Embarking on a Decade for Ocean Health and Sustainable Development

We know the ocean economy is projected to grow to $3T by 2030, and as someone who spends a lot of time focused on the ocean opportunity and Canada’s leadership in it, it is clear that achieving balance is critically important when developing our country’s greatest asset. With several recent studies highlighting the current risks facing oceans worldwide and the tipping points that are approaching, our collective success in developing our ocean economy means focusing on both the wealth and health of oceans, not as separate objectives, but as one.

The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development will kick off in 2021 and run until year-end in 2030. It is meant to “support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health and gather ocean stakeholders worldwide behind a common framework that will ensure ocean science can fully support countries in creating improved conditions for sustainable development of the Ocean.” This is dedicated effort to help address one of the single most important issues in the decade ahead, and our ability to do so successfully will impact us all. CBC’s Brett Ruskin covered this story recently as preparations for the ocean decade activities came to Atlantic Canada.


As the UN is busily preparing for the decade-long focus on ocean health and wealth, the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO is not only building the portfolio of decade programs but will also play an on-going role in implementing them. Canada has stepped up and committed an additional $9.5M to support the activities of the decade.

To build this portfolio, the IOC is gathering input from the scientific community through various workshops. I was asked to participate in the North Atlantic workshop led by the Ocean Frontier Institute and supported by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Halifax at the beginning of January – other workshops include Norway, Brazil and Tokyo, exciting for Atlantic Canada to be on this list.

The input was focused on six key societal objectives: clean ocean; healthy and resilient ocean; predicted ocean; safe ocean; sustainably harvested and productive ocean; and a transparent and accessible ocean.

The discussions also included “cross-cutting themes,” topics that touch on all of the objectives and these included: capacity building and tech transfer; partnerships and financing; access to info; data and knowledge; awareness raising; and inclusivity and transdisciplinary.

There were over 150 participants from all over the North Atlantic – including the UK, Norway, Canada, US, Cape Verde, Germany and France. Not only was I asked to attend the session, I was asked to be a co-convener (essentially a facilitator) for the discussion around the societal objective of a transparent and accessible ocean. One way to ensure I pay attention is to put me at the front of the room! Having never attended this type of scientific gathering before, I was assured that my other co-convener would have lots of experience and he certainly did. Martin Visbeck, a professor in physical oceanography at GEOMAR in Germany had a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience and is a member of the Expert Planning Group responsible for advising on the implementation plan for the UN Decade of Ocean.  Despite many differences in culture, background and approach, we made it work – a true transatlantic collaboration. We facilitated two rounds of six-hour discussions on our topic with groups of approximately 15 and 25 and then reported out on the top three areas of recommendations from the combined results of the group. It was a lot of work and there were lots of interesting results and actions that can start now for the North Atlantic community, although there will be a more formal report that pulls together the input from the multiple sessions held.

My three takeaways:

❶ It is hard to navigate the ocean community and understand everything that is being done. I was introduced to more organizational acronyms than I could possibly retain and there is no easy place to go to be able to understand how their mandates fit together and where the gaps might be. These types of meetings are hugely beneficial in sharing information on current activities and hopefully there will continue to be an increasing focus on tools that allow knowledge sharing and an on-going commitment to do so.

❷ While there is a general agreement that the actions of any one nation on the Atlantic Ocean impact the entire Atlantic Ocean community, it is not easy to work together internationally. There are customs challenges in moving equipment from country to country, and there are still lots of pockets of resistance and/or barriers to sharing data to be able to maximize its potential in supporting current and future decision making. It is critical to think about how we reward the right behaviors when it comes to collaboration on an international scale.

❸ We need to be as inclusive as possible as we build the approach for the decade. While there was some representation from the Indigenous community, other disciplines, the NGO community, and industry at the meeting, there is more to be done to ensure we do link the science to supporting sustainable development. Educating the general public on their relationship to the ocean whether or not they live in a coastal community is another critical component to the conversation. It is not just about producing the science but also how we make that information accessible to the various audiences. Hopefully, this is one of a series of conversations to come as we continue to think about the activities that Canada can play a key role in driving forward.

It is rare to have a week to spend with international colleagues talking about the challenges and opportunities that we have in the next decade to influence the future of our ocean and with that the future of our ocean industries and our communities. I look forward to seeing what comes next.