The Ocean Conference: Mind the gap between marine science and new ocean challenges

© Nicolas Floch / Fondation Tara Expéditions / Ocean Conference

The upcoming United Nations Ocean Conference in June will be the first to address marine issues on a global scale. It will be also a unique opportunity to focus on, at the highest level, some of the most urgent challenges for marine science today. We have known for many years, for instance, that climate change is threatening ocean biodiversity with the new and cumulative impacts of warming, acidification and deoxygenation – issues also associated with anthropogenic pollution and overfishing. But, are we investing enough in basic research to understand and act on these and other urgent issues?

The answer is no.

There is a “business as usual” scenario for marine science, and in some cases, we are doing less than a decade ago. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO) is underfunded. Plus, important national programs on ocean science are no longer a priority in key countries like Australia, France, Italy and now the United States, with recently announced cuts to climate change science and Earth observations. Here is a terrible paradox: the more the ocean is under threat, the less we are supporting knowledge production to understand, predict and prevent future impacts.


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Tara scientists using a double net to collect plankton samples during the 2009-2013 Tara Oceans expedition © Anna Deniaud / Tara Expeditions Foundation


This is a period of important milestones for the ocean. The stage is being set for an international agreement on biodiversity management in the high seas, one that will impact consideration of marine genetic resources. At every scale, these are still largely unknown, though we are now seeing a deep transformation in marine sciences with the quick development of new technologies like Next Generation Sequencing, Big Data analysis, bioinformatics and bioimaging. These will transform the way we see the ocean, in the same way that genetics transformed medicine and cancer prevention. In addition, at its 43rd Session in Nairobi, Kenya, the IPCC Panel decided to prepare a special report on climate change and the oceans and the cryosphere, giving the ocean much needed attention in the climate sphere. And, as mentioned, the first UN Ocean Conference will catalyze progress on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, the ocean Goal.

We need to take this opportunity to support marine science. SDG 14 affirms this in target 14A, which focuses on the need to “increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology.” For the UN Ocean Conference, IOC-UNESCO is proposing a “decade of ocean science,” which could be a driver for more cooperation and more funding to key programmess on the most urgent issues. In the context of the ‘Call for Action,’ a main, anticipated outcome of the UN Ocean Conference, basic research should be a priority in the implementation of the targets, not only as a basis for climate change related impacts (target 14.3), but also for marine litter and pollution (target 14.1), management of marine reserves (targets 14.2 and 14.5), and beyond.


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Natural reserve in Moorea, French Polynesia, during the 2016-2018 Tara Pacific expedition © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation


In addition to finance and resource provision, we need to go beyond silos and build transdisciplinary international programs using the best available science. The Tara Pacific Expedition is a model worth considering and replicating. Addressing coral reefs’ bleaching linked to the planktonic diversity, the Tara Foundation in France built a multi-disciplinary international program associating more than 27 institutes from various countries. It provides a unique scientific program at the scale of the Pacific. Yet, as we experienced with our previous program, Tara Oceans, it is only possible to design such a program from the bottom-up, which means taking a fair amount of risks and often working against a scientific establishment that prefers standard approaches.

Now is the time to build such cross-cutting, collaborative research engines. Decision makers have a strong responsibility to strengthen ocean sciences enabling future science-based conservation and adaptation actions. The UN Ocean Conference will literally ‘Call for Action’ in June and we must capitalize on this and other opportunities to set the basis for scientific research that informs action across all the SDGS.

Director of the Tara Expeditions Foundation, Romain Troublé (Twitter: @RomainTrouble) and its Director of Policy, Andre Abreu (Twitter: @AndreAbreuTara)

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