30 April 2019
Secretary-General’s Report Identifies Ways to Advance Ocean Science
Photo by Andrzej Kryszpiniuk
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The UN Secretary-General’s report titled, ‘Oceans and the Law of the Sea,’ aims to facilitate discussions on ocean science and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Although the report observes that knowledge of the ocean has been “enhanced considerably in the past 50 years,” it cautions that there are “considerable gaps and disparities in knowledge”.

The report asserts that ocean science plays an “important and cross-cutting role in the achievement of the 2030 Agenda”.

April 2019: The UN Secretary-General has released a report on oceans and the law of the sea. The report presents an overview of ocean science, highlights gaps in information, knowledge and capacity, and suggests ways to fill existing gaps and advance ocean science.

The report titled, ‘Oceans and the Law of the Sea’ (A/74/70), aims to facilitate discussions on ocean science and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (ICP) is focusing on this topic at its 20th meeting. The Decade aims to foster scientific research and technological innovation in support of a healthier, more sustainable ocean. The Decade is expected to address knowledge gaps and enable action at all levels by improving ocean literacy, building capacity in ocean science and research and catalyzing investments in ocean science in support of improved conditions for the ocean’s sustainable development.

The report asserts that ocean science plays an “important and cross-cutting role in the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.” Ocean science encompasses a range of disciplines relevant to the study of the ocean, from biological, chemical, geological, hydrogaphic, physical and social sciences to engineering and multidisciplinary research. Ocean science is critical in understanding the links between the atmosphere and the ocean, including the effects of ocean acidification, and in managing fisheries, including for conservation and management measures. Ocean science can provide data to understand the impacts of activities taking place on land and at sea, such as coastal development and shipping, and data needed to establish baselines for setting maritime zones. The report outlines the contribution of ocean science to inform global processes and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), including the 2030 Agenda.

The UNGA can spearhead the required changes to advance ocean science.

On ocean science for sustainable development, the report states that several SDG 14 (life below water) targets explicitly reference the central role of science in their achievement. Ocean science supports target 14.4 on regulating harvesting and ending overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and destructive fishing practices and implementing science-based management plans to restore fish stocks. Similarly, ocean science supports progress on a number of other SDG targets, from providing data and information on ocean acidification (SDG target 14.3) to management of anthropogenic pressures to prevent and reduce marine pollution (SDG target 14.1). Over 500 voluntary commitments registered in the context of the UN Conference to Support the Implementation of SDG 14 (UN Ocean Conference) focused on building capacity, increasing scientific knowledge and transferring technology.

On gaps in knowledge and ocean science, the report observes that knowledge of the ocean and understanding of its role in the planet’s ecosystem have been “enhanced considerably in the past 50 years.” There has been steady progress towards increased understanding of links between the atmosphere and the ocean, as reflected in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as on the use of the ocean and its resources, which has informed the identification of ecologically and biologically significant areas (EBSAs) under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Still, despite improved knowledge, the report emphasizes that there are “considerable gaps and disparities in knowledge” that can hamper policymakers’ ability to make informed decisions.

The report identifies a number of additional information needs related to a better understanding of, inter alia: ecosystem processes and functions and implications for ecosystem conservation and restoration, ecological limits, sociological resilience, tipping points and ecosystem services; the ocean-climate nexus, including carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption, nutrient distribution and cycling, salinity distribution, sea level rise and sea temperature; marine biodiversity, including deep sea taxonomy and the number and distribution of marine species; marine pollution and its impact; the effectiveness and impact of conservation measures, including socioeconomic benefits; and anthropogenic underwater noise and its impacts. Addressing these gaps presents a number of challenges, from insufficient funding and competition for funds to limited human, infrastructural, institutional and technological capacity. The report also discusses challenges related to data acquisition, analysis, management and dissemination as well as a lack of regulatory frameworks or national policies to promote ocean science.

The report recommends addressing challenges through increasing awareness of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and further developing technology and infrastructure to support data collection and dissemination in a coherent manner, including adoption and implementation of internationally accepted standards for management and exchange of data and adoption and implementation of data polices that support open access. The report further recommends expanding available information and knowledge by incorporating additional sources, including traditional knowledge held by indigenous peoples and local communities. The report suggests development of a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the science-policy interface for informed decision making and more effectively reach policymakers. Additional recommendations focus on building ocean science capacity and literacy and strengthening multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral coordination and cooperation at all levels.

The report suggests the UN General Assembly (UNGA) “can spearhead the required changes” to advance ocean science. The report further observes that, under the UNGA’s oversight and with support from relevant stakeholders, the Decade has the potential to foster momentum and action to advance ocean science. [Publication: Oceans and the Law of the Sea] [UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development Webpage]

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