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By Ruth Dawkins 8 June 2020 6 min read

Future Seas is an innovative, interdisciplinary project imagining a better, more sustainable future for our oceans.

Healthy oceans are essential for us all. They play a vital role in regulating the world’s climate, and provide food, jobs, clean air, and unique cultural connections. Unfortunately, the oceans are under threat. But scientists are rising to the challenge with a coordinated effort to protect this invaluable resource.

More than 100 researchers from CSIRO and the University of Tasmania – spanning a diverse spread of disciplines that includes climate science, psychology, ecology, philosophy, economics, engineering and law – have recently been working on a collaborative project to address key issues from the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Led by a team from the Centre for Marine Socioecology (CMS), the Future Seas 2030 project invited researchers to gather for a series of one- and two-day workshops, as well as a week-long workshop that included Indigenous and Traditional Knowledge Holders from around the world.

The researchers identified 12 key challenges facing the oceans, ranging from biodiversity and climate change through to ocean governance and the blue economy. For each of these, a working group developed two future scenarios: the first envisioned what the ocean might look like in 2030 if we continue on a ‘business as usual’ path; the second considered what it might be possible if we use existing knowledge and technology – locally, regionally and globally – to strive towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Participants at the November 2019 Future Seas Workshop in Hobart. Photo: Rita Lukkarinen and Eero Murtomäki

Using available data

The group decided early on to use existing knowledge to inform their work, rather than focus on gathering new information. For each key challenge, they employed a strategic technique called ‘foresighting’ – using existing trends to develop evidence-based scenarios of the future and identify potential areas for change – before using ‘backcasting’ to develop plausible pathways to action.

Project leader Professor Gretta Pecl, Director of CMS, believes that adopting this approach will make the project outcomes more relevant to policy makers.

“The UN Decade for Ocean Science is really impressive in terms of setting an agenda and motivating an international effort, but much of it revolves around securing more data and more knowledge. Robust science is absolutely necessary but in many cases it just isn’t sufficient. It doesn’t necessarily lead to management or action. There’s a huge gulf between the information we already have and what is actually used. It’s crucial to remember that data doesn’t make decisions. Humans make decisions.”

Her view is supported by Dr Camilla Novaglio, a researcher with CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere who is a member of the project leadership team and led the Future Seas paper on the blue economy.

“In science you hear all the time that we need more information in order to do something, but there are many things we can accomplish with the data we already have. The desire for more information shouldn’t stop us from taking action. The project was about using existing knowledge to imagine what a better future might look like.”

Taking an interdisciplinary approach

A second distinctive aspect of the Future Seas initiative is the commitment to interdisciplinary working. It was an approach that required a significant investment of time early on in the project, and a willingness to engage in open, robust discussion.

Researchers from each discipline use a rich body of language particular to their work, and when those people sit in a room together they are – sometimes quite literally – speaking different languages.

“Terms like ‘food security’ and ‘biodiversity’ that might be used all the time by one group of researchers were completely new to others,” says Professor Pecl. “We really had to get back to basics before we could even identify what the key challenges were, let alone what methods we would use to tackle them.”

Once that groundwork had been done, the breadth of perspectives added enormous value to the project. Bringing in experts from fields like psychology, governance and public health enabled the teams to examine what approaches have been used to inspire human behaviour change, and what interventions might be possible at both individual and community levels.

This novel approach prompted researchers from more conventional science disciplines to consider unexpected viewpoints. “The group I was working with on the blue economy paper included a philosopher, who helped me see things in a completely different way,” says Dr Novaglio. “They brought up issues I would never, ever have considered. I learned so much, and it has definitely changed the way I will think in future.”

In addition to using the expertise of Australia-based scientists, who in themselves represented 20 countries, each of the 12 key challenges benefitted from the perspectives of Indigenous Leaders and Traditional Knowledge Holders from Australia and around the world.

Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas, a transdisciplinary researcher and knowledge broker with CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, is part of the Future Seas leadership team. Jess led the paper on climate driven species redistribution and notes that working with Indigenous contributors was a uniquely emotional experience.

“In the paper I led we considered the challenge of species on the move in the oceans - the global-scale redistribution that is occurring as oceans warm and marine species move towards the poles. Including the perspectives of Indigenous contributors who have deep and ancient spiritual and cultural connections with species that are now moving away was very important to us. We found it made more sense to put interpretations side-by-side rather than forcing an integration of traditional knowledge into a western scientific framework.”

Per Ole Frederiksen (Nuunoq), Halfdan Pedersen (both from Greenland), and Chief Russ Jones (Haida Nation) at Snug Falls during the Future Seas November 2019 workshop. Photo: Rita Lukkarinen

Future Seas project outcomes

There are a number of tangible outcomes from Future Seas 2030. The papers for each of the key challenges – as well as three synthesis papers – will soon be published in a special issue of Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. The Indigenous authors led a paper describing their view of what the future of oceans could look like by 2030, but also elected to write a preface to the entire special issue. The Preface is titled ‘Who is the Ocean?’ and describes the way many Indigenous Peoples know the oceans.

The project team worked with graphic designers to create visually appealing infographics to accompany each paper. These will provide an accessible way of engaging policy makers and the wider public, and will hopefully prompt conversation about what can actually be done now to work towards healthier oceans.

“We really wanted to create the vision of what the future could look like – how positive it could look – if society collectively chose to go there and use the knowledge we have available to us,” said Professor Pecl.

Some of the project outcomes are more difficult to quantify, but equally important. Many of the papers were led by early career researchers or graduate students, providing an opportunity to train and mentor ECRs in leading large paper writing teams.

Even for more established researchers, the work that started during this phase of the project will almost certainly lead to important future collaborations.

“The project has prompted a series of connections,” says Dr Melbourne-Thomas. “I met a lot of researchers – some of whom were working almost next door to me – and discovered areas of potential overlap. There will be a lot of spin-off collaborations.”

“It has been really fun,” adds Dr Novaglio. “Sometimes you need that in work. When you deal every day with big, difficult issues such as resource use, it’s nice to have a project that is genuinely fun.”

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