this can only work if there is a systematic approach, a willingness to share and an open data policy.

Mathias hopes to see the implementation of an all-embracing digital marine Geo-data model based on the IHO S-100 Standard, which is a framework document intended for the development of services for hydrographic, maritime and GIS communities.

He says: “If all sorts of marine data are formatted according to this paradigm, they would be fully interoperable and could easily be matched up. For our ocean mapping programme in collaboration with the Seabed 2030 project, I hope we can achieve nearly full global coverage, with decent accuracy and resolution. We need more and better data.”

“Seafarers and shipping companies are very motivated to contribute, as far as I know. But so far, only 30 coastal states allow this sort of citizen science in their respective territorial waters. I hope that by the end of the decade all of the almost 100 IHO member states will have given their permission.”

Small project, big insights

Alison once worked in Madagascar on a project in a community-managed marine protected area. Local fishing communities had been trained to use very simple tools to collect monthly catch data. Analysing the data gave rise to important new insights about seasonal and spatial patterns of fish availability.

Despite its small scale and the simplicity of the data collection methods, this project is a sustainable ocean management success story.

“Maybe it wasn't something that could be published in a prestigious scientific journal,” says Alison. “But for me, that is what the Decade is all about: getting the data that you need into the right hands so that people can take the decisions.”

A scientifically managed ocean

Geo-data was once something that was gathered only by military organisations; traditionally, seabed or ocean information was seen to have strategic value for defence purposes. These ideas need to be challenged.

Vladimir says: “I cannot forget a map that is in the general hall of the General Assembly of the United Nations. A huge circle shows how much humankind is spending on weapons to kill itself; a little circle represents our spend on disarmament; and just a dot illustrates our spend on saving our lives.”

It’s imperative that we learn how to manage sustainably the ocean space and the resources on the coast and in water. The end goal of the Decade initiative is a scientifically managed ocean. It’s very ambitious, but giving the ocean its rightful place in humanity, in political frameworks and in resource allocation decisions is something we should all be aiming for.

This is only the start…

We’re already 6 months into the first year of the Decade initiative and there’s some great early progress to share. The initiative has captured the attention of groups of people from around the world, resulting in the submission of more than 250 Decade action ideas.

On World Oceans Day on 8 June, 28 global ocean science programmes were endorsed as Decade actions. There are also six major programmes led by UN agencies, as well as dozens of contributions of in-kind resources. And this the first of many calls for Decade actions.

There are definite signs of positive change taking place around the world. For example, 14 heads of state have committed their country to managing the ocean’s Exclusive Economic Zones sustainably by 2025. And they are now calling on their counterparts to follow their lead.

By working together, we hope to overcome the many significant challenges we face and to gather the science that we need, for the ocean that we want. Only then can we meet the urgent need to preserve the ocean for future generations.

Listen to the Planet Beyond podcast - Ocean Science for Planetary Health episode

About the author

Jon Baston-Pitt is a Global Strategic Marketing Director

Site investigation (CPT and drilling) and monitoring
Performing CPT, drilling and monitoring of the Grimburgwal canal in Amsterdam

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