Blog Post

Ocean Optimism 2017: Seeing Opportunities in the Challenges

Jun 29, 2017 | Angee Doerr, Don Gourlie, Whit Saumweber

Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW) 2017 convened earlier this month, showcasing the progress made in oceans policy over the last decade and highlighting several exciting avenues for continued advancement. Ocean Optimism (#oceanoptimism) was a major theme running throughout the conference. While the challenges we face today—overfishing, climate stress, marine pollution—are increasingly dire, we are also becoming ever more informed about potential solutions, such as improving domestic and international management structures, identifying and acting on opportunities to foster resilience, and improving communities’ understanding of the interconnectedness of human health and ocean health.

As highlighted at CHOW 2017, exciting new commitments from the international community, investments from the private sector, and public-private partnerships are equipping us to combat the challenges facing our oceans and providing good reason for optimism. We are particularly encouraged by recent breakthroughs in the technology sphere, especially when it comes to the data revolution and how this can be applied to helping solve challenges facing the oceans. One of the most compelling examples of harnessing the power of machine learning and data synthesis has been the significant public-private partnership for combatting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing—one of the greatest threats to marine resource sustainability. Three separate investment initiatives from Google, Vulcan Inc., and the UK-based Satellite Applications Catapult are working with governments and conservation organizations to provide innovative data and tools aimed at halting what has become known as “pirate fishing.”

In recognition of the many opportunities presented by the data revolution, Stanford researchers with the Center for Ocean Solutions received a Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions grant for their project, “Harnessing the Data Revolution to Secure the Future of Oceans.” Through this initiative, researchers will use the latest advances in data science to assess risks from the interaction of multiple stressors on oceans, then develop and implement solutions. Although much progress has been made in utilizing data to address specific problems, enormous untapped potential remains in integrating multiple data sources to identify and manage risks. The project focuses on two regions: the Arctic and the coral reefs of the Pacific. The Arctic, which supports 15 percent of global fisheries catch, is being hit the hardest and the fastest by climate change. Coral reefs, meanwhile, represent some of the most vulnerable of marine ecosystems and have shown signs of potentially irreversible damage.

Changes in the Arctic climate and the associated impacts on marine ecosystems will require that our management structures become more adaptive to better meet the needs of coastal communities and support ecosystem resilience. Stanford Catalyst researchers seek to promote a paradigm shift toward dynamic ocean management by combining insights from various modeling tools with analyses of physical (e.g., sea surface temperature and ice cover) and biological (e.g., distribution and productivity of marine species) data from climate satellites, remote sensors, ships, and underwater drones. This integrated research strategy can be used to address the challenge of managing multi-species fisheries in a rapidly changing environment and social setting.

Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change—rising ocean temperatures, acidification, sedimentation, pollution, destructive fishing, and increasing intensity of tropical storms—and have already sustained considerable damage as a result. Data collected from new satellites, drones, and large networks of inexpensive sensors present a never-before-seen potential to monitor reefs and the stressors that threaten them. By combining these data sources with less traditional methods, such as images from social media or citizen scientists, the researchers aim to investigate and map vulnerability of coral reef ecosystems. This will allow them to identify areas at greatest risk of shifts into persistent degraded states as well as those that offer the best prospects for recovery—and to eventually develop tools for examining the predicted outcomes of various adaptive actions.

The Center for Ocean Solutions’ Catalyst project is just one example from the research community of how we can harness the data revolution to provide a greater understanding of and ability to predict the impacts of various ocean stressors. We are optimistic that this kind of research will enable policymakers, managers, and resource users to make better informed decisions that will further the progress we are already making in protecting and sustaining our oceans. 

In partnership with NASA, RFF is leading a multi-year effort that will advance the valuation of the applied benefits linked to information from space-based observations of Earth, catalyze a community of research and practices of Earth scientists and social scientists, and disseminate findings to key stakeholders from academia, government, NGOs, and elsewhere.

Learn more: RFF’s Consortium for the Valuation of Applications Benefits Linked with Earth Science (VALUABLES).

The authors of the post are representatives of the Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University. 

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.