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Ocean under the blue flag

Vladimir Ryabinin
Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO

At the suggestion of the intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the United Nations declared the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development beginning in 2021

This event will undoubtedly open a new era in oceanography by initiating significant changes in the work of the ocean community and will make a significant contribution to the future of our civilization.

Information is a factor in survival

The ocean is vital to mankind. To continue to use existing resources, we need a global system for the collection and exchange of information. This system should include efforts to restore and maintain ocean health and use its space and resources. Now there is no such system in place, but it is possible to build it by integrating some disparate elements and achieving a synergistic effect. It’s about ocean observation systems, research and development, innovation, oceanographic information services, economy, human resources and, of course, national and international legislation. Taken together, international laws and framework agreements relating to the protection of oceans are the building blocks of an ocean information system which, in turn, can support policies and actions to preserve the health of the ocean and its sustainable development

The desire to protect the oceans was clearly manifested at the first UN Ocean Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14, which was held at the UN headquarters in June 2017. Its organizing committee received over 1500 different voluntary commitments. Nine Communities of Ocean Action continue to work on their implementation to this day. Similar commitments are also formulated at the Our Ocean annual conferences organized by national governments since 2014.

Unfortunately, according to the United Nations World Ocean Assessment, our civilization is running out of time to launch the sustainable ocean management process due to many negative factors. The signs of deteriorating ocean health include warming, increased ocean acidity, ocean deoxygenation, pollution of enormous scope and various types, the catastrophic effects of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the destruction of the natural ocean environment, the harmful effects of parasitic species and some other types of negative impact.

The world ocean assessment has also revealed the impacts of rising sea levels: an increase in the number of more intense tropical (and potentially extratropical) cyclones, harmful algal bloom, fish and human poisoning, pollution of the coast with sargasso weed and some other factors. Human migration to the coast, along with continued population growth, increases the risk of life and property in the coastal zone, and earthquakes and tsunamis continue to pose a significant threat..

The ocean as the largest ecosystem on Earth is vital to the existence of mankind

According to the first Global Ocean Science Report prepared by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO in 2017, ocean science accounts for less than 4% of global natural science funding, with considerable variations between different countries. The current level of knowledge of the ocean from the standpoint of physics and dynamics is close to sufficient to inform society and governments about existing and potential threats. Nevertheless, to ensure the adoption of effective and efficient measures to improve the situation at the global and regional levels, there is a need to get more specific knowledge and systematically generalize it.

The proclamation of the Decade of Ocean Sciences by the UN General Assembly may be viewed as the recognition of the crucial role of science in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The success of the ten-year program requires the participation of both the academic community as a whole and national governments, industry, business and civil society.

A breakthrough in knowledge generation and ocean management is to be provided by achieving two overarching goals. First, it is necessary to generate scientific knowledge, build basic infrastructure and establish partnerships necessary for sustainable ocean development. Secondly, scientific knowledge, data and information about the ocean need to be utilized to achieve the sustainable development goals identified in the 2030 Agenda.

Progress in various thematic areas of ocean science is needed, but research papers cannot be the only unit to measure the success of the Decade. A positive impact on society should also be a key feature.

Seven horizons of research

Let’s list the priority areas of research and technological development. They are interdependent, but allow purposeful design and planning both globally and locally. The first priority is the development of an integrated ocean chart, a digital geo-referenced atlas. This area of research and development primarily involves mapping the ocean floor. Modern, mostly satellite mapping provides the horizontal resolution of two to five kilometers, which prevents detection of many details. Multibeam echosounders can provide much better resolution, but ocean studies using them encompass less than 5% of the oceans. If we compare today’s ocean chart with a land surface map, then, with a similar resolution, practically all the significant topographic features would be missing on many geographic maps.

The International Hydrographic Organization and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission are addressing the daunting task of mapping the ocean depths under their joint projects, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans and Seabed 2030, financed by the Nippon Foundation.

A comprehensive ocean chart should include much more information than just depth. Data describing the physical, biological, chemical and geological environments, ecosystems, cultural facilities, boundaries, resources, etc. are also required. Designing a digital geo-referenced ocean atlas which would meet many future needs for using and protecting the ocean requires coordinated action by many participants at the regional and local levels.

Another priority area is the integrated ocean observing system. You can’t control that you can’t measure. Ocean observations are the key to understanding the weather, climate and the future state of marine ecosystems and resources. The area of responsibility of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) is the physical variables in the upper two kilometers of the water column and on the surface. The GOOS is expanding to encompass extra measurements in deeper waters. In addition, it affects the areas of biochemistry, biology and ecology. The Global Ocean Observing System is a collective initiative: all countries, even landlocked, benefit from related information products and services. This system needs be constantly maintained in such a way that all observations are integrated in a single and common standard of underlying or basic data and the information obtained becomes available to all in an open format.

The third important issue is the understanding of the number of oceanic ecosystems and their functioning necessary to manage and adapt them. The census of the inhabitants of the ocean provided the opportunity to make an inventory of biotypes in the ocean, expand scientific knowledge of what species lived, live and will live there. This work is well under way within the framework of the Ocean Biogeographic Information System. The biological component of the Global Ocean Observing System is approaching its pilot phase. New technologies and new approaches improve molecular methods and, taken together, provide opportunities for visualizing life in the ocean in near real time, from viruses and plasmids to whales and their interaction with each other. A new state of molecular and genetic science will show much of what could not be measured or understood in the past. This knowledge will contribute to a better understanding of ecosystem processes, including, for example, nitrogen fixation, the first link in the food chain, nutrient cycling and colonization of the ocean surface.

Currently, oceanographic potential is distributed unevenly in the world

Monitoring of ecosystems with quantitative criteria for their health, expanding knowledge of management solutions and accessibility of best practices and new forecasting capabilities promise to create a framework for scientific management of large marine ecosystems involving all key stakeholders, such as ecologists and representatives of the fishing industry.

The International Oceanographic Data Exchange program focuses on discovery, sharing and access to information and sets international standards in this area. A system consisting of approximately 100 data centers and related units can provide long-term archiving, preservation and recording of marine data and information products, and also contribute to the development of a relevant capacity and the use of best practices. An ocean data portal acting as a link between supply and demand and facilitating the harmonization of requirements for information products is seen today as a framework for the future ocean data and information system. This tool will require a great deal of money throughout the design and implementation phases, but it can be built by drawing upon existing elements. New approaches to computation methods, as well as big data processing in cloud environments open up additional prospects for implementing the portal.

Ocean measurements in a comprehensive hazard warning system will be the fifth priority for research activities. There are a number of disparate similar systems. Many of them are already in place, for example, a tsunami warning system caused by earthquakes. Others, such as a storm surge warning system, have not yet been completed. Others are still under development. An effective warning system should be based on risk knowledge and appropriate emergency planning and warning. In addition, hazard warning systems able to handle several types of risks have significant advantages. During the Decade, a concerted effort should be made to integrate ocean components into new or existing hazard warning systems. In addition, care must be taken to use ocean data more effectively to warn about ocean-related hazards at different time scales, ranging from immediate threats, such as tropical storms, to long-term and significant implications like droughts, abnormally high temperatures, forest fires, floods, etc. During the Decade, the quality of the system will need to be considered through the involvement of relevant government bodies and international mechanisms. The “last mile” problem must be solved in such a way that warning reaches the local community on time and people can respond quickly and appropriately.

Ocean science is part of Earth sciences. The Global Ocean Observing System contributes to the Global Climate Observing System and, in a broader context, is part of the underlying Earth observing system. To study and predict the future health of the ocean, it is necessary to include it in different types of the earth system models. Industry, behavioral and social changes, as well as the economy should ultimately be included in the area of observation and predictive modeling. The longer the forecast horizon, the greater the role of oceanic processes in the forecast.

The Decade may involve still disparate modeling teams and industries to develop a future multi-scale ocean observing and prediction system.

Among other things, it is necessary to urgently develop ethical principles of human interactions with the ocean. In addition, short- and long-term economic analysis of ocean sustainability and the role of ocean science in it is needed. Quantitative assessments of tangible benefits and an assessment of ocean-related intangible assets are necessary to make decisions on many issues, including land-based sources of pollution, non-eco-friendly fishing and aquaculture methods, as well as the protection of the underwater cultural heritage.

Finally, yet another priority for upcoming research and development activities is capacity building and accelerated technology transfer, training and education, in other words, oceanic literacy.

All the above areas of research will bring the latest advances in ocean science to the fore. Currently, oceanographic potential is distributed unevenly in the world, not only in terms of the ability to conduct research, but also with regard to the ability to benefit from scientific knowledge and technology. However, based on ethical considerations and the principle of shared but differentiated responsibility, all countries and communities should have the opportunity to exploit ocean resources. The implementation of the Decade should intensify efforts to provide appropriate training, as well as set in motion the mechanisms for the transfer of marine technology. Thus, a big step forward will be taken in oceanic literacy among different categories of people.

From research to practice

Progress in research and development is expected to create new, more favorable conditions for the practical application of new knowledge and technologies. It is very important that the ambitions of private business, governments, and the involved managers grow in parallel with this movement. Intensive transfer of the accumulated knowledge and achievements in the field of ocean science to society should be the key stimulating factor here.

The seven priority areas for research listed above will lead to the application of an ecosystem approach to the management and conservation of the oceans, supported by observations and knowledge, with adequate regulation and effective and implementable policies, including the establishment of protected marine areas in key locations.

By 2030, approximately 30% of the total area of the world’s exclusive economic zones is expected to be covered by scientifically managed plans for the use of marine spaces approved by national governments. This will provide significant benefits to the “blue” economy and will contribute to the sound management of ocean ecosystems and the preservation of their health. Similar positive changes are expected in coastal zone management. It is important that new plans for the use of marine space and approaches to coastal zone management not only take into account the current state of the oceans and human activities therein, but also are oriented to future, taking into account different possible scenarios for activities and relevant environmental forecasts.

In the face of a growing population, climate change and the need to reduce marine pollution, fisheries management and aquaculture should be based on ocean observations, climate, ocean health, as well as ocean resource potential forecasts. Observations and research can help improve the transparency of living marine resources management and adherence to existing rules, as well as encourage countries to pursue more progressive fisheries and aquaculture policies. Based on the analysis contained in the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), systematic efforts on climate change adaptation solutions and the search for measures to mitigate this change will be reinforced.

The Decade of Ocean Science is a good chance to establish a broader oceanographic observing system

The UN General Assembly authorized the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) to lead preparations for the Decade and develop a plan for the implementation of its activities in consultation with Member States, UN partners, and other stakeholders. In the first half of 2018, a draft roadmap for the preparatory stage was prepared: it defines the preliminary goals, formulates the desired social results, and sets the governance and interaction mechanisms.

The 51st Session of the IOC Executive Council approved the roadmap and decided to establish an Executive Planning Group consisting of high-level experts to advise the IOC governing bodies. In December 2018, its first meeting was held. In addition to the scientific process, a broad consensus was reached in understanding how the Decade should change the situation associated with investment in ocean science in different countries and encourage decision-makers to use existing scientific knowledge in their ocean management policies. The experts stressed that capacity development and the transfer of marine technology should be a key comprehensive priority, deeply integrated into the Decade planning process. They also sought to lay the foundation for an effective strategy for communicating the Decade’s goals and involving stakeholders into the joint development of a plan for the implementation of upcoming activities. For this purpose, consultations organized around global planning meetings and a series of regional workshops scheduled for 2019 and early 2020 are expected to be held. In addition to consultative meetings, a stakeholder forum open to a wide range of communities will be established.

By pooling resources

United Nations partners in oceanology are also associated with the consultation process. They were invited to contribute to the development of the implementation plan at the UN-Oceans meeting at UNESCO headquarters held in March 2018. At a meeting held at the World Meteorological Organization in February 2019, a special task force was set up to structure and strengthen the contribution of its members to the Decade of Ocean Sciences.

Collaboration among the various UN bodies will also be encouraged through the development of both existing and renewed partnerships with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. It is imperative that United Nations agencies direct the work on those aspects of the Decade that are relevant to their mandate. It is important to intensify efforts to inform and educate, present the goals of the Decade and involve all stakeholders.

The UN General Assembly commissioned the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) to prepare a plan for implementing the Decade’s activities “within the framework of existing structures and available resources.” In accordance with the decision adopted by the IOC Executive Council at its 51st session, the Commission urged Member States to make voluntary contributions to prepare for the Decade. UN agencies and partner organizations expressed strong support, and several States proposed to hold regional, global, or thematic workshops scheduled during the preparatory phase of the Decade of Ocean Science.

We still need more tangible support for the outreach activities envisaged for these consultative and planning meetings. Additional resources will be sought through alternative financing mechanisms, such as public-private partnerships, as well as through charitable contributions.

Ten year plan

The Decade offers a serious chance to establish a broader ocean observing system and use data obtained in for science-based ocean management to keep the ocean healthy while meeting the growing needs of our civilization and relying on benefits of ocean ecosystems. The OceanObs conferences are held once every ten years, driving and setting the direction for the development of ocean observing systems. The Decade of Ocean Science is fully in line with the main goal of OceanObs’19, and we hope that the research community will see it as a good opportunity to offer its ideas, and will also become more involved and make a significant contribution to the preparatory phase of the UN Decade.

In the summer of 2020, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is required to present an implementation plan at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In preparing the draft of this plan, the materials of the OceanObs’19 conference will be carefully studied. In addition, the regional and global meetings, as well as the forum of key stakeholders of the Decade of Ocean Science will be the platform for gathering ideas.

Law on ocean protection

International treaties and framework agreements to preserve the oceans

[ 1974 ]

International Maritime Organization
Oversees the implementation of the UN Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea

Regional Maritime Conventions and UN Environmental Protection Programs and Regional Fisheries Management
Provide a regional framework for preserving the health of the ocean and its marine biological resources

[ 1982 ]

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
Provides a common regulatory framework for the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and its resources

[ 1992 ]

UN Convention on Biological Diversity
Declares the need to manage marine and other aquatic ecosystems using a science-based approach.

[ 1995 ]

Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries
The key tool of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment Against Pollution from Activities on Land
Seeks to identify land-based sources of pollution or harmful effects, as well as to prepare measures to reduce them. Particularly relevant in the fight against plastic pollution

[ 2009 ]

Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing
The key tool of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[ 2014 ]

Action Program for the Accelerated Development of Small Island Developing States (SAMOA Pathway)
Indicates a number of important objectives in relation to the sustainable use of the oceans

[ 2015 ]

2030 Agenda
The 17 sustainable development goals, including item 14 on the preservation and rational use of the oceans, as well as ten objectives were unanimously approved by the UN General Assembly

Paris Agreement
Concluded in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and emphasizes the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including the oceans.

Sendai Framework Program
It aims to reduce risks to countries located in the coastal zone

Five oceans, six objectives

Expected Results of the Decade of Ocean Science

1. A clean ocean,

whereby sources of pollution are identified, quantified and reduced and pollutants removed from the ocean in an effective way. Integrated research will assess the medium- to long-term human and environmental risks of ongoing and future types of ocean pollution, as well as explore new ideas to reduce the ocean pressures.

2. A healthy and resilient ocean,

whereby marine ecosystems are mapped and protected, while numerous impacts on them, including climate change, are measured and, where possible, reduced. At the same time, the reasonable and beneficial use of ocean ecosystems continues. The Decade will promote research to describe in detail the impacts of multiple stress factors on the ocean, ecosystems and resources, thus providing the information necessary to take action against the degradation of the ocean ecosystem. A more detailed study and assessment of the economic and social importance of the ocean and its ecosystems will also play an important role in encouraging the planning of the use of marine space, the management of protected marine areas and the coastal zone.

3. A predicted ocean,

whereby we have the capacity to understand its current conditions and forecast their change and impact on human wellbeing and livelihoods. Knowledge of current and future conditions is a prerequisite for developing sustainable ocean policies and ecosystem-based management. A more detailed and comprehensive consideration of ocean processes should help greatly improve climate predictability. It would be important to build on advances in oceanic robotics and the combination of remote and in-situ ocean observation techniques, which will offer new opportunities and reduce operational costs

4. A safe ocean,

whereby human communities are much better protected from ocean hazards and where the safety of human activities at sea and on the coast is ensured. The Decade will promote research aimed at minimizing impacts of changes (risk reduction) through adaptation and mitigation of negative effects. Integrated hazard warning systems will be developed in all basins, thus contributing to enhanced preparedness and awareness of society with regards to ocean-related risks. This area of study will be of great interest to the insurance industry

5. A sustainably productive ocean,

ensuring the provision of food supply and alternative livelihoods. The Decade should improve understanding of the interactions and interdependences of ocean ecosystems, environmental conditions and processes, the use of resources and the economy. A major objective in the context of the development of an ocean-based economy is to document the potential impacts from environmental changes on the established and emerging maritime industries and their ability to generate economic growth, especially for least-developed countries and small island developing states.

6. A transparent and accessible ocean,

whereby all stakeholders have access to ocean data and information technologies and possess decision-making capacities. In addition, more developed links between science and politics are needed. Open access to ocean information, active interactions between the academic community and civil society, and increased ocean literacy for everybody should ensure that all citizens and stakeholders have a more responsible and informed behavior towards the ocean and its resources.

Ocean under the blue flag
Ocean under the blue flag