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The ocean provides us vast economic services that we need to manage sustainably. Photo: Erik Lukas on OceanImageBank

In the run-up to the second UN Ocean Conference, and a few days before an OACPS meeting in Ghana of ministers in charge of fisheries and aquaculture, we speak to Andrew Hudson about the central role of research and innovation in conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for a thriving blue economy. A chemical oceanographer and marine resource economist by training, and current Head of UNDP Water and Ocean Governance Programme (WOGP), he oversees and provides strategic, policy and technical guidance on all aspects of the development, implementation and evaluation of UNDP’s work in water, freshwater and ocean governance, with a currently active portfolio of about US$400 million, working in over 100 countries.

The upcoming U.N Ocean Conference will focus on scaling ocean action based on science and innovation to achieve SDG 14 and its 10 targets. What are the most pressing challenges that research and innovation should address today to ensure sustainable, resilient, healthy and productive oceans?

Each of the 10 SDG 14 targets has elements of that question. For example, the ocean acidification (14.3) is an issue with a very active research program, because it is a major threat. We know unequivocally that 30% of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean, causing its acidification. Many organisms do not have the capacity to manage large changes in ocean acidity and especially at an extremely y rapid rate, which is what is occurring today. Therefore, there is a lot of research in this area, but definitely more is required to understand the specific impacts of ocean acidification at the species level and at the ecosystem level. How will it affect coral reef ecosystems, kelp ecosystems, ecosystems in the Arctic and Antarctic in particular, because it is even worse in the Antarctic, because like any gas, CO2 dissolves more quickly in colder water. Ocean acidification threatens, for example, the integrity of coral reefs, which fix their skeletons with calcium carbonate, and of course, the more the acidity goes up, the pH goes down, the bigger challenge that coral reefs have in making their skeletons, which is their whole basis.

The fisheries target (14.4) is a key one, plus the one on destructive fisheries subsidies (14.6) and the one on blue economy, SIDS and least developed countries (14.7). The good news is we have a good understanding of the fisheries challenge. We know overfishing affects about 35 percent of all the world’s stocks, we know the global fish catch of wild fish has been pretty much flat for 30 plus years (about 85-90 million metric tons per year). The percentage of stocks that are exploited unsustainably has continued to creep up, even since 2015 unfortunately. Therefore, there is a lot of work required there. You can’t manage what you do not measure, right? The more information we have on the very complex nature of how fish stocks behave, reproduce, feed and survive in general is, of course, critical input to setting things like upper limit targets on fishing, to inform fisheries management and fisheries enforcement agencies and organizations as to what are the appropriate levels to set and to enforce. One of the biggest challenges in fisheries is enforcement. Estimates are that around 20 billion dollars or so of the world’s gross fish value is caught illegally or unreported or unregulated. So that’s a huge issue. There again, knowledge, research on the nature and behavior of the fleets that are fishing illegally is very important. There’s a lot of really exciting initiatives happening, such as the Global Fishing Watch, which uses publicly broadcast Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to track tens of thousands of fishing vessels around the world, in order to detect illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, helping fisheries managers better know and manage the fishing activity in their waters, as well as in international waters.

OACPS ministers in charge of fisheries and aquaculture will gather next month in Ghana on the theme “OACPS Blue Economy Agenda 2030 – Catalyzing, the sustainable and agriculture development for the future”. How science can help policy-makers ensure a sustainable blue economy?

At UNDP, we thought hard about the concept of the blue economy a couple of years ago. It is of course about sustainable use of ocean resources and we framed it in terms of benefits, jobs, livelihoods, food security, economic development and poverty reduction. Within that, we touched on two key elements of the blue economy. The first is that many people do not realize that the current misuse of the ocean, if you add up the pollution and the overfishing and the invasive species, etc., costs humanity every year around a trillion dollars. Therefore, the blue economy has to be first about recovering that lost income. In many ways, our work at UNDP and in the broader UN system, for decades, even before the blue economy was a new idea, has focused on ocean restoration and protection towards recovering those socioeconomic losses. A significant amount of resources and investment has gone in that area and must continue. At the same time, there is clearly a sizeable funding gap to meet SDG 14 by 2030. The other exciting aspect of the Blue Economy  is, what are the truly new and innovative ways to make money sustainably in the ocean? Things like ocean energy, marine genetic resources and aquaculture: there is a huge need for research and innovation in these areas area to get it right; for example, a lot of aquaculture isn’t very sustainable. Because there is no question, we need to continue to scale up aquaculture if we are going to feed the world – cultured aquatic protein now provides about half the aquatic protein that is consumed on earth, the other half being wild caught fish – but we need to do it sustainably. To promote new ocean related investment in their countries, governments need good research and data. UNDP is part of an exciting new initiative with a whole bunch of partners called the Global Fund for Coral Reefs (the only dedicated Fund to SDG 14) that is trying to support and catalyze reef positive investment. In other words, private sector investments that can both protect reefs and generate a profit. It is a big experiment. Now the question is ‘Can models be developed to come up with a concept that can apply to other ocean challenges’. It can be reef positive, kelp forest positive, mangrove positive. Can we find ways to both strengthen, preserve and protect or even enhance the ecosystems and make some money?


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