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Fish fart prevents war in the Baltic SeaOr... the power of science diplomacy in the ocean

By Andrei Polejack

Illustration: Alexya Queiroz

I love this story. During the Cold War, back in the 1980s when many of my generation thought the world was going to end at the push of a red button, a Soviet military submarine ran aground on the reefs off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. The Swedes were in a panic, feeling monitored, threatened and dredged up for war. They increased underwater monitoring by hydrophones, activated diplomatic channels and became paranoid about unauthorized military activities. The Soviet Union denied any activity and exempted itself from providing further clarification.

Years passed, the Cold War came to an end, and there was no atomic hecatomb initiated by a red button. However, hydrophones continued to pick up sound signals from active submarine engines in the region. Paranoia grew and no one felt safe yet. The Soviets swore that they were not conducting unauthorized activities in the Baltic.

With no clear answer and very suspicious of what was happening, the Swedish military asked researchers for a helping hand, all in the strategic secrecy of national defense. Two Swedish researchers, Wahlberg & Westerberg, then analyzed the sound patterns observed and came up with several hypotheses to test. One of them involved some kind of natural noise, not described before and possibly produced by local organisms.

That's how they discovered, in 1996, that herring, a very common fish in the Baltic region, which gather in schools of thousands of individuals, have a connection between their swim bladder (an organ that helps bony fish stay afloat) and their anus that is capable of producing bubbles that would be very similar to the noise picked up by hydrophones. And that's how a scientific study on fish farts prevented a war between Sweden and the Soviet Union.

Illustrative image of Herring. Source: NY Public Library in public domain

This fantastic anecdote always helps me think outside the box about the influence of science on international relations. For me, it has always been easy to recognize that science was necessary to elucidate essential aspects of international negotiation processes over our ocean, but this is not always clear to everyone involved.

Public domain

There are many examples of this relationship: it was science that informed us about the loss of habitats and ecosystem services as a result of human actions, as well as showing us why corals have been bleached as a result of marine acidification, and so on. It is also easy to recognize that it is through science that many countries come closer together in joint projects, opening up a fluid dialogue even when they are experiencing conflicts in other areas, such as the scientific cooperation between the US and Cuba, in Cyprus, and the polar regions.

Finally, while I was in charge of the coordination of Ocean, Antarctica and Geosciences at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in Brazil, I saw a lot of investment in research being directed towards topics that diplomats were crying out for information on. As an example, I can cite the current regime under negotiation on biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions, the BBNJ, which made diplomats understand the difference between in vivo, in situ, and in silico.

These three aspects that I illustrated earlier, i.e. science supporting international decision-making, research projects bringing countries closer together despite existing conflicts, and diplomacy bringing investment to science, are, according to a 2010 report by the Royal Society of London and the AAAS, the three categories of Science Diplomacy: science in diplomacy, science for diplomacy and diplomacy in science.

The "fish fart" also takes me out of these boxes because, although it's not a classic case of scientific diplomacy, it makes me think that reality is much more complex than any category we create.

That's how I decided to step back from my job as a bureaucrat to return to academia (momentarily, of course!) and understand what this political and scientific movement called Science Diplomacy meant for ocean governance. I'm still in the process of understanding it all and it's only getting more complicated, but I recently published an article in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science contextualizing and exemplifying how Science Diplomacy is, in fact, a fundamental process for ocean governance.

I went straight to the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, the constitution of the ocean. The Convention establishes the rights and duties of signatory countries in relation to the use, conservation and exploitation of the ocean and, more importantly, it establishes marine spaces of different jurisdictions to which these rights and duties fall.

The negotiation of the Convention, which took longer than the Cold War to be approved, had a huge technical-scientific basis, with research results informing the agenda items and impacting on the positions adopted by the countries. For example, Sam Robinson, a British researcher, argues that it was the fear of developing countries about the possible use of technologies to exploit seabed minerals (technologies that we still don't have today) that led to the discussion about the regime for the Area (seabed, soil and subsoil beyond the jurisdiction of countries) in the Convention. The inequality between developed and developing countries has also led the Convention to adopt mechanisms for technology exchange and capacity building, which I and Luciana Coelho, my dear Brazilian doctoral partner here in Sweden, explored in another article, published in the another Frontiers journal, but with a contemporary look and focused on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Brazil is a giant in ocean research in the South Atlantic, and we're still a long way from having the minimum necessary to play on the same team as developed countries. However, we do have capabilities in terms of personnel and infrastructure that few others in the region have. That's why we are involved in a process of ocean science diplomacy with Europeans, South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Argentinians and Cape Verdeans: the All Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance. I say "ocean science diplomacy" because it involved many researchers and governments, but also private initiative and other social sectors, applying science to diplomacy and diplomacy to science. The Alliance is based on three successive diplomatic processes, informed by science and with the objectives of raising understanding of the ocean and the well-being of our citizens.

In another recent article, I and my dear co-authors, Sigi Gruber and Mary Wisz, described this step-by-step process and analyzed something essential to understanding science diplomacy: the national interests (political, economic, social, and power) that drive the use of science in diplomacy. We discuss the soft power (Joseph Nye's concept) that science exerts in attracting and seducing other countries to its national values, a bit like a carrot in front of a donkey.

The Alliance and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development are my case studies. The Decade, a diplomatic process within the UN, is based on promoting science and using it to make decisions in favor of environmental sustainability, a case in point for ocean science diplomacy. I hope that my work, in addition to being personally an enormous thrill in unraveling the subject, will help Brazil to improve its position in fairer and more equal international negotiations, as well as improve the national process of influencing science in decision-making about the ocean, considering the ten years that the Decade has ahead of us.

References or reading suggestions:

Nye, J. S. (2017). Soft power: the origins and political progress of a concept. Palgrave Communications, 3(1), 17008.

Polejack, A. (2021). The Importance of Ocean Science Diplomacy for Ocean Affairs, Global Sustainability, and the UN Decade of Ocean Science. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8(March).

Polejack, A., & Coelho, L. F. (2021). Ocean Science Diplomacy can Be a Game Changer to Promote the Access to Marine Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean. Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics, 6(April), 34–36.

Polejack, A., Gruber, S., & Wisz, M. S. (2021). Atlantic Ocean science diplomacy in action: the pole-to-pole All Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1), 52.

Robinson, S. (2020). Scientific Imaginaries and Science Diplomacy: The Case of Ocean Exploitation. Centaurus, 1–21.

Wahlberg, M., & Westerberg, H. (2003). Sounds produced by herring (Clupea harengus) bubble release. Aquatic Living Resources, 16(3), 271–275.


About the Author:

Andrei Polejack is a biologist with a master's degree in Ecology from UnB and is now studying for a doctorate in social sciences at the World Maritime University in Sweden. He is a senior analyst at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, where he held the position of General Coordinator for Oceans, Antarctica and Geosciences for many years. @AndreiPolejack

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