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Ocean research is the key to a sustainable future

By Vivian Kuppermann Marco Antonio

Illustration by: Joana Ho

Did you know that the UN declared next decade (2021-2030) as the decade of ocean science?

The ocean covers 71% of the Earth's surface. It helps to regulate the climate and provides a number of essential and, in some cases, untouchable resources for man. The ocean is a source of food, raw materials, energy, and transportation, in addition to being used for recreation and leisure.

Currently, more than 40% of the global population lives in regions within 200 km of the sea. In addition, 12 out of 15 megalopolises are coastal.

However, rapid industrial development and population growth have deeply impacted the oceans. Climate change, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, pollution, and habitat degradation threaten the productivity and health of our waters.

Storms, proliferation of toxic algae, and coastal erosion are just a few of the consequences of this, which are devastating to communities living in coastal regions. Throughout human evolution, we have devised strategies to increase our resilience to such sea damage. But for how long will that be enough?

In 2015, the southwest coast of Brazil recorded winds of 106 km/h – a light hurricane typically has speeds of about 115km/h – so it was almost there. From these winds, the area suffered much damage including fallen trees and billboards as well as the destruction of some buildings.

In 2017, a windstorm left 38,000 homes without electricity and knocked down more trees and commercial signs. In the Port of Santos (SP), the largest in Latin America, a man was trapped in a crane.

This all happened because the sea water was warmer than normal, generating areas of low pressure and creating instabilities that allowed for the development of these strong winds.

And that's not all. Let's think about food:

Research shows that more than 50% of the fish species consumed for food in the world are being exploited above the sustainable limit. According to a 2006 study, led by Boris Worm of the University of Halifax in Canada, fish and seafood stocks are expected to collapse by 2048 if nothing is done to contain the loss of marine biodiversity.

Brazilian sardines (Sardinella brasiliensis), for example, are widespread throughout Brazilian cuisine. It is an extremely important species for the Southern and Southeastern regions of Brazil. Rich in various nutrients, it has always been considered a low-cost and nutritious food.

However, due to overfishing, its price has been rising over the years. Sardine stocks have already collapsed twice, once in 1990 and again in 2000. In addition, sardines are a species that suffers directly from the influence of environmental variation. By 2016, the amount of fished sardines was once again reduced to frightening levels. Some experts even characterized the episode as yet another collapse of the species.

This shortage was caused by abnormal water warming, a process that is associated with both the El Niño phenomenon, which occurred that year, and global climate change. It is worth mentioning that the region is also under political instability, with constant government turnovers and a reduction in ocean investments, which does not help the scenario at all.

Now imagine if phenomena like El Niño became more frequent and more intense with climate change? How long will the species last?

We need to find new ways to use natural resources and use them conscientiously. However, according to estimates by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the average national expenditure on oceanographic surveys varies from 0.04 to 4% of the total invested in research and development. This tiny budget is too little to achieve high-quality studies that involve long-term processes. Oceanographic research is quite expensive, because it requires ships, on-board laboratories, equipment, qualified personnel, et cetera.

But there is still time to reverse this situation.

Scientists and activists have gradually organized a social movement that led the United Nations, at its General Assembly in December 2017, to declare the next decade as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

The initiative aims to encourage further action for a more integrated and sustainable ocean observing system, in order to facilitate making new discoveries by monitoring the coast and deeper waters, thus broadening research to promote ocean conservation and natural resource management. Activities for this period will be the responsibility of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

The process was long and hard fought. The 2012 Rio + 20 final document named "The Future We Want" made extensive references to the ocean. In 2013, the Global Ocean Commission was created, and in 2016, released its report about ocean degradation and the need for more effective policies to help restore the health and productivity of these waters. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development, launched by the UN in 2016, also highlighted the oceans as protagonists for conservation actions.

This UN statement is a glimmer of hope for a more sustainable future, but it calls for greater engagement of researchers, politicians, government, and the general public. More research, incentives, and respect are essential if we seek to advance our knowledge about the waters around us; we must make better use of available resources to ensure their existence for future generations.

It is vital to find solutions that allow us to understand the changes that are taking place and to reverse the damage before it is too late.

The UN initiative aims to transform the way global society views and uses the ocean. As suggested by goal 14 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), it will coordinate its actions to foster the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean, seas, and marine resources.

Before progress can be made, it is essential to understand the lack of knowledge that we still have when it comes to the blue immensity:

  • There is no internationally accepted methodology for estimating the economic value of services provided by the ocean to the human race

  • Science is not yet able to assess the cumulative impacts of climate change, marine pollution, or anthropogenic activities on ocean health

  • Only 5% of the ocean floor has thus far been mapped

  • Over 250 million km2 of the ocean floor is in complete darkness, yet it shelters possibly millions of still unknown species

  • Only 3 people have ever explored the deepest point of the ocean

The next decade will be our time to support, demand, and celebrate new achievements for the health of our ocean, so that we can make the services and resources of the ocean available to future generations.



Global Ocean Commission. The Future of Our Ocean: Next steps and priorities Report. Available at (Global Ocean Commission, 2016).

Ministry of the Environment. Management Plan for the sustainable use of Sardines-Verdadeira in Brazil. Source: Ibama:

UNESCO. United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) UNESCO press release. Available at: (2017).

United Nations General Assembly. The future we want. Rio+20 conference outcome document A/RES/66/288.


About Vivian:

As an Oceanographer and a Journalist, Vivian sees communication as the best way to spread science around. She has worked with environmental bioindicators in the area of Geological Oceanography, and outside academia, she has experience with writing, graphic design, digital marketing, and social media management. As a contributor to this blog, she hopes to help educate people about our amazing blue ocean.

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