One shared ocean – how do we manage?

What do ocean states from the Arctic to the tropics have in common? That was the starting point for our work on integrated ocean management

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Over recent years, the global society has realised the ocean’s significance in ensuring our prosperity and health. We turn to the ocean for food, energy, transportation, and recreation, and will increasingly do so in the future. This does however enhance the multiple pressures on our marine ecosystems. It is vital that we strike the right balance between use and preservation of ocean resources. Therefore, 14 heads of ocean states formed the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

Our author group, with experts from all parts of the world, was put together by the Ocean Panel. We were asked to write one of the ‘blue papers’ forming the scientific basis for the panel’s main report and ocean action agenda. Later we were thrilled to also have a version of the study published by Nature.

Our task was to investigate how integrated ocean management may support a sustainable ocean economy. The aim of this holistic approach is to balance the competing demands on the ocean with environmental protection. A natural starting point for us was a selection of case studies that the various authors had significant knowledge of: China, the Coral Triangle (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste), Norway, the Seychelles and the United States. Realities are different, but we share the same ocean. We started our search for common denominators – and we found them.

Although context sensitivity and local adjustment is necessary, we identified universal features of successful integrated ocean management that can apply in countries large and small, rich and poor, and in different parts of the world. First of all, climate change is manifesting itself in all the areas we assessed. This is arguably the greatest challenge of our time, and the way we manage our ocean needs to reflect that. One feature of integrated ocean management is adaptation. Perhaps the most important issue of our future is our ability to take action on climate change.

Second, knowledge is the foundation of integrated ocean management. It must always be based on the best available science. Access to reliable, comparable, and transparent data is a challenge most places, and many countries lack fundamental scientific capacity to support their efforts on ocean governance. Utilising local, traditional, and experience-based knowledge is also central in this regard.

Third, implementation is essential. We must move from paper to practice. Without proper implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other key instrument, one cannot succeed with integrated ocean management. There are however different ways of doing this, and foundation in law is not a prerequisite. For example, in Norway, legislation is sector-based, while the overarching ocean management plans are passed by parliament and relying on political will rather than a separate law for integrated ocean management.

Fourth, stakeholder involvement is crucial. We must listen to and involve those who live by and of the ocean. Stakeholders can supply information that helps develop accurate, practical ocean management measures. Involvement also help build legitimacy for effective implementation of those measures. One successful example of this is how local community members are involved in the management of marine protected areas in the Coral Triangle.

Fifth, integrated ocean management needs to be institutionalized. There must be a designated process for determining how to consider the various pressures on and uses of ocean space in a comprehensive manner and make decisions on that basis.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the point we started out with: tailoring to the local context. It is critically important that due regard is given to context, and that integrated ocean management is tailored to the characteristics and needs of the region in question. As you can understand from our selection of case studies, climatic and oceanic conditions, geographical scales, the nature of economic activities, and political contexts and regulatory environments are vastly different.

From this we identified six opportunities for action, which can be summarized as follows: harnessing knowledge, establishing partnerships between public and private sectors, strengthening stakeholder engagement, improving capacity building, implementing regulatory frameworks, and developing adaptive solutions.

As the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the rest of the Ocean Panel now put forward their ocean action agenda, we are glad to see that integrated ocean management is recognised as a key part of the solutions for protection, production and prosperity. We also hope our work have contributed to making most people aware of ocean issues. Either you are a business owner or worker, industrialist or environmentalist, or just any ordinary citizen, the ocean matters. Integrated ocean management can help stimulate economic growth and job creation. In the shorter term, it can help us build back from the crisis created by the coronavirus. In the longer run, it will help us act and adapt to a much more serious threat, namely climate change.

It is good news for the ocean that 14 heads of states now present their recommendations and commit to a sustainable ocean economy, and we expect many more to follow their lead. Integrated ocean management will be a crucial part of the solution.

Therese Rist

Adviser, Centre for the Ocean and the Arctic

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