Scientists have key role to play in alerting society to ocean threats

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CO2 emissions
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Should we wait for further research to act? The 600+ scientists gathered in Barcelona to attend the 2nd International Ocean Research Conference are convinced otherwise. Their answer is clear: given the scope of the challenges we must address, including ocean acidification, over-exploitation of marine resources, biodiversity loss or harmful algal blooms, improving ocean protection is crucial and urgently needed. Now more than ever, scientists have a role to play in alerting decision makers and the general public to the looming threats to ocean health, and thereby to our own well-being.

We need a radical rethinking in how we do and cooperate in science. (…) Science cooperation today is not a luxury, and I believe we are all in agreement that truly comprehensive solutions to the ocean’s most pressing problems require a concept of Ocean Research that is as inclusive as possible”, declared Wendy Watson-Wright, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, during the closing ceremony of the 2nd International Ocean Research Conference on 21 November 2014. Mike Roman, President of The Oceanography Society; Lisa Svensson, Sweden’s Ambassador for Oceans, Seas and Freshwater and Françoise Gaill, Research Director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (France) were among the other speakers of the closing ceremony.

As of today, at least one third of all marine species have yet to be identified. Much remains to be discovered on marine species’ capacity to adapt to climate change, the impacts of the proliferation of micro-plastics on marine organisms, or on ecosystem resilience. However, there is enough scientific data to assess the extent of the damage and the cost of inaction. Previously rare phenomena such as jellyfish blooms off the Japanese coast, which used to occur every 40 years or so, are now occurring on a near-annual basis. The very real consequences of acidification on the development of shellfish, notably oysters, are now well documented.

Many of the recent advances in marine sciences would not have been possible without international scientific programmes, such as the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) or the Integrated Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecosystem Research project (IMBER), to facilitate data collection and the sharing of knowledge. This was stressed by participants throughout the 5-day conference. The experts also called for closer cooperation between scientists across disciplines and specialties. The important contribution of Social Sciences in understanding and perceiving certain phenomena was also emphasized.

But how can we ensure that research results can be translated into policies and public awareness? Participants agreed that scientists now have a greater responsibility than ever to get out of their labs and participate in societal debates. Because while ocean acidification (to name one of many threats) is increasing at an accelerated rate, mentalities are very slow to change.    

One way to encourage change is to rely on successful policies. For example, in the United States, fish stocks are now restored in 64 % of previously overexploited fishing areas, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The conservation policy, which was successfully implemented, resulted in increased incomes for fishermen.  

Strengthening ties with civil society was also identified as a positive force for change. In that respect, the commitment of the Fundació Navegació Oceànica Barcelona, organizer of the Barcelona World Race, is a shining example. The double-handed, non-stop, round the world race will kick off in Barcelona on 31 December 2014. Skippers have agreed to deploy an Argo float during the race, to contribute to the monitoring of ocean temperature and salinity. One of the boats, called One Planet, One Ocean, will also measure micro-plastic pollution along the route.

But the protection of the ocean also requires improved governance. Participants noted that as things stand today, organizations and institutions (international organizations, NGOs, committees, associations…) responsible for ocean research, monitoring and conservation are too numerous and dispersed for concerted and effective action.

By absorbing nearly a quarter of the carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere, the ocean plays a key role in regulating climate change. However, the ocean remains on the margins of international climate negotiations, which continue to focus mainly on land-based carbon emissions. The scientific community stressed the need to change the trend and give the ocean the attention it deserves, on par with its central role in our climate system, particularly in view of the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) to be held in Paris in November 2015.