Making the Links

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

Making the Links


surveys the major issues confronting the oceans, and calls for an integrated way of addressing them


Throughout history the ocean has served as a link between peoples and lands. It has glued us together. But, ironically, ocean questions are dealt with in a fragmented way - and this is at the heart of the current problems of the marine environment.

Some ocean issues of major concern to society are recognized reasonably well, including:

- Living resources and the overfishing of most areas.

- Coastal zone degradation as a result of the multiple and conflicting demands of rapidly increasing populations: coastal megacities represent a particular set of problems.

- Marine pollution. This is universal but mainly affects the sea near coasts and over continental shelves. It impacts both the marine environment itself and such external factors as human health, freshwater and food security, and aquaculture.

- Oceans and climate. This issue includes the role of the oceans in the balance of the emission and absorption of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide; sea-level change; and large scale perturbations such as the El Niño phenomenon, tropical cyclones, and changes in ocean circulation.

- The exploitation of non-living ocean resources including sand and gravel for construction; metals; diamonds; oil and gas; hydrates; phosphates; and renewable energy from tides, waves and ocean thermal conversion.

- The exploration and exploitation of recently discovered deep-sea ecosystems which form a new kingdom in the system of biological classification.

There are other elements of concern which may become clearer as a result of further research and observation such as detailed bathymetry and geophysics: biological diversity; feedback mechanisms between the oceans and the atmosphere; the effects on the ocean's biological production system (particularly primary production) of changing the radiation balance; and the effects that changes in primary production can have on gaseous exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, including the latter's composition.

The impact of life itself on life-support systems is a major uncertainty in all of this. One implication is that research and decision-making paradigms should move away from a deterministic approach to an integrating, conjunctive and risk-assessing one which acknowledges the complexity and chaos-orientation of the whole system and includes human society as an element within it. The integrated approach to coastal management provides an example of movement in this direction, but it also demonstrates the difficulties.


We know from sediment studies, paleo-oceanography and ice-core studies that changes can occur in both ocean circulation and climate in mere decades, or even years, but we do not understand the mechanisms that trigger them. The same is true of the El Niño phenomenon. One requirement for remedying this situation is sustainable, adequate and scientifically based observation. This is gradually being put in place through the Global Ocean Observing System, based on existing operational elements and through modelling, which has an important role to play.

There are very considerable doubts about our capacity to apply what knowledge we have and use ocean technology sustainably. Attempts to manage fisheries in this way have so far mostly failed, even though the scientific community has provided the basic information required. The development of science and technology ought to imply that more economical fisheries policies could be achieved, with less overfishing and less waste. So far, however, this has not happened - rather the contrary. Indeed large-scale industrial fisheries seem to be moving successively to areas that are not being fully exploited.

Local action, taken on the basis of a sound scientific-technological approach, has been shown to reverse coastal degradation and marine pollution. But as this is a universal problem so these local actions must be replicated worldwide. So far this is not being done, and degradation and destruction are progressing around the globe.

High-technology offshore exploration and exploitation is essentially in the hands of private industry which can afford to gather far more extensive information and data than governmental institutions. And the same is true of the growing deep-sea cabling industry. There is an obvious and strong need for increased cooperation between governmental institutions and private industry, both nationally and internationally. The trend appears, however, to be to increase regulations, which is unsatisfactory if they are not implemented. In most cases, the authorities have neither the capacity to ensure implementation nor to control the process. As a result it would seem desirable to move towards a cooperative rather than a regulative paradigm, while strengthening surveying institutions.

There is a very strong need both to increase society's ability to apply its knowledge of the oceans and, in most parts of the world, to strengthen its capacity to carry out and interpret ocean observation. Unless this happens disasters, human health problems, coastal zone destruction and a widening worldwide disparity of marine produce will increase, in the long term unavoidably affecting both the rich and poor parts of the world. Conflicts will arise over marine resources - and not only over fishing and passage rights - and the prevention and management of conflicts will become an institutional requirement. Capacity-building must aim to create adequate institutions and new kinds of human resources, both with an intersectoral base. There is also a need to create a category of operational oceanographers dedicated to providing observations and forecasting as services. And it may be desirable to focus such capacity-building at the regional level so as to pool resources.


Sectoral divides

The use of the ocean and coastal areas is primarily a question of managing various sectoral interests as well as the actions of human society. Marine pollution provides an illustrative example. Pollution from ships has been significantly reduced through international agreements and pressure from the shipping sector itself, including through the International Maritime Organization. Dumping at sea has also been reasonably well managed in similar ways, but the requirements for reception facilities for waste from ships have often not been met. The release of non-indigenous species, transported in ballast waters, is a very serious problem in several areas - and international solutions and legislation to deal with it are not being implemented. The major sources of marine pollution, however, are based on land and are directly connected to human activities which must be properly managed. We have not solved this problem and the effect of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities cannot yet be judged.

Political will is essential. Inadequate or improper development and governance clearly result in environmental problems. While it is important to have a democratic political system with full transparency, open public information and participation in decision-making, this is not sufficient in itself - education, public awareness and proper cultural attitudes are also needed. Economics and the environment must be considered together: the value of the seas and their coastal zones, and their role in the national budget should be demonstrated. We need economic policies that adequately evaluate the environmental consequences of development. Meanwhile socio-economic issues should be integrated into technical ones.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in force since November 1994, provides an overall legal framework for the ocean. This, together with several other international agreements, addresses the issues of major concern. What is missing is their implementation, and efforts should now be directed at this. National ocean, marine and coastal area policies, too, must be developed and implemented. And there is a need for more cooperation between the public, private industry and governance - active cooperation rather than prohibitive legislation alone: the precautionary principle can still be applied in a cooperative and fully transparent paradigm.

International agreements must be implemented, and intersectoral mechanisms with acknowledged power to deal with ocean affairs established. Relevant national and international institutions should be strengthened and, at the same time, given proper mandates. But single institutions cannot of themselves achieve the desired result: the issue is an intersectoral one, and needs corresponding mechanisms that can manage interdependence and conflict situations between the sectors. These should include the public and private sectors, the decision-making authorities, and the bodies with expertise on the substance of the issues. Above all, we need the integrating mechanisms to deal with the integrating ocean.

Gunnar Kullenberg was Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO until April 1998.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Freshwater 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Frank A. Campbell: Whispers and waste (Small Islands) 1999
Eileen B. Claussen: Critical coastlines (UNEP 25) 1997
Jane Lubchenco: Beware an ecological tsunami (Water) 1996
Omar Vidal and Walter Rast: Land and sea (Water) 1996

Contents Next Article


Home | Contributors | Hot Links |
Feedback - Environment Forum | Subscription | Mailing List

In case of difficulties with this site please contact the webmaster at:

Copyrightę1998 Banson
All rights reserved.