The ocean is a crucial component of the Earth system, essential for supporting ecosystem and human health by regulating the weather and climate, producing freshwater and soaking up carbon. It also provides food and other resources, trade and migration routes. Global fisheries support over 170 million jobs, not including livelihoods from aquaculture, tourism and other uses of the marine environment
In small-island developing-states (SIDS) the ocean drives the rhythms of nature and human life. In fact, the island nations often argue they should be called ‘Large Ocean States’, to acknowledge how the ocean isolates them within vast ‘exclusive economic zones
But marine ecosystems are already degraded. In addition, the combined threats of warming sea temperatures, ocean acidification, de-oxygenation and pollution, to name but a few, present a pressing need to understand the marine world. Ocean science and monitoring help gather knowledge about the ocean and climate system, and improve decisions for sustainable development. In SIDS’ vulnerable ‘blue economies’, where most livelihoods rely directly on ocean resources, ocean data is needed more than ever to survive environmental challenges while moving towards international development goals.
This article explores how ocean monitoring is helping SIDS achieve these aims and highlights where they still desperately need assistance to gather and use ocean data to reduce poverty and develop sustainably.
Much of the ocean remains unexplored in spite of growing recognition of its role in sustainable development. Since the 1990s, governments and researchers in both developed and developing countries have made strong commitments to ocean monitoring through the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) — especially physical measures such as temperature and salinity and, more recently, the biological and biogeochemical components such as plant and animal plankton, oxygen and carbon. [10, 11] GOOS is a global ocean observation network coordinated by the UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in partnership with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Council for Science (ICSU).
GOOS paves the way for cooperative monitoring of the ocean and seas. It does this by establishing permanent ocean data-collection platforms, such as tide gauges and ocean buoys. A good example is GOOS’ flagship Argo programme, where more than 3000 satellite controlled robotic monitoring buoys drift through the upper 2000m of the world’s oceans collecting data (see Video 1).
The raw ocean data gathered through such platforms can be processed into ‘products’ such as ocean temperature forecasts which might, for example, indicate likely fish migration patterns.
Policymakers can use ocean ‘products’ to guide decisions on development and marine management. To make this process more effective, GOOS recently boosted its efforts to collect ocean observations of ‘ecosystem Essential Ocean Variables’ (EOVs). Policymakers need such information — including on chlorophyll concentrations, harmful algal blooms, tracking of large marine vertebrates, dissolved organic chemicals, nitrous oxide and Carbon-13 — to guide urgent decisions, especially on managing marine ecosystems and their services.
Evidence-based decision making is especially relevant for SIDS’ governments and communities, and for development aid. Table 1 outlines how ocean monitoring can benefit health and development in small-island states. In SIDS most people live in coastal habitats, rely heavily on marine resources for food, transport, tourism and trade, and are highly vulnerable to disasters such as tropical cyclones, storm surges and tsunamis. To develop without damaging the marine environment, and to build resilience to hazards, SIDS need ocean data that feeds into early warning and response systems.