Written by Nereus Research Fellow Zoë Kitchel,

These were the resounding responses to a panel featuring Nereus Fellows held earlier this month at the United Nations in New York City. Each year, the United Nations holds an Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea. This meeting offers a venue for scientists, managers, NGOs, and entrepreneurs to voice progress in the field, and visions for the future in the context of how we manage our oceans. Major takeaways are then passed to the General Assembly for consideration.

This year, the twentieth summit, discussions revolved around the theme of Ocean Science and the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The Decade of Ocean Science commences in 2021 and aims to apply effective policy and cutting-edge science to reversing the world-wide decline in ocean health. Other panel motifs included intersections of ocean and human health, integration of indigenous knowledge, legal frameworks for ocean science, and international cooperation across scales, among others.

We listened as an entrepreneur from Portugal shared his vision for a future world driven by a blue economy, and as a researcher from Germany spoke about the necessity for not only data access, but training for how to use and apply data. The presenters for the morning panel, from South America, North America, and Europe, identified opportunities in ocean science and their recommendations for take advantage of them moving forward. As the panel began to wind down, a delegate from Canada asked, “We’re preaching to the choir here in these rooms, do you have any specific ideas on bridging gaps towards different stakeholders and groups?” I immediately felt the attention in the room that had begun to wander redirect towards the front. This is the question on the forefront of everyone’s mind, and the one we came to address.

The Fellows dove into the difficult yet critical themes of equity and interdisciplinarity in how we study the ocean. Dr.’s Katy Seto, Julia Mason, Tiff-Annie Kenny, Becca Selden, and Harriet Harden-Davies participated in a lunch-time panel discussion facilitated by Wilf Swartz. Early in my journey as a Nereus Fellow, I joined in the event as an audience member to learn and to see how the audience responded. I had the pleasure of watching a group of six brilliant young female scientists engage in discussions about both the necessity and challenge of stakeholder engagement, and the importance of working across disciplines during every step of a project, not just as a part of the bookends.

Dr. Kenny grounded us by introducing her research on equity and climate in the arctic.

In the communities she works with, women are most at risk of mercury poisoning because of the social dynamics of harvesting. She emphasized the reality that the ripples of climate change are not felt equally across genders, races, communities, or nations.

Dr. Mason described the importance of identifying management strategies that actually work. In the case of hammerhead sharks off the coast of Peru, she found management strategies were doing little to ensure the sustainability of fishers’ livelihoods or shark health. The needs of communities must drive the integration between science and management for policies to be effective. She reminded us that we cannot assume what communities value about the ocean, we have to ask.

Dr. Selden shared observations from both data and conversations of how fish and fishing communities off the east coast US are adapting to changing realities. Infamous clashes such as the Cod Wars of the 1950s and 60s and the Lobster Wars of today illustrate the fact marine resources know no borders. Collaborations at the international scale are necessary to mediate these conflicts as they arise. She challenged us to transform the way we think about fisheries management in order to be more climate-ready.

Dr. Seto encouraged us to consider how we can foster growth and sustainability simultaneously. What is the role of artisanal, subsistence, and small-scale coastal fisheries to developing states? How does climate impact that role? And, how does vulnerability of large-scale fishing enterprises compare to that of smaller operations? She reminded the audience of the value of working across disciplines in understanding the context of a fishery, and therefore developing effective policies.

Dr. Harden-Davies explored how we can shape marine policy beyond natural jurisdictions in the context of genetic resources. Questions of who has access to these unique resources with infinite potential segue into the broader question of who owns the deep sea.  She encouraged us to approach these questions through a lens of collaboration, stewardship, and capacity building in order to uphold equity as these resources are exploited for knowledge, data, and financial benefit.

For the first time in 2013 to discuss ocean acidification, and for a second time now in 2019, the Nereus Program shared their effective interdisciplinary approach with representatives from across the globe. The team explored dimensions in which ocean science can improve in the Decade of Ocean Science, and how consideration of equity and interdisciplinary perspectives are not just ideal but necessary to achieve the goals set out by UNCLOS. The concrete examples illustrated by the Fellows riveted the audience, leading to consistent references to the panel in subsequent sessions throughout the week long summit.

Passing by the delegate seats on our way out of the conference room, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, I am reminded that what I strive for as an early career scientist and what the Nereus program champions—a sustainable and equitable future for our oceans—is a giant goal, but when shared by 193 sovereign states, also an achievable one.

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