While Oceans Cover 70 Per Cent of Earth’s Surface, Understanding Has Lagged, Speakers in Lisbon Dialogue Stress, Offering Ways to Close Knowledge Gap
‘Countries Under Observe, Research and Coordinate,’ Expert Says, ‘It Is Insufficient’
LISBON, 30 June — While oceans cover 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, providing food and livelihoods for 3 billion people, current understanding of its vast biochemical processes has not kept pace with the rapid changes it is experiencing, speakers in the sixth Lisbon dialogue stressed today, as they outlined a range of scientific and other initiatives to close the knowledge gap.
“We cannot protect what we do not understand,” said Amélie de Montchalin, Minister for Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion of France, who co-chaired the discussion with Franz Tattenbach, Minister for Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, alongside the 2022 Ocean Conference. While the high seas account for 64 per cent of ocean area, they are largely unknown. “We can only get a glimpse of the value of the resources there,” she said. “We need you to establish a solid basis.”
Presenting their findings under the theme “Increasing scientific knowledge and developing research capacity and transfer of marine technology” were four scientists and policymakers from various disciplines, who made recommendations for fostering a better understanding.
Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, drew attention to the numerous frameworks for assessing climate, biodiversity and fisheries, among others, stressing that none of them has helped the world achieve Goal 14 (life under water). “We need to move from science to action,” he proposed, drawing attention to coastal zone management, maritime planning, the establishment of marine protected areas and management of aquaculture as among the various “friendly” ways to take on this charge.
He also pointed to the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy — an initiative among 16 world leaders — which made a commitment to manage the exclusive economic zones by 2025. He called for increasing investment in ocean activities and capitalizing on changes in data, thereby moving the world to sustainable ocean planning. He cited a recent UNESCO draft pilot State of the Ocean report, confirming that environmental stressors are not precisely understood. “We know in principle what is happening, but knowledge is qualitative, not quantitative,” he said. “It is insufficient.” Countries under observe, research and coordinate, and “it reflects in our knowledge”.
Jane Lubchenco, Deputy Director for Climate and the Environment, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said “the world needs science to save itself from fantasy”. Science helps Governments, businesses and people understand the consequences of the choices they make. “It does all of this only if we listen to science — science that is seen as credible — and use it,” she said. “Making the information understandable, relevant, credible and decision-ready is incredibly important.” She described one study that “flipped the script” on the ocean-climate nexus, finding that the ocean is not only the victim of climate change but a potentially powerful source of solutions. Twenty-one per cent — one fifth — of the carbon emission cuts needed to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius could come from the ocean, she said, an exciting fact that spurred the ocean’s addition to the climate agenda.
She also pointed to the creation of the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which recently expanded to 17 countries — representing half of the world’s exclusive economic zones. Detailing measures taken by the United States, notably the signing of a national security memorandum to address harmful fishing, she said the narrative used to be that the ocean was “too big to fail”. The fallacy of this reasoning has been proven over the decades, as has the notion that the ocean is “too big to fix”. Thanks to science, the new narrative says that the ocean is so central to humanity’s future it is “too big to ignore”. Turning this narrative into action, however, will require science, knowledge and partnerships.
Peter de Menocal, President of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report contained an “alarming” statement that all paths that limit future warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius require carbon dioxide removal — on land and in the oceans. Noting that oceans have absorbed 90 per cent of excess heat from greenhouse gases and 25 per cent of the carbon, he agreed it is time to stop considering the ocean as a victim of the forces upon it. “The ocean can be a hero in saving the planet,” he said.
It is the world’s largest carbon reservoir, he explained, with more than 50 times the carbon content of the atmosphere — meaning that slight changes in the ocean can have enormous impact on carbon concentration in the atmosphere. He cited a national academies study exploring six approaches for how the ocean can absorb carbon from the atmosphere, at the scale, with urgency. A requirement for all of them is a need to measure, monitor and verify carbon flows. “This is beyond our global observing capabilities, by any nation,” he said. What is needed is an ocean observatory which can detect the carbon, nutrient and biomolecular fluxes that define the strength of carbon movement from the surface to the depths.
Against that backdrop, he announced the launch of the Ocean Vital Signs Network, an international effort to study ocean data in an area twice the size of France — 1 million square kilometres — where an always-connected “internet” of devices using the Starlink Network will sense carbon and nutrient flows. He described these devices as “curious robots” that talk with each other to understand the ocean’s bottom. They will be deployed in the North-West Atlantic, aiming to reduce uncertainties about carbon flow, by an order of magnitude. “It will do for science with the Hubble [telescope] did for the Cosmos,” he said. He also called for an inclusive code of conduct to frame carbon removal research, whereby participants commit to open, collaborative research and perform independent assessments of strategies.
Along similar lines, Hide Sakaguchi, President of the Ocean Policy Research Institute of Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said scientific research has proven that fish require the least amount of food to produce one kilogram of meat, less than any other animal, to feed humans. If resources were unlimited, catching and eating fish would be ideal, from a sustainability point of view. However, the predator-prey relationship is “not constant at all” and ecosystems have their limits.
Environmental factors, such as convection, tide or diffused sinks, along with chemical, biological and geological effects, drastically accelerate species oscillation within ecosystems. To promote blue economies, “nothing should be allowed to go extinct, due to human impact,” he said, stressing that even if there is no short-term harm, the long-term effects of human activity on marine ecosystems must be scientifically investigated. “We lack data to solve this problem,” he said. Little is known about marine biology and the mechanisms that form ecosystems in a vast ocean.
To change that paradigm, he drew attention to the Suruga Bay Smart Ocean Project, where fishermen deploy nets laden with sensors that monitor the number of fish in an area covered by the 5G network. The system minimizes waste and transport costs, while maximizing the freshness and taste of fish. The Foundation intends to robotize the net landing and placement system and transform the bay into a “smart ocean” where real-time measurements can be carried out and shared.
When the floor was open for comments, lead discussant Cameron Diver, Deputy Director-General of The Pacific Community, Nouméa, New Caledonia, called for increased investment in Pacific-based research vessels, whether to monitor the world’s largest tuna fishery — which provides 50 per cent of the global tuna catch — or to improve the coastal science that is needed to underpin management and policy decisions. He encouraged investment in ocean science in ways that build on the existing body of science, and in ocean observation systems.
Lead discussant Ratih Pangestuti, Biomarine Industry Center, National Research and Innovation Agency, Indonesia, described disparities in the scientific capacity of developed and developing States. Gaps include access to information. Academics need access to the most current academic journals. “Access to knowledge is clearly a requirement for the development of ocean science,” she assured, highlighting the need for infrastructure, equipment and financial support. Local knowledge holders also must be involved in addressing these gaps.
In the ensuing dialogue, speakers underscored the critical need to transfer technology and called for scaled up investment in research and data, with several offering solutions and policy recommendations to support the implementation of Goal 14.
Framing the issues, Molwyn Joseph, Minister for Health, Wellness and Environment of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking for the Alliance of Small Island States, said part XIV of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea outlines the obligation to transfer marine technology and build scientific capacity of developing countries, notably through establishment of national and regional centres. “Forty years on, the gap persists,” he said, pointing to a dearth of scientists, little technology and in most cases no or very few facilities. The voice of small island developing States must be heard in the capacity-building conversation, he insisted.
Several ministers and senior officials made recommendations. Antonio Costa e Silva, Minister of Economy and Maritime Affairs of Portugal, agreed there is a fragmented approach to addressing land, coastal and deep-sea pollution. “We need to build databases, they must be shared,” he said. Marcelo Baldi Calvo, Minister for Coordination of Ocean and South Atlantic Policy Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Argentina, added that technology transfer must include technical cooperation, as well as technical and commercial information, as needed, with a view to developing endogenous capacity for its use.
Munir Akram (Pakistan), speaking for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, called for investing in capacity development, especially among scientists in least developed countries and small island developing States, as well as tackling technology access constraints and embracing both indigenous and local knowledge. Broadly agreeing, Tapagao Falafou, Permanent Secretary of Tuvalu, speaking for Pacific small island developing States, said these countries have the lowest scientific capacities. For a region that is 90 per cent water and has a rich ocean history, “this is unacceptable”. Pacific voices are critical to assessing and co-producing knowledge. Pathways are needed for Pacific scientists to pursue these goals, a point echoed by Khurshed Alam, Head of Maritime Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, who called for more investment in ocean science at national, regional and international levels.
“We need open, global ocean science,” Richard Spinrad, Under-Secretary General of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere of the United States, acknowledged, as well as co-development of that knowledge in a more equitable fashion than previously undertaken. He called for expanding innovations such as environmental DNA, artificial intelligence and new sensor technologies, as well as ensuring global coordination in data standards and sustainable resourcing for data management to ensure interoperability.
Many speakers pointed to gains already made, with Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), noting that the Commission has fully implemented its commitment to strengthen data partnerships, particularly with China, Malaysia, Samoa and Viet Nam. It also has submitted a new commitment to continue to convene Governments and other stakeholders in the sustainable management of ocean and marine ecosystems.
Maisa Rojas, Minister for Environment of Chile, pointed to the 29 June approval of Park 36 — Tiktok — for the conservation of blue whales, adding that 43 per cent of her country’s exclusive economic zone is protected, 60 per cent of which highly or fully. Also in June, Chile enacted a climate change framework law, making its 2050 net-zero commitment legally binding, while many of its Nationally Determined Contributions are associated with the ocean, and hence, legally binding. Roberto Rojas Espino, Minister for Environment and Natural Resources of Guatemala, described the national coastal marine research strategy. “The European Union is massively investing in research and innovation in the marine area,” added Charlina Vitcheva, Director General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of the European Commission, while Lisa Paramaki, Director of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada, said the Government has prioritized ocean leadership, seen in its efforts to develop the blue economy and contribute to the United Nations Decade for Ocean Science, along with the supercluster driving collaboration and discovery.
Mia Otopiak, Ocean Networks, Canada, said access is crucial to indigenous governance and enabling indigenous participation in the blue economy, while the speaker from Global Fishing Watch agreed, stressing that information about the ocean should be commonly available and that her organization has produced data sets on illegal fishing and vessel traffic.
Meanwhile, the speaker from the European Global Observing System, comprising 44 national oceanographic institutes, called for applying global standards, particularly the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reuseable) and CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.
Rounding out the conversation, the speaker from Ocean Hub Africa, a start-up incubator based in South Africa, said it is working to empower coastal communities to build blue economy. He cited the African Great Blue Wall and the 1,000 Start-up Coalition in this context. “We need your support,” he said, calling for more interest in pipeline builders, testing and frugal, rapid steps to ensure momentum is leveraged, especially in the global South.
Also speaking today were ministers and other senior officials from Sweden, Spain, United Republic of Tanzania, China, Algeria and the Dominican Republic.
A speaker from the Group of Experts of the United Nations Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment, including Socioeconomic Aspects also spoke.
Margaret Leinen, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice-Chancellor for Marine Science of the University of California at San Diego, moderated the discussion.