UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021–2030 Opportunities for Trinidad and Tobago
By Dr. Anjani Ganase, Coral Reef Ecologist
Institute of Marine Affairs
Our ocean is the foundation for life, the regulator of our climate and a major source of food, income and cultural significance. Yet, the first world assessment report (2016) of our oceans concluded that much of the world’s marine ecosystems have become degraded over the last fifty years owing to our poor management of the ocean ecosystems. In light of this, UNESCO has declared a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in 2021 – 2030 recognising the urgent need to curb and even reverse the considerable degradation that the ocean ecosystems have suffered as a result of human activities. In the Caribbean, island-nations that depend extensively on our ocean ecosystems – coral reefs, beaches and bays and open ocean for tourism, fisheries and even coastal protection ironically have few regulations and little enforcement to ensure future wellbeing of their natural assets. Combine our current state of degradation with the uncertain future of climate change that is exacerbating already ailing conditions, and there is an urgent need to develop adaptative strategies for sustainable use of our oceans that are grounded in science.
Despite our oceans covering more than 70 % of the planet, being a major source of food, income and wellbeing, less than 4 % of scientific research is dedicated to the understanding of ocean ecosystems (UNESCO 2020). Even more concerning is the disparity in places where ocean research is being carried out, with the Caribbean and Pacific Island nations falling in the lowest category for research, despite housing some of the highest marine biodiversity on the planet. As a result, UNESCO has identified priority areas of ocean science research to improve the capacity for sustainable development in target areas that include Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDC).
For Trinidad and Tobago, this is the opportune time to pivot towards sustainably developing as a blue economy, and divesting from the exclusively oil and gas extractive-based economy. The economic exclusion zone (EEZ) of Trinidad and Tobago is about fifteen times our combined land mass and therein lie opportunities for using the ocean in innovative sustainable development. Tobago is already moving in the right direction with the UNESCO, Man and Biosphere designation, which mandates the spatial zonation of the island’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems prioritizing conservation and sustainable development.
A major struggle for Trinidad and Tobago – similar to other SIDS – is to sustain our economy and reduce environmental impacts which undermine our country’s natural support system, while mitigating the threats of climate change. Shifting rainfall and drought conditions, more frequent and intense storms, ocean thermal stress, and sea level rise all threaten ecosystems, livelihoods, and water and food security. The solutions lie in the innovations that come out of ocean research and development. Ocean sciences cover a range of capacities including technology in transport, energy, data collection, communications, renewables, as well as health, national security and conservation.
There are six major proposed outcomes from the UN Decade of Ocean Science.
- A clean ocean where sources of pollution are identified and removed
- A safe ocean where people are protected from ocean hazards
- A healthy and resilient ocean where marine ecosystems are mapped and protected
- A sustainably harvested and productive ocean ensuring the provision of food supply
- A predictable ocean where society has the capacity to understand current and future ocean conditions
- A transparent ocean with open access to data, information and technologies
Let’s take a look at the current research for some of these proposed outcomes.
A healthy and resilient ocean
It is well understood that the highest biodiversity in the ocean sits on coral reefs in shallow waters just off the coastlines where the majority of the world’s human populations reside. The location of the coral reefs makes them extremely vulnerable to high levels of pollution and over-exploitation. However, research has showcased the benefits of marine spatial planning and establishing marine protected areas, along with fisheries management to improve marine biodiversity and increase fish stocks. Improvements in water quality and effective integrated coastal zone management have also proven to boost fisheries and the health of our marine ecosystems considerably. The next major steps will be research into developing more resilient coral reefs, by improving coral recovery and the coral’s ability to survive warmer ocean temperatures.
A safe and transparent ocean
Scientific research in satellite and remote sensing of the ocean has drastically improved the real time reporting and predictions of weather conditions, tracking of tsunamis, hurricanes and even coral bleaching events by monitoring ocean temperatures around the world. Technology can be further improved to track ocean wildlife and ecologically sensitive species, so that their conservation may be extended across borders with the support of regional and international conventions. Technology has also allowed accessibility to existing data and the establishment of early warning systems for countries with limited capacity to directly monitor their surrounding ocean environment. This will considerably improve the safety and livelihood of ocean-dependent and coastal communities.
A sustainably harvested and productive ocean
In the sector of food security, ocean scientific research has vastly improved the capabilities of mariculture (aka ocean aquaculture) to offset the loss in wild stocks due to pollution, habitat loss and over-exploitation, while serving as a viable and more manageable food source substitute to terrestrial farming that has resulted in substantial land biodiversity loss because of expanding farmlands. Future research can work towards improving the sustainability practices of mariculture to reduce the damage to marine ecosystems caused by the establishment of these fish farms, such as research in the type of food used to supplement the fish farms.
There are also considerable opportunities to develop and harness renewable energy from the ocean. The technologies in wind, wave, solar and thermal energy have significantly improved and are being widely used. Further investigations into the management of these systems for local suitability, and to minimize the impacts on the local ecosystems through site selection, equipment designs and the scale of development are the fundamental next steps (Boehlert and Gill 2010).
Common to all these initiatives is the urgency to establish coherent and cohesive environment standards and policies that support ecological conservation and sustainable development from ridge to reef and beyond. There must also be an understanding of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and lives, especially in SIDS, and therefore we must avoid ventures that have no understanding of the downstream consequences on the ocean. Sylvia Earle says it best, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” We cannot have healthy island environments without a healthy ocean. As an island nation, it is crucial that we take advantage of the opportunities in ocean science and education. It is not too late to build our capacity to research our ocean ecosystems considering our vulnerability to climate change. Considering the immense expanse of Trinidad and Tobago’s EEZ, let us encourage the next generation to look to the ocean, for research, conservation, innovation and technology. We are nations of the Caribbean Sea: let us connect as one region; to discover and develop the opportunities to conserve our “blue planet” while creating sustainable models for our Caribbean blue economy.