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Steps needed to achieve a clean ocean by 2030

Many different habitats, from sandy beaches and rocky shores, to the darkest of abyssal plains make up the oceans. Healthy and clean oceans benefit thousands of different living species as well as all of humanity. However, these ecosystems and natural processes operating in oceans have become more and more threatened in the face of increasing industrialization and human population size. 

The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development was launched in January 2021, and will span the years 2021–2030. This “Ocean Decade” is an opportunity for ocean actors across the world to come together to generate knowledge and foster the partnerships needed to support a well-functioning, productive, resilient, sustainable, and inspiring ocean.

Today, a group of nine distinguished international experts, appointed to help the UN reach the goal of a clean ocean by 2030, will come together for the start of a three-day online conference. The Clean Ocean International Expert Group will present its manifesto, which includes lists of medium- and longer-term goals to be achieved in order to clean up the world’s oceans. In addition, they will outline strategies to reach these goals. 

Co-Chaired by Angelika Brandt of Germany, a Southern Ocean / Antarctica biodiversity expert, and Elva Escobar Briones of Mexico, a deep sea biodiversity expert, the group’s manifesto concisely outlines “the challenges and some of the opportunities that the Ocean Decade can provide for a Clean Ocean.”

The Clean Ocean International Expert Group will begin their conference by presenting this manifesto, that lays out their goals for a clean ocean by 2030. With these objectives in place, specific pragmatic steps can be identified and efforts activated, with targets and timetables that map out progress. 

The manifesto outlines the most direct route to a clean ocean in 2030, giving the following specific goals that should be achieved by that time.

Goals for a Clean Ocean in 2030:

  • Enlarge understanding of pathways for the spread and fates of pollutants.
  • Reduce and remove top-priority forms of pollution (e.g., marine debris) by large amounts, as much as 50 to 90 percent.
  • Prevent recurrence, reduce sources or emission of pollutants (e.g., anthropogenic noise, discarded plastic and harmful chemicals, farming practices adding harmful sediment outflow).
  • Improve dramatically the outcomes of control measures (e.g., to decrease amounts of mercury in tuna, die-offs of marine life, eutrophication).
  • Improve monitoring (often as part of the Global Ocean Observing System [GOOS]) for more accurate, precise, timely, comprehensive real-time tracing of spills and monitoring of ocean soundscapes; improve systems to provide timely warning of pollutants emerging and increasing.
  • Identify and accelerate development and adoption of technologies to promote a Clean Ocean. These could range from cleaner, more efficient motors and fuels to new forms of remediation and waste management; better ways to monitor, track, and map marine pollutants and progress toward a clean ocean (such as aerial remote sensing, genomics, and hydrophone arrays); and better technologies for emergency clean-ups.
  • Improve national mechanisms (legal, regulatory) for control and prevention, better align financial incentives, and lift compliance with international treaties.
  • Lift public engagement and understanding with access to information associated with behavioral shifts favoring the motto of “reduce, reuse and recycle”, and encourage participation in citizen science as part of events involving sailing, surfing, and other activities dependent on a Clean Ocean.

The experts also set some more specific targets that should be reached by 2025, in order to facilitate the achievement of the ultimate goals for a Clean Ocean by 2030. They stated: “This process should aim to define and attract financial and other support to meet an initial set of goals for 2025, followed by goals for the end of the Ocean Decade in 2030.”

Interim objectives for 2025

  • Quantify the global harm of marine pollution, from all major sources, on ecosystems and organisms and on human health; assessment methods need to take into account multiple stressors.
  • Survey the totality of anthropogenic chemicals flowing into the oceans.
  • Define a Clean Ocean, including acceptable levels of pollution to set threshold values, and define ecological boundaries or maximal levels of pollutants as well as their rates of degradation to maintain well-functioning ecosystems; this includes understanding tolerances of species and ecosystems to pollutants.
  • Develop a widely shared vision of a Clean Ocean.
  • Identify high-priority geographic challenges such as polar regions and urban coasts.
  • Identify barriers to action impeding scaling up solutions for regional and global impact; quantify possibilities for amelioration.
  • Identify key partners, including those who might be left behind, and provide engagement strategies for early career ocean professionals, indigenous peoples, and island communities.
  • Develop reference scenarios for industrialization of the oceans during the next decade, including tourism, seabed mining, windfarm development, for example, as they relate to a Clean Ocean.
  • Develop initial estimates of costs associated with transitions to a Clean Ocean.
  • Secure major financial commitments.

“By 2030 we want to achieve measurable improvement in monitoring and clear reduction of emissions and harm through a spectrum of technical and behavioral strategies,” said the researchers.

The three-day on-line conference (Nov. 17–19, 2021) will highlight more than 30 activities already in place or in development around the world that can make important contributions to a Clean Ocean by 2030. These include initiatives to:

  • successfully and consistently monitor marine debris from space as part of an Integrated Global Marine Debris Observing System;
  • operate deep sea observatories in the Atlantic that document and publicize multiple stressors;
  • observe the vast Southern Ocean to give early warnings of possible pollution hot spots in this relatively pristine ocean;
  • instrument 30 percent of coastal city ocean spaces to report on pollution changes, including restoration;
  • and identify and greatly reduce persistent organic pollutants globally.

The manifesto, which represents the views of the signatories, and not necessarily the official positions of their respective institutions, is also directed at other groups such as the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, the Economist magazine World Ocean Initiative, and the World Ocean Council.

The group will share its manifesto with these groups, as well as with other expert groups, national committees, and with the  endorsed projects and programs of the UN Ocean Decade in order to speed along the development of a strong set of Clean Ocean activities.
Study lead author Jesse Ausubel is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, New York City. “We want this decade to transition from increasing to decreasing the environmental problems of the oceans,” said Ausubel.

Further details of the conference may be found at:

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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