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It’s high time the Government put its money where its lungs are and funded more marine-sustainability research so we can protect and restore the ocean we need to survive 

Did you know that, since January, we have all been in the United Nations’ ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)’? The basic idea behind The Decade, if I may use a nickname, is simple – people can get more thinking and research done if we work together. Unified and united, we can achieve the catchphrase of The Decade: “The science we need for the ocean we want.”

What does that really mean? The Decade aims to connect and mobilise scientists and academics, governments and policy-makers, industry and business, and the rest of us ordinary folks in society. We need good quality ocean science, so we can answer questions with facts instead of opinions and guesswork. We need global data exchange, so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We need cooperative hazard planning, so we can warn each other when danger looms. And we need marine spatial planning, so different users with different agendas can all find a safe place by the sea.

The ocean is the lungs of our planet. Phytoplankton floating in the sun produce half the air we breathe, as well as forming the basis of a food chain that ends up in tuna, dolphins, and us. And the ocean is in trouble. We listen to people who fish complaining about ever-decreasing catches; we see swirling currents full of soil, pesticides and fertilisers heading out to sea; we hear about degradation of coral reefs, loss of kelp forests, deep gunk where scallops used to live. We have become far too used to rubbish on our own beaches, c— in our own water. And that is only a small part of the devastation: we can’t even see decreasing pH, microplastics, dead zones … it’s a depressing picture.

Of course, we’ve known about this for many decades. Rachel Carson wrote ‘The Sea Around Us’ in 1951. Tom Lehrer’s hit song ‘Pollution,’ in which he sang: “The breakfast garbage that you throw into the Bay, they drink at lunch in San Jose!” came out in 1965. The Ocean Conservancy was founded in 1972. Protesters heard the last of an aluminium smelter on the sand flats at Aramoana in 1981. People have been speaking up for the coast, the sea and its creatures for a long time, but nevertheless the global ocean gets worse every year.

The Decade, though, is a hopeful thing. It aims for seven outcomes. Number one comes as no surprise: a clean ocean. Number two results from that, a healthy and resilient ocean with vibrant and functioning ecosystems. We can understand the results of our actions if we have a predicted and modelled ocean. Of course we want a safe ocean, where natural hazards are monitored and communicated. Fish and chips without guilt requires a sustainably harvested and productive ocean. Open access to data and information will result in a transparent ocean, and of course we all understand that a well-managed ocean will be an inspiring and engaging ocean.

These all seem like obvious and laudable goals, well worthy of investment. And yet, globally something less than 4 percent of money for scientific research goes to marine-focused science – and only a small part of that looks to find innovative and forward-looking solutions. One of the purposes of The Decade is to improve this situation.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (why do they always need so many syllables for these things?) has 150 member countries, one of which is New Zealand. Each is being asked to coordinate a contribution to The Decade. Most have set up Decade offices; many have proposed Decade Projects or Decade Actions.

You would think it would be really popular here. New Zealand is a maritime nation; our forebears came over the sea and everyone lives within 110km of the coast. We love our beaches, our kai moana, our dolphins, our sailing, our harbours, and our swimming. And yet, so far, we have only a small sprinkling of projects dedicated to The Decade: one at NIWA, one at Victoria University of Wellington. We could do a lot more. We should do a lot more. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ocean to this maritime nation, this country adrift in the Pacific Ocean, this waka.

So what do we do? While people like you and me can choose to discard less plastic, be aware of the sustainability of the seafood we eat, tidy up local beaches, and avoid products made of coral, shark teeth, tortoiseshell and so on, what we really need is better knowledge to uphold better decisions. We can expect the Government to put its money where its lungs are and fund more marine-sustainability research. We can ask our elected officials to help manage and protect the coastal marine environment. We can require our Government to acknowledge and support The Decade, and pay attention to our world-wide obligations. If we do, we will be taking part in a huge global effort to save our seas.

The ocean deserves whatever we can do for it – the blue glory of our planet, climate-cooler, life-giver, spirit-lifter, rolling in on our beaches and crashing on our shores. Taking us to the world, and bringing the world to us. We need a healthy ocean; our tamariki will too.

Welcome to The Decade.

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