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By Karen Evans 31 May 2021 7 min read

This year marks the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the delivery of the second World Ocean Assessment by the United Nations.

The two initiatives are intricately linked as it was the findings of the first World Ocean Assessment that provided the impetus for the United Nations, through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, to propose that a decade of ocean science was needed.

Australia has an active role in the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development

Why a decade of ocean science?

Our oceans stabilise climate, store carbon, produce oxygen, nurture biodiversity, directly support human well-being through food, mineral, and energy resources, and provide cultural and recreational services. However, humans are causing rapid change that is negatively impacting all of the services our oceans provide.

Unsustainable resource extraction, pollution, climate change and habitat destruction have impacted many parts of the ocean and are on the rise in many regions. While improved management and conservation have helped to reduce threats and restore some key ecosystems, ocean health overall is in decline. If left unchecked, a growing and resource hungry human population will add additional pressures on the ocean. The second World Ocean Assessment reiterates this message. It identifies almost all components of the ocean impacted by climate change and human use, highlighting the need for integrated management of human activities both on land and in the ocean.

plastic bag floating on the ocean surface
Pollution is one significant threat to ocean health.

Connection to our oceans

Roughly 40 per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast. More than 600 million people currently live in coastal regions that are less than 10 metres above sea level, a number that is expected to grow to more than a billion by 2050. This puts them at increased risk from sea level rise. In Australia, 85 per cent of our population lives in coastal regions, with almost all of our capital cities located on the coast.

Many people rely on the ocean for their incomes. The global economy derived from the ocean is expected to reach $3 trillion USD by 2030. As of 2018, ocean related sectors such as freight, ship building and repair, infrastructure, domestic and international tourism, recreational and commercial fisheries, and oil and gas contributed approximately $60 billion to the Australian economy. The total employment associated with the ocean and coastal sectors is estimated at around 393,000 full time equivalent jobs.

Our coastal seas are hotspots of human-ocean interactions and are also regions where humans are predominantly impacted by ocean dangers. Storm surges, tsunamis, and changes in the ocean, such as sea level rise and associated erosion, are all risks to those in coastal regions.

In Australia, 85 per cent of our population lives in coastal regions

Setting goals to sustain ocean health

To ensure the ongoing sustainability of our oceans, we need to measure and monitor ocean health and function and effectively manage human activity in an integrated manner. The scope of research needed includes forecasting and predicting ocean-related impacts on coastal communities, measuring the effectiveness of policy interventions and better planning the use of our oceans and its resources.

The international community, including Australia, has set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for achieving sustainability by 2030. The science we need to meet the challenges of reversing ocean ecological decline while meeting these SDGs will require more than just scaling up our current approaches to business as usual. The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) calls on those in science, business, industry, government, and the public to come together to collaboratively harness advances from all fields to better understand our ocean, how humans interact with it, the responses of the ocean to that use and develop solutions for achieving a sustainable future.

What is being proposed?

The Ocean Decade aims to drive the generation of interdisciplinary science, data, and information needed by multiple stakeholders to meet the SDGs. It will break down barriers and find new ways of better integrating data and analytical tools to aid decision-making for sustainable development.

This 'whole earth' approach to ocean observation, analysis, modelling and delivery of information will allow society to better account and plan for the complex and often non-linear processes that drive ocean systems and the many pressures impacting them. It will build on existing partnerships and technologies and create new ones to enhance and expand the global scientific capacity required to quickly collect issue-specific information to meet the constantly-evolving needs of sustainable management in a rapidly developing global blue economy.

Identifying successful marine restoration efforts could support sustainable ocean health. Image: The Nature Conservancy ©  Copyright News Corp Australia

The Ocean Decade is organised around seven outcomes for societal benefit, with each requiring that action be taken to:

  • identify and routinely measure essential variables related to the climate, ocean processes and socio ecological systems that can serve as sentinels of ocean health
  • in association, develop new technologies, including new sensors and new methodological approaches, to measure and monitor these ocean variables
  • establish new public-private partnerships in ocean observing, data distribution, and information product delivery between science, engineering and information technology communities
  • develop new tracking and prediction capacities to support integrated, multi-hazard, early warning systems, and in association, improved community preparedness and awareness,
  • establish innovative ways to share data, information and knowledge amongst all stakeholders in an open, transparent and equitable manner
  • build capacity by training, resource mobilization, sharing of infrastructure and exchange of experts across, nations, institutions and disciplines
  • increase efforts in knowledge sharing beyond experts to build up ocean literacy around the world, from school programs to citizen engaged science to societal decision makers
  • translate knowledge into individual actions that generate the societal behaviour changes required for sustainability.

What is happening so far?

The first call for actions under the Ocean Decade has seen the global science community come together to put forward ambitious programmes of work across:

  • ocean discovery
  • ocean and coastal modelling and prediction
  • developing and improving management and decision support tools
  • improving best practices and access to ocean knowledge
  • facilitating connections between ocean stakeholders.

Researchers can follow the changes of our coasts and oceans thanks to a unique partnership between IMOS, CSIRO and other institutions. The Maria Island, Tasmania, mooring is pictured here. © CSIRO Carlie Devine

Many include input from the Australian research community and Australian ocean stakeholders. In addition, Australians are involved in specific actions that have been recognised under the Ocean Decade including conferences, workshops, exhibitions and events.

The official launch of the Ocean Decade will occur on 2 June in Australia. This will be followed by a series of 'Ocean Decade Laboratories' scheduled to occur across 2021 and 2022. These laboratories are aimed at catalysing partnerships and co-designing actions to be carried out under the Ocean Decade.

The launch event will coincide with the first virtual Early Career Ocean Professionals Day which is to be hosted by and for early career ocean professionals from around the world to showcase their work, activities, and contributions to the Ocean Decade. Australian early career ocean professionals will be contributing to this global event with a program of activities being hosted by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

The future of Australia’s ocean resources

As we progress the Ocean Decade, the efforts of the Australian ocean community and outputs generated under the Ocean Decade will assist in progressing the Australian government’s commitments to the ocean made via the High Level Panel on a Sustainable Ocean Economy, and to the SDGs, in particular SDG 14 - Life Below Water.

Managing ocean resources responsibly and sustainably is critical for human health

Through reporting mechanisms such as Australia’s State of the Environment report and the ocean indicators contained therein and similar reports delivered through state and territory processes, we will be able to track outcomes for ocean health. This includes associated changes to the way we plan and manage our use of the ocean resulting from efforts carried out as part of the Ocean Decade.

These reporting mechanisms will be essential for determining whether the transformational change needed for ensuring the future sustainability and health of the ocean has truly been achieved.

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