To Turn the Tide on Ocean Health, A Collaborative Data Platform Can Help

This article was originaly posted on WRI’s Insights blog.

The ocean is the world’s largest biome and one of its most valuable resources. It is also the most difficult to monitor, understand and manage, largely due to a lack of data. This is in part due to the sheer vastness of the ocean which covers 72% of the Earth’s surface and has depths up to 11,034 m (36,201 ft). Moreover, spanning that space are billions of species which interact to form a myriad of ecosystems, many of which are still unknown or poorly understood.

But understanding the ocean and its environs is well worth the effort. More than 3 billion people rely on the ocean as a major source of protein, and ocean-based industries like fishing, offshore energy, shipping and coastal tourism contribute at least 3.5 to 7% of the world’s gross domestic product. This contribution is predicted to double by 2030.

The ocean is also increasingly at risk. Processes like deforestation and urbanization increase the flow of pollution, resulting in the degradation of coastal ecosystems. In addition, climate change and unprecedented carbon emissions are changing the chemistry and average temperatures of the ocean, causing further damage to vital ecosystems.

Better data is urgently needed by the ocean community to improve management policies that govern decisions such as the selection of marine protected areas, and policies on integrated coastal zone management. For example, people currently working in these areas struggle to integrate data on nutrient and sediment pollution with information on how people are using ocean resources to drive truly sustainable decisions.

A new tool aims to support people in maintaining and restoring the health of the ocean and the wealth derived from it. In 2020 WRI began efforts to understand how to put data at the heart of ocean sustainability. The resulting Ocean Watch data platform powered by Resource Watch, WRI’s global open data platform aims to help those managing ocean health find the answers they need to achieve global ocean goals.

Casting a Wide Net to Build a Robust Data Platform

Though there is an undeniable need for data on the ocean, simply putting data on a map is not enough. Effective data platforms must change mindsets and support equitable policy transformations, something which can only be achieved by exploring the challenges facing different ocean communities. It is also essential that any data platform in this space acknowledges these challenges are derived not only from a lack of data, but also larger socio-political considerations.

Questions are increasingly asked on how data is transformed into knowledge which then informs actions. Whose views are being privileged in the development of data platforms? Is the status quo being reinforced through the inclusion of certain datasets and the exclusion of others? Data scientists, no matter how intelligent or well-intentioned, cannot inform policy alone.

To construct the platform, 90 people — including academics, conservation organizations, NGOs representing local Indigenous groups and ocean policymakers — participated in an assessment designed to understand what problems exist in creating science-based ocean policies and how data could be provided in a way which would be most useful to them. Participants were from 20 different countries across five continents.

Many similarities emerged in the responses across different groups. In particular, users repeatedly voiced five concerns which then helped inform and shape the design and development of Ocean Watch:

1. “I need to understand the impact of land management practices on ocean health”

It is impossible to view the ocean in a holistic, integrated manner without considering what happens on land. It’s the “upstream” of all the water which flows into the ocean. As a result, forest management, agriculture and urbanization each have a huge impact on ocean health.

This has become the defining feature of the first iteration of Ocean Watch. The platform acts as central space to understand what threats to the ocean are caused by impacts on the land. What impact is deforestation having? Where can reforestation help reduce nutrient pollution, which would otherwise damage coral reefs? Ocean Watch uses geospatial data to provide answers to these crucial questions, which can help inform land policies that also protect the ocean. For example, the map below provides clear information on which areas are at risk from erosion entering Nigerian water bodies.

Figure 1. Sources of erosion that are likely to enter water bodies, Nigeria

2. “Indigenous and local communities need to be involved in decision-making” Co-leading

Many participants referenced the difficulties in achieving consensus across different groups when creating ocean policy, and particularly in ensuring the views of often marginalized people were listened to. Indigenous peoples and local communities currently oversee tens of thousands of kilometers of seabed along tropical coastlines and generally have a vastly different perspective on the challenges to preserving ocean biodiversity. A lack of shared understanding and difficulties in ensuring equitable access to data was suggested by many participants as a crucial barrier to co-leading effective management strategies on these lands. This can be particularly true when it comes to Indigenous people finding evidence to prove what they know is happening on their ancestral lands.

To an extent, these issues cannot (and arguably should not) be fixed by technology — a data platform alone cannot reorient society to return stewardship to Indigenous communities who were responsible for their environments for centuries. However, a data platform can seek to democratize access to ocean data by providing accessible tools built with reputable sources and satellite data. This data can inform policy discussions which involve many different parties, and its accessibility can enable a shared understanding among those parties.

3. “Data is held in too many different systems and can’t be analyzed collectively”  

Currently, ocean data is spread out across various systems, both public and private. There are global monitoring systems for mangroves, coral reefs, fishing and many other aspects of the ocean, but this siloed approach prevents users from seeing how they interact with each other.

Sustainable ocean management requires viewing the ocean as a whole ecosystem, not a disparate collection of services which have no impact on each other. The reality is that fishing impacts coral reefs; deforestation affects mangroves; mangroves and seagrasses reduce CO2 emissions; and so on. While looking at these systems in isolation can be useful for things like fishing trends or mangrove conservation, there is a strong need for a platform which brings together these topics. Ocean Watch helps fill this need by housing datasets from multiple sectors that can be combined and visualized in a more holistic way, paving a road to more inclusive management strategies.

4. “Managers don’t need data, they need information”  

Many participants in the user assessment indicated that platforms often have good data, but not tangible and accessible information. Many data platforms require users to have a geographic information system (GIS) background or a strong understanding of data science to effectively understand and interpret their information. However, sustainable ocean management requires data that is accessible and easy to interpret.

For example, users need an easy-to-use, curated primer on land-based pollution which allows them to access the information that participants identified as essential to effective policy. Every visualization on the Ocean Watch platform is downloadable, and all interactive maps and charts can be embedded in other webpages. Additionally, each element of the site comes with an option to see further information, giving fuller explanations of the data shown, the provenance of the information and possible implications.

5. “I need to see what I stand to lose” 

Prompting decision makers to take effective action requires giving people knowledge on what they stand to lose. Inevitably, all decisions require an element of trade off, and when asking people to prioritize ocean health over other economically important sectors like extensive fishing or mining, it becomes important to consider what other goods and services those ecosystems support.

Who relies on the food generated by the ocean? How does the coastal zone support tourism? How much carbon could be stored in mangroves or seagrasses which reside in these ecosystems? Fundamentally, what will be destroyed if pressures such as land-based pollution and overfishing are left unchecked? These questions help to prompt decision-makers to stop and consider what is at stake if no action is taken, and this is the last point Ocean Watch seeks to drive home within the profiles for each location.

Using Information to Protect the World’s Oceans and Ecosystems

While it is essential to bring together critical knowledge, the challenges facing the ocean cannot be addressed by technology alone. Even when data is available, deciphering where to start on such a wide-ranging and broad set of issues can feel as daunting as traversing the open ocean in a canoe.

Transforming the ocean in an effective way will require different groups of people working together across wide-ranging and complex issues. True change will require practical implementation strategies, affordable financial support for those working on solutions and goal-setting that drives ambition. When paired with effective, participatory policymaking and more equitable practices, Ocean Watch aims to play an essential role to advance action, protect ocean health and preserve the ecosystems that so many depend on.

Ocean Watch is built on Resource Watch, WRI’s data geospatial platform on planetary health. Resource Watch provides data visualization capabilities, an API and a global data catalogue, which has enabled a user-centered development of Ocean Watch and WRI’s Ocean Program.

The first theme of Ocean Watch also aims to support the countries of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and their commitment to developing sustainable ocean plans to cover 100% of their national waters.

Becky Atkins is a Product Manager for Ocean Watch

Katie Wood is the Communications Officer for the Ocean Program

Jonathan Baines is an Ocean Data Manager for Ocean Watch 

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