ICES and the UN Decade of Ocean Science

An interview with the IOC Executive Secretary on how ICES can contribute to the Ocean Decade.
Published: 7 January 2020

​​​​​​​​​The UN has​​ declared 2021–2030 to be UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. This “will provide a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity to create a new foundation, across the science-policy interface, to strengthen the management of our oceans and coasts for the benefit of humanity".

This week, ICES will participate in a workshop​ hosted by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC) to further discuss and prioritize the issues identified for the North Atlantic Ocean region for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. 

Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the IOC talked with us about his hopes for the upcoming Ocean Decade.​​

You noted at the opening session of ICES Annual Science Conference 2019 in Gothenburg that following COP15 in Copenhagen, there was no action taken. Does non-action in the face of climate change surprise you?

If you are about to be hit by a car, you will move away from the immediate danger but if your mother tells you don't smoke because it is bad for your health, the threat is more theoretical. There is no immediate threat to your life. And so, people respond differently.

It is the role of governments to understand and take action. However, scientists realized that the linear relationship of science informing and governments reacting was not working. In order to move forward, scientists also needed to take some action so that governments would react – and this was called The Social Contract for Climate Scientists.

Now, we are in the same boat when it comes to the ocean. The health of the ocean is deteriorating and it can easily be one of those “out of sight, out of mind" things. We are sitting here in a maritime city but we cannot see the sea, so it is not really in the minds of people. It goes again with that psychological paradigm because nobody is going to die right now but we must mainstream the importance of the ocean or life will become less and less pleasant.

While climate change is making more and more headlines– the Australian and Amazon fires, many European Parliament candidates running on a green platform, Greta Thunberg inspiring youth and many more to take part in her Friday Strikes for Climate– many do not understand the importance of the ocean in the world's climate system.
How do you see the Ocean Decade advancing the public's understanding?

This is an attempt to get in to the minds of people but first we have to act on the conscience of the UN delegations as they express the positions of their governments. Now we have this decade, so it means that the governments are onboard, at least formally.

The next stage is turning formal commitments into real actions. These actions have not yet gained momentum, and as I said at the Annual Science Conference Opening session, the ocean's health keeps deteriorating in terms of the amount of plastics, the amount of carbon, and the amount of pollution that goes in to the water– so these things continue.

For us, it is important that we have a solid base for speaking to people and to governments – this requires science that is authoritative and convincing. The special IPCC report on the climate crisis in the ocean is another report about the deteriorating state of the ocean. The science is able to inform society about the state of the ocean but not yet as good at the development of solutions, communicating the solutions, and engaging people to act. So this is exactly the point of the decade, to move from this linear relationship where we alert people to a place where we can really take actions to solve the ocean health.​

How do you see ICES and our science network contributing to the ocean decade?

I can state with great pleasure that ICES is very interested in participating in the decade. But not only participating – you know you get in the taxi, and the taxi takes you – ICES must be driving the taxi! Why? Because ICES has a strong leadership role in several areas of important science. I would highlight your ecosystem science - what is important is the science of ecosystems that are successfully managed. And there are some good examples of successfully managed ecosystems and stocks in this part of the world and that unites ICES groups.

I think that ICES can really lead the work with other partners working on the health of ecosystems: create a coherent programme of how to observe ecosystems, how to predict the state of ecosystems, and how to act on the state of ecosystems that is exportable for the whole world. Not exporting ICES recommendations as they may not be applicable, but at the same time, the sum of knowledge is unprecedented.

Also, what is important is that ICES is made up of scientists that associate themselves with this organization and also has many partner organizations. If these scientists have a place in their hearts for the decade and the future of the ocean, then this gives them a platform to communicate and exercise the social contract of oceanography that I outlined.

I would say ecosystem science and focusing on contributing to sustainable development on the understanding that the situation requires urgent action. The science is important, your science is an important part of the big picture. If ICES walks forward with that understanding, it will be a huge contribution.​

What benefits are there for individual scientists if they participate in the decade?

All the simple questions are the most difficult! Let me give you the example of IOC and myself. I came to IOC as Executive Secretary, we had our work on ocean observations – a lot of issues related to ocean research, assessment, policy, capacity development, education and training. It is a wonderful programme, everything is working, everyone is developing, and then we developed the Ocean decade and life basically collapsed. We work now for the decade and probably have three times more work than previously – is it an advantage? No, it is not. But in principle it is contributing to the health of the ocean and the future of our planet. So that is a fantastic motivation! If you are doing this in an altruistic way, then it gives moral satisfaction.

How can scientists that are already working in this area, help advance the societal outcomes of the UN Decade in a meaningful way?

Scientists should have a clear understanding of how their science contributes to the bigger picture. And if they do, my own experience is that the scientific applications will also benefit because if you have a big picture in mind, then you see where this element goes.

A further way of making a contribution could be to communicate the role of science. It is sometimes difficult for people who do their research on a narrow topic to explain how it fits. But becoming an ambassador of the science is critically important. By communicating to lay people or to governments, scientists should have an active social position.

ICES and IOC have cooperating on climate change issues. Are there areas related to the newly negotiated biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) legal instrument where there could be opportunities for further cooperation?

The answer is definitely yes. So if we look through the four elements of this BBNJ agreement – the management of genetic resources, environmental impact assessments, area-based management, and capacity development – ICES can increase the capacity of work in each of these areas because of the expertise and knowledge in the organization. This is ICES contribution.

IOCs contribution is that we underpin this through global ocean observation. The global aspect is important here because while ICES is a strong regional science organization, we are a global organization that focuses on the links between governments and science. IOC can help ICES communicate your message to not only ICES member country governments but the 148 governments that are members of the IOC.

What is also important is that we have a good relationship and that we offer the best science to the governments of the world. During the decade we are going to focus on the strengths of our two organizations and BBNJ is one of the areas that we will concentrate on - IOC can help deliver capacity on a global body of ocean knowledge and ICES can contribute to feeding that capacity - this is a synergistic environment for the two organizations.

What areas do you think need most training for the next generation of scientists?

Two things. People's ability to progress science depends on their fundamental education and unfortunately in current science, the ability to do fundamental research, to progress models, to understand the physics and dynamics – it is becoming rarer! It is not as strong as before. And my impression is that it is very difficult to move forward with cutting-edge science. More people tend to use models: they change the parameters of the initial conditions, they say, oh the model just spits out this, so this is considered new science. This is not new science – this is just the use of other knowledge and skill to look at a specific thing. I think the fundamental science needs to be moved forward – this requires education and really hard work and also self-development. This is not only applicable to ocean sciences but all sciences.

Then, our Global Ocean Science Report shows a huge difference in the ability of countries and regions to use the science. That disparity is easier to fix because this requires sharing of data, some training – and this is possible. So if we implement the capacity development programme as we see it, then I think that the ability of many regions to use scientific assessments and data will increase, leading to more efficient management of coastal areas and energy savings.

However, ocean science remains weak in many regions – we spoke about this, out of sight out of mind – so there is a lack of investment. My impression is that we can develop a training so that people can locally use coastal zone management and maritime spatial planning approaches - this will not be cutting-edge but very practical science.

Where do you see the most opportunity for advancement of scientific methods?

I would say in the understanding of oceanographic complexity: the complexity of creating the full picture of the functioning of ocean ecosystems including dynamics, climate change, and the entire trophic chain, how it all works. Also in the way this could be simulated using models would be for me the most exciting development for oceanography – the implementation of a little earth system for the ocean! People say that all models are wrong ​but some are useful - so if we could create a useful model for the ocean ecosystem that is generic enough – that would be fantastic. 

What do you hope the outcome of the decade will be?

I hope that we will have a global ocean observation system, including the polar oceans that are quite void of observations at present, stretching to the bottom of the ocean and covering not only physical parameters but all the parameters that also relate to the biochemistry and biology and ecology of the ocean, so we would have a representative picture of ocean life and conditions. This information could be processed through models so that regular information on the state of the ocean would be available to society and used in predictive models running together as part of the earth system models, to predict climate and predict the state of the ocean. 

We would have a range of products that would inform decision-making and inform the behavior of people. This really would be science helping to manage the ocean.​

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Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the IOC at ICES​ ASC 2019 in Gothenburg. ​Photo: Natalie Greppi

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ICES and the UN Decade of Ocean Science

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