Ocean Newsletter

No.221 October 20, 2009

  • Wanted: a new kind of hero David Pugh
    Formerly President, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO/ Formerly President of the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data, Analysis Services of the International Council for Science.
  • Changes in the Coastal Environment and Thoughts on Environmental Restoration from a Fisheries Perspective Takehiro Tanaka
    Fisheries Section Manager, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Division, Okayama Prefecture
  • The Building of Japan's First Western Style Ship, the Heda, and Friendship with Russia Kazuo Ito
    Chief Priest, Hosen-ji
    Masahiko Ito
    Office Manager, Faculty of Science, Nagoya University

Wanted: a new kind of hero

The early explorers of the world's oceans enjoyed heroic status. Their long voyages were widely reported to people eager to learn about new places and new discoveries. Pioneers such as Bouganville, Cook, Ross, Shirase, Scott and Shackleton mapped new areas, found new plant and animal species, and made many scientific measurements of both the land and the sea.

In fact these heroes were both explorers and scientists, looking both to their present and to the future. For example, more than 170 years ago James Clark Ross had the foresight to measure the mean level of the sea at both Tasmania (Australia) and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), where he left permanent records. Recently I have been involved in comparing these 1840 levels with present sea levels to investigate of sea level rise and climate change. Most of the marine observations made by these pioneers were of ocean depth (using slow lead-line soundings), currents, tides and marine life.

Monument to the Discoveries is a monument that celebrates the Age of Discovery. It is located in the Belem parish of Lisbon, Portugal. Henry the Navigator is the figure at the tip of the monument.
(Photo: cRobert Paul Van Beets 2009/Shutterstock.com)

Modern technology has replaced the early slow methods of measuring the sea with automatic and rapid data gathering systems. Bathymetric charts can be made from powerful side-scan sonar surveys; ARGO floats measure, record and transmit the temperature and salinity from deep inside the oceans; acoustic method can track the movements of marine mammals over thousands of kilometres and to great depths; and the level and colour of the sea surface are routinely mapped by orbiting satellites.

Not very long ago oceanographers had long beards, and expected to be treated as heroes just back from a long voyage. Today there are many leading women oceanographers (no beards) and it is no longer necessary to go to sea to be a leading marine scientist. We can simulate and model the behaviour of the oceans in great detail using modern computers, and adjust these models to reality, using data from satellites and ARGO floats. . Whereas once we could only observe and record the ocean's behaviour, now, at least within the confines of a computer, oceanography is now an experimental science. Some direct practical scientific experiments are also possible: ocean fertilisation to enhance carbon-dioxide intake, are a recent example.

But in a wider sense our experiment with the ocean is not confined to computers, nor indeed to science. There is now very little doubt that, more generally, human activity is warming planet earth through the greenhouse effect. Globally sea levels are rising at an increased rate, with increases of 0.5m and more projected for the end of the 21st century. Several species of marine life have been overfished, leading to virtual collapse of stocks- the cod fisheries of eastern Canada were almost wiped out in the early 1990s. Some ecologists forecast widespread collapse of many marine species within the next century. Coral reefs are threatened by warmer climates, and by increased acidification of the oceans. Even the most remote areas of the ocean are contaminated by litter, discarded by ships, and dumped legally or illegally from the land.

Very clearly, the oceans are now subject to a huge and unpredictable experiment. Humankind is now influencing and altering the oceans on which we depend for so much that makes life sustainable. Oceans cover 70% of the surface of the earth, they control our climate, and provide invaluable services to support the ecosystem that inhabits planet earth. This is not experiment that humanity chose voluntarily to undertake; rather, we just discovered that our economic and social activities were suddenly on such a vast scale that the oceans could no longer absorb the impacts without being altered in the process.

Nor is this an experiment for which we can predict the result with any certainty. Perhaps the ocean adjustment will be small, or sufficiently slow that the ecology, and indeed the geology, can adjust slowly to a new equilibrium. Perhaps some systems will collapse while others thrive in the unknown brave new worlds we are creating. Perhaps humankind will be one of the species to survive and advance. Perhaps not. We just don't know what the future will be like, and science can tell us only so much, and in only a probabilistic way.

Meanwhile, the global economy depends on marine activities such as shipping, mineral extraction, recreation, and fishing. These are vital for the present economics, and in many cases can and must be sustained in the future, provided adequate precautions are taken.

Nevertheless, clearly some kind of concerted action is required to control and monitor our involuntary experiment with the planet and with the oceans. This is neither easy nor straightforward. The difficulties are in part, because the natural time scales of ocean processes are not well matched to the time scales of the political electoral systems that many nations embrace. Elections for new governments are often held every four years (Japan and the USA, for example) or as long as seven years (election of the Irish President), but seldom longer. Politicians regularly need to convince their electorates that they are doing a good job, and at intervals much shorter than the natural processes that control the ocean environment.

The problem is how to persuade these short-term appointees and thinkers about the need for collective long-term global environmental strategies. To be fair, many politicians do recognise the need for global strategies, and some have taken their concerns to international meetings, especially meetings within the United Nations system. President Obama recently announced plans to protect and develop the economics and ecologies of the oceans surrounding the USA. Al Gore, one time USA presidential candidate won a Nobel Prize for his advocacy of global environmental strategies. But George Bush won the election for President!

Global agreements among governments are slow to develop, and often partial in their impact. The Kyoto Agreement on climate change has not yet been ratified by the USA, and many countries are having difficulty in meeting the commitments implied. Even an assessment of all aspects and characteristics of the global ocean, called for by the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, is still waiting, seven years later, for UN agreement to set up a regular 5-year assessment cycle. In the early stages a single small country that feared for its fishing rights delayed this proposal by a year.

On the positive side, there are strong indications that popular opinion, to which politicians are vulnerable, and of course sensitive, now recognizes the need for protecting the oceans. Television and other media reporting convinces people that we have much to value and to much to protect in the seas that surround our coasts, and in the open oceans of the world. The challenge for the future is to protect global marine ecosystems, while balancing the real need to continue to use the oceans wisely for economic benefits.

Politicians, even scientists, are aware of the place their work might have when looked at in a historical perspective. They want to be remembered with affection and esteem. Perhaps here is a way of convincing those who march to the short-term music of the ballot box or the latest research grant, that the long-term impacts of what they do are acknowledged and appreciated, even today.

We need to honour a new breed of modern heroes, people who work over many years, decades and even lifetimes, to ensure a sustainable future for the oceans and for our intelligent use of their resources. These people are very different from the bearded explorers of our forefathers honoured, but they are heroes nevertheless. These are the people who fight political inertia and popular indifference to the future of the oceans; people who appeal to the imagination and the vision of what can be the future can be.

Even now there is no shortage of candidates for such heroic status: Cousteau, Bellamy, Ruivo, Earle, Gore..... Fighting for the future of 70% ocean surface of our planet demands recognition. However, surprisingly, there are no major prizes or awards to acknowledge and magnify their achievements. We need a new and prestigious Prize to be awarded at regular intervals, with maximum media coverage, for maximum public and political impact. Perhaps, we need a "Nobel Prize" for the oceans.

Today's marine heroes are the leaders of humanity's march into the global ocean future. No less than the heroes of the past, we need to acknowledge them. And through them, we need to make our own commitments to make that future for the planet both viable and sustainable.

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