World Ocean Assessment, Part 2

We continue today with an exposition of the first UN World Ocean Assessment, a massive baseline study of all aspects of the ocean - what they are, why they matter, their present conditions, negative causes, and positive recommendation for changed policy and action in the future. The Report, like the subject, is vast, and it might be good to have a table of contents, just to remind us of the diverse, integrated ways the ocean affects our lives.

Here is a just partial list of ocean issues covered: sea surface temperature, sea level rise, ocean acidification, salinity, stratification, ocean circulation, extreme weather events, ultraviolet radiation and the ozone layer, implications for human well-being and biodiversity, changes I the seasonal life cycles in the ocean, loss of sea ice in high latitude and associated ecosystems, plankton, fish stock distribution, seaweeds and sea grass, shellfish productivity, low-lying coasts, coral reefs, eutrophication problems, opening of the Arctic sea routes, higher mortality and less successful reproduction of marine biotas, over-fishing, by-catch discard and waste on non-target fish, marine mammals, and birds, hazardous substances, noise pollution capture fisheries, recreational fishing, aquaculture, social issues, food safety, biodiversity patterns and hot-spots, economic activity, use of ocean space, submarine cables and pipelines, hydrocarbon industry, offshore mining, offshore renewable energy, fishery management areas, marine protected areas, land based inputs, heavy metals, agricultural inputs, radioactive substance, solid waste disposal, marine debris, shipping, invasive species, tourism, cultural and religious beliefs, marine genetic material, integrated management, ecosystems services, among many others.

As we consider each of these, we realize that every one requires a major effort to research and understand, to measure current impacts and alternative strategies, and to define and recommend responsible strategies in the context of certainly increased projections and pressures to come as the world population increases and the productivity on land reaches its limits. It is important to understand that, today, there are thousands of scientists and academics, policy and decision-makers in myriad organizations - the United Nations and other international bodies and associations, national organizations, public and private educational departments and research institutes, worldwide - that are engaged in dedicated accumulation of knowledge and information about the full spectrum of ocean connection between marine systems and human endeavor.

These represent, on the one hand, an astonishing global resource and commitment to understanding of this pervasive global system; while, on the other hand, they reveal an investigative resource that is limited and a level of activity that is inadequate to full understanding of the problem and the urgency of solution. How, then, are we expected to proceed?

As Director of the World Ocean Observatory, I have attended many ocean conferences over the years where the most informed and dedicated individuals have gathered to address this challenge. My desk lamp is hung with multiple lanyards and badges from these events, reminders of the efforts and best intentions these meetings entail. As I listen and learn from the distinguished presenters, I have come to realize that we can no longer postpone individual and collective action behind the assertion that we don't know enough, that we need to know more. The World Ocean Assessment is a huge compendium of what we do know, and behind it lies enormous data, analyses, academic papers, policy reports, and plans and recommendations, from so much of this activity that has occurred before. As such, still, this Assessment has no purpose other than to inform us of best knowledge and theoretical practice. As a baseline it is enormously useful, but as a structure or commitment to a plan of action it is useless.

I submit that we owe its authors, and all the individuals behind them, our engagement in maximizing its utility. For every one of the ocean issues mentioned today, there exists an organization or advocacy group; for every one, there is available science, technology, and even policy that pertains and represents responsible action and incremental change. Let's declare that this baseline report demonstrates that we know enough, that we have to tools and actions that can make an immediate difference, that the choice is ours to share our commitment by acting with and within these groups as part of what ocean advocate David Helvarg and the Blue Frontier Campaign call "the seaweed revolution." It's time.

"World Ocean Assessment" is a four-part blog series.


Peter Neill is author of the recently released "The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society" now available through,, and through your favorite local bookseller.