Ocean Newsletter

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No.195 September 20, 2008

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO looks from the past to the future

The IOC held its forty first Executive Council meeting in Paris, June 22 ? July 1, 2008. On its agenda were two related agenda items, one discussing the details for the celebration of its fifty year anniversary in 2010, and the other looking at the future of the organization.

Address by Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCOAddress by Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO

The IOC was established within the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) following an International Conference on Oceanic Research held in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 11?16 July 1960. The justification for the birth of this new and valuable United Nations organization was based on the need for international cooperation in ocean research, a need that exists to this day. By this act, ocean science took a major step forward in terms of intergovernmental political visibility, reflecting a growing awareness of the strategic importance of ocean science and information and its contribution to the resolution of a broad range of national, regional and global issues. The mandate of the organization has evolved over the years beyond ocean research per se, into areas such as coastal management, ocean health, climate change, ocean services and capacity-building.

As to the future, in the near-term the IOC will remain within UNESCO. Even though the demands for ocean sciences and services are growing even more critical, there is still little appetite amongst governments for the establishment of any new independent intergovernmental organization. Within its parent organization, the IOC is being increasingly recognized by UNESCO Member States as an activity that must be promoted and supported, but more needs to be done.

Nevertheless, despite its small size and limited resources, the IOC has achieved significant progress in terms of intergovernmental cooperation. The IOC has maintained a strong program of capacity building amongst its Member States. As the number of Member States has grown from an initial forty to the present 135, the proportion of those needing scientific and technical assistance has also increased. Donations from Member States to the IOC Trust Fund, or by direct in-kind assistance, have increased the size and value of IOC initiatives. For example, support from the Flemish government has led to the establishment of national ocean data centres in sub-Sahara Africa and a regional cooperative network in ocean knowledge and information.

The IOC operates through the collective efforts of its Member States and programs are also promoted through regional bodies. Again, the lack of resources has also hampered regional developments. Only a few permanent regional secretariat facilities exist. The Sub-Commission for the Western Pacific (WESTPAC), established in 1979, is the strongest of the regional organizations and traces its roots back to a regional investigation of the Kuroshio Current in 1965, with twelve countries participating.

Without the coordinating efforts of the IOC, the international exchange of ocean data would not exist. The International Oceanographic Data Exchange Working Committee (IODE) has a membership based upon representatives from the National Oceanographic Data Centres of participating Member States and has therefore kept current with the methods and operational developments in ocean data. It has recognized and adapted to the innovations brought about by the electronic age and has expanded its role to include information exchange. Automated observations, quality control software, and electronic communications have revolutionized data management. Ocean scientists themselves have gradually moved away from the concept of individual data ownership to an awareness and acceptance of the benefits of rapid exchange and access to data sets of all sources and types. Ocean data and information are essential to the management of our coastal and marine resources.

Information services cannot exist without the observational networks that collect the data. The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM), provide the intergovernmental framework that supports the global ocean system. Regional observation networks, such as the North-East Asia Regional GOOS (NEAR-GOOS) and EUROGOOS, reflect the need for responding to local priorities and needs and their successes have been followed by other initiatives all around the globe. A tsunami warning system in the Pacific Ocean (ITSU) was established by the IOC as early as 1965, after two devastating tsunamis in that region. Unfortunately governments are slow to recognize the requirement for such networks and it took another disastrous tsunami in the Indian Ocean, to galvanize support for the expansion of these warning networks into other world oceans.

The IOC has played a large role in intergovernmental cooperation in ocean science. In 1982, the IOC was a co-sponsor of a conference in Tokyo to study the need for large-scale ocean experiments under the WCRP. This Conference resulted in the largest ocean experiment ever undertaken. The World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE), 1990-1997, which involved the efforts of thirty countries, and yielded extremely valuable data. Such research provides the basis for predictions of global and regional climatic variations, and of changes in the frequency and severity of extreme events. A highly successful IOC programme on Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) has been in existence since 1992, responding to a growing concern with the increase in the global occurrences of these events. These and many other science programmes underpin the knowledge and information services needed for effective management of ocean activities

As the IOC approaches its fiftieth year, it is disappointing that the IOC does not occupy a larger and more significant role within the UN system. On the other hand, given its relatively small resources, the achievements of the IOC can be considered remarkable.

As to the future, in the opinion of the author there will be a change in the way we address the ocean. In the past we have spent too little time and too few resources in understanding this fundamental element of the planet environment. We must do better. We must recognize our ability to change what, in the past, we have considered unchangeable. We cannot continue to use the ocean with impunity, to disperse our wastes, for maritime trade, to hunt its living resources and to harvest its mineral wealth. We must manage these ocean activities in a sustainable way. Because the shallow coastal regions are the most vulnerable to our activities we are already recognizing and practicing integrated coastal management in many areas and these programs must be extended and improved. More importantly perhaps, we must begin to consider ocean management on a grander scale, encompassing not only the coastal regions, but extending our attention beyond national jurisdictions into the international sea. To manage the oceans and coasts effectively, we will need more information and more research and, for the international ocean areas, we shall need intergovernmental agreements.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was an epic global agreement, but is already out of date. It does not recognize the potential of new marine resources from the international area, such as genetic resources, international marine protected areas and the use of ocean space. When it was drafted the environmental issues of climate change, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, loss of marine habitat were not as well known or predominant as in the present day.

I believe there will be other new activities to consider in the next fifty years. Eventually, we may learn to farm the seas and increase the protein yield many fold, but it must be done wisely and sustainably. We will turn increasingly to the sea for freshwater and renewable energy. We shall probably build towns and cities on the ocean surface, that are self sustainable on energy and marine resources. We may genetically alter crops to grow in saltwater environments and will eventually learn to understand the climate engine that is the ocean and to predict climatic and other changes and their impacts.

Will governments recognize the need to provide the necessary resources for cooperative ocean research and the associated regional and global observation networks and information centers, or will it take some disaster, as was the case of the tsunami networks, to generate this attention and, if so, will the response be in time?