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Two coordination projects funded by the European Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme - MARINA and ResponSEAble - joined forces again for their final event. The ocean dialogues at the science-policy-society interface convened 18-19 March 2019 in Brussels were intended to draw together findings, showcasing educational tools in support of Ocean Literacy (OL) and promote responsible research and innovation (RRI) for effective ocean governance. Four topics were discussed in some depth and networking was rife.

The coordinators of the two projects opened the event with some background of their project, the networking and the challenges encountered during the three years of their research coordination work. To increase Ocean Literacy among the general public had been one of their concerns. This being a major focus of the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of Unesco, it was no surprise that the IOC had been an active participant throughout the projects and beyond. In parallel to the subsequent break-up into working groups, young professionals convened their own workshop.

The workshops focused on four topics:

  • Food from the sea
  • Marine litter
  • Maritime transport
  • Sustainable coastal tourism

The workshop food from the sea featured a representative of EUROPECHE (larger fishing interests), WWF and research into how fisheries impact marine ecosystems with an example from the Irish Sea.

All speakers underlined the importance of healthy fish stocks and fisheries, but Anne-Cecile Dragon of WWF confronted the gap between the intentions of the letter of the reformed European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the modest or weak implementation by European Member States.

The discussion, in which Mundus maris participants engaged very actively, also allowed to go a bit further in highlighting the threats to the policy's legitimacy and implementation provoked by large numbers of exceptions and exemptions, e.g. of the landing obligation of species discarded earlier and, of course, the national ministers' continued disregard for much of the scientific advice that prevented faster recovery of overfished stocks.

An example of how fishers can be drawn into active participation of building ecosystem models and explore options for rebuilding and sustainable use gave hope inmidst of looming challenges.

Participants converged in the direction of developing as much positive messaging as possible in order to rebuild trust between the different professional groups, civil society and conservation organisations and public authorities as a precondition for faster improvements.

The workshop on marine litter shared its focus on the need for a circular economy with the plenary so that waste production becomes the exception. Among the take-home messages were:

  • approaches to avoid marine litter require specific strategies: no one size fits all
  • focus on local conditions and process need customised scientific and practical knowledge for successful applications
  • new product design is important
  • innovation is needed to generate alternative action, EU initiatives to curb plastic and the UN Research Decade for sustainable Ocean development could serve as levers
  • key to success will be arenas for open dialogue and co-design, cooperation and knowledge sharing, setting up open spaces for exchange.

The workshop on maritime transportation had to cover a wide array of challenges as it is the backbone of globalised markets and a huge increase of capacity in recent decades. In the event it had focused on ballast water given the limited time avalable. Ship owners, handlers, port authorities and others needed easier access to scientific results. Demand was large for knowledge about marine species surviving criss-crossing ocean basins in the huge ballast water volumes of large container ships or bulk carriers.

Examples abound where their release has allows exotic species to establish viable populations where they had not previously existed, often turning into a nuisance. The damage can exceed billions of Euros. Policy makers in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) also needed to account for economic and other aspects and device regulations with port authorities which have good potential to being enacted.

Fair cost sharing remains an issue. Open access to information is a helpful step for better management.

The participants of the workshop on sustainable coastal tourism challenged the plenary to reflect on what that could be in the light of a still expanding multi-billion Euro industry. They cautioned that the demand for sustainability would take different articulation in relation to elite and mass tourism forms. While a lot of knowledge was already available - though many aspects would benefit from more research - change for the better was not yet forthcoming in any significant way.

Tangible change would be easier to bring about with a systems approach and a governance system with a mix of incentives and regulations. The blue economy mantra was not believed to help sustainability unless social and environmental concerns were integrated in a very strong way.

The feedback into the plenary showed a pattern of recognising that good science was indispensible, but not sufficient to provoke change. The courage required for such change can be helped by developing new narratives and by pitching messages carefully to different audiences. Social media were seen as both a threat and an opportunity. Prime movers can be role models to accelerate change.

What have we learnt in school today?

A panel discussion about how to trace pathways in order to use current experiences for coping with future ocean challenges concluded the formal plenary.

Then it was time to close the day with some more interaction at the many displays of pedagogical and information tools developed to reach out to a variety of different audiences and to have an impromptu session with two MEPs, Ricardo Serrão and Gesine Meissner, both highly active on ocean matters in the European Parliament.

Gesine Meissner is the Special Envoy of the President of the European Parliament on Maritime Affairs and Chair of a large Seas, Rivers, Islands and Coastal Areas Intergroup in the EP. She invited participants to the first High-Level Conference titled "Oceans, the future of the blue planet" scheduled for the afternoon of the following day and the first time such an event took place in the hemicircle.

With some more questions and answers, lots of networking and some drinks the first day of the ocean dialogues drew to a close.

Day 2 encouraged parallel table discussions to tease out key insights about issues raised during day 1.

The results will be checked against the production of the two projects for consolidation or amplification.

A final panel featured (from left to right in the photo) Francesca Santoro of Unesco, Gordon Dalton  of the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations, Dominik Littfass of HELCOM and Gail Scrowcroft of the University of Rhode Island.

The panelists cautioned that results from the projects as presented might not be robust enough as little interaction had taken place with major business groups. They felt, time was running out for just repeating the general messages already largely known. Then it would be unrealistic to expect change to really happen.

The conversation with the audience illustrated how much needed to happen to make true a vision of a healthy ocean in 2050, but also that it would be a crowded space to be shared fairly between the needs for energy, communication and mobility, food production and recreation. Marine spatial planning will have to play a major role in reducing conflicts between different demands for space and resources.

There was some talk about the balance between legislation, incentives and risk assessments. When risks become difficult to gauge, investors are likely to stay away or pull out, as can be observed in some areas of coal industry at the moment. A broader research agenda was considered helpful for a better understanding of the major trends and the identification of critical areas which could be levers of faster change in the right direction.

During the closing plenary the young professionals were also asked to take the floor. They commented the fact that they had been largely confined to their own parallel workshops with a silence on stage. They had expected more dialogue involving them as well.

So it was not all plein sailing to get everybody onto the same page from different starting points on the often complex issues. Having said this, there were still plenty of useful learnings to take home and work with.

Among others, on the basis of this and earlier dialogues, the projects want to develop a sort of manifesto on RRI and OL participants and other interested people can engage with and support. Much more critically engaged science is required as today's mode of doing research, especially in all areas related to ocean governance.

Get your own impression from the visual documentation of day 1 of the dialogue.