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Who do we want to hear more from for the Ocean Decade?

26 November 2019

We’re edging closer to the January 2021 launch of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), a major effort to generate the science we need for the kind of ocean we want in the future. 

The Decade will provide a galvanizing opportunity worldwide to boost ocean science, to share knowledge on the ocean, and work together to meet Sustainable Development Goal 14 (the “ocean” SDG) and the other Goals with an ocean dimension. And it’s urgently needed: despite action to improve ocean management, the UN’s First World Ocean Assessment found that the ocean’s carrying capacity is near or at its limit. 

Large scientific studies like the Assessment or the recent IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere demonstrate the breadth of marine science, but there are knowledge gaps. The Ocean Decade aims to strengthen scientific capacity across the board, especially in areas where it’s currently limited, and to leverage recent advances in interdisciplinary working to generate new insights on the changes taking place in our ocean, and find new solutions.

We consulted members of our scientific communities - including social and natural scientists working on different issues related to  ocean and sustainable development - about new voices we need to make the next 10 years of ocean science truly inclusive.

Human influence on the ocean has never been so great, and with both industrial development and conservation schemes increasingly shaping the marine environment, the ocean is shared more and more by competing uses and activities. Yet marine social science doesn’t receive much attention. A recent paper by Nathan J. Bennett notes that 

“Government agencies, NGOs, funders or multilateral agencies rarely have sufficient capacity or make adequate investments in social science. This means that planning and decision-making for many local, national and global ocean-focused policy initiatives [...] lack sufficient grounding in the social sciences”.

The upcoming Ocean Decade needs to harness insights from the social sciences in order to find the solutions needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The traditional social science disciplines such as economics, sociology, anthropology and political sciences have much to offer, as do interdisciplinary approaches to topics such as ocean governance. Exploring how people interact with and relate to the ocean and its other non-human users can help to understand how environmental change is being experienced. A focus on human activities in marine environments, including through a gender lens, may also lead to the discovery of local adaptation and conservation measures that could potentially be scaled up or transferred elsewhere.

We need to build a better picture of what a sustainable ocean economy would really look like, and to understand some of the economic drivers of sustainable and unsustainable activities. The ocean is a huge source of jobs, travel and trade, and is implicated in an increasing range of economic activities. But the use of tools for economic valuation is not as widespread in the ocean as on land, and "natural capital" methods have had limited testing for marine environments. As we get closer to the Ocean Decade, we’d like to hear more from economists, including those using plural and integrative methods to better understand our planet’s largest ecosystem.

Across the social and natural sciences, we’d like to hear more from data scientists. All ocean science - all science in fact - can benefit from access to more data, and there are areas in which data for sustainable ocean management is currently lacking, for example on fish stocks in certain regions. Oceanographer Susan Wijffels has noted that 

"we still have major challenges around access to the global ocean and open data sharing, and more needs to be done to realise the benefits for all nations of an open and freely available global ocean information system".

What’s more, we’d like to make it possible for the data to speak for itself through greater adoption of open and accessible data practices. This will demand active participation from all disciplines, and from scientists in all parts of the world, including in countries whose data science capacities may be limited. The Decade could also provide the impetus to better understand how new technologies such as blockchain, big data analysis, or even space research can underpin ocean science. 

“Ocean data and information should be considered a ‘public good’ in the same way that weather observations are,” said Martin Visbeck, an Executive Planning Group member.

One of the key areas on which we need more knowledge is the deep ocean, and so we want to hear more from all the scientists working on deep-sea ecosystem structures and functions. Little is known about the deep seabed and the creatures which inhabit it. It’s logistically complicated and costly to study this ‘final frontier’ of ocean knowledge. However, as humans have an increasing impact on the planet - including through activities such as deep sea mining - it’s essential that we find out more about the biology and ecology of the deep sea, and their role as carbon stores. 

Finally, another aspect we need to understand is the essential part the ocean plays and has played in the natural and socio-political history of the planet. To fully grasp the major and cumulative changes currently impacting our ocean - both cyclical and human-made - we need to look back in time, across the history of interactions between human societies and the marine environment. Marine archaeologists can help provide much depth of knowledge to guide and inspire the Ocean Decade, and they are already active. Established in 2019, following the 1st Global Planning Meeting of the Ocean Decade in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Ocean Decade Heritage Network will rally and coordinate the activities of the cultural heritage community to support the Decade and foster positive ocean action. 

Part of the challenge for ocean science today is understanding how it all fits together - how are changes in ocean chemistry and ocean temperature interacting with ecosystems? For example, if one species is particularly negatively affected by acidification, are there cascading effects for the other species around it? And with climate change creating multiple stressors for ocean ecosystems, what’s the overall effect? We need to know more about the role of biological diversity in maintaining functionality and productivity, and about how ongoing and future changes in human activities in the marine environment are likely to impact on a concurrently changing system.

From a human interest perspective, and joining the global debate on social and climate justice, we also need to understand how to better incorporate into the Ocean Decade the traditional communities that possess a wealth of indigenous knowledge, and those traditionally marginalized segments of society (including women, youth, citizens with special needs, and struggling communities across both developed and developing countries) whose contributions can greatly enrich the next ten years of transformation in ocean science and sustainability.

The ocean is inherently complex, and it calls for knowledge from all sciences, for sharing that knowledge openly, and for international collaborations connecting people and ideas to generate new thinking and new solutions for sustainable development.