Ocean observations and trilateral cooperation
29 Jun 2016|

On Monday I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, ANU’s Strategic & Defence Studies Centre and the JMSDF Command and Staff College on 21st Century Trilateral Maritime Cooperation.

The conference was designed to formulate trilateral cooperative approaches to enhancing the maritime security of Japan, the United States and Australia, and I spoke on the scientific aspects of civilian maritime activities.

Last August the Australian government launched the National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025: Driving the Development of Australia’s Blue Economy. The Plan sets out eight high-level recommendations, of which I’d like to highlight two. First, creating a National Oceanographic Modelling System to supply defence, industry and government with accurate, detailed knowledge and predictions of ocean state to support decision-making by policy-makers and marine industry. And second, sustaining and expanding the Integrated Marine Observing System to support critical climate change and coastal systems research.

Since 2006, Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) has supported a step-change increase in availability of physical, biogeochemical and biological observations and data across oceanic and coastal waters. (The following figure, designed to be read from inside to out, illustrates how IMOS is ‘operated by selected institutions but available for use by the entire community through open data access, generating a wide range of outputs that are relevant across portfolios and sectors.’)

Japan, the US and Australia should cooperate to improve the efficacy of Asia–Pacific ocean governance by creating and supporting structures to formally assess the state of regional oceans to inform sustainable ocean development. Such an assessment would drive innovation in observation, modelling and data sharing.

Four issues underwrite the need to rapidly improve our knowledge of regional oceans and seas. First, improving projections of regional, long-term change and variability (including extreme events and sea level change).The second is sustaining the productive capacity of the ocean’s ecosystems as they come under increasing pressure from human activities. Third, sustainably using marine ecosystem services, such as food security and coastal protection. And fourth, increasing resilience of communities and economic infrastructure to growing risk exposure from marine related disasters caused by extreme events, such as hurricanes, storm surges, and tsunamis.

Part 1X of the UN’s Law of the Sea Convention mandates that kind of ocean cooperation. Countries bordering enclosed and semi enclosed seas have an obligation to cooperate in their management, and this specifically applies to marine scientific research. In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted Sustainable Development Goal 14. Its purpose is ‘to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’.

Australia, Japan and the US should be working together to reduce the time-lag between observations being made and the conclusions based on them being placed systematically and in coherent form into the regional policy arena.

We shouldn’t forget that in our region there’s lots of high seas beyond national jurisdiction. There are particular knowledge gaps in those areas, both spatially, as well as in the deep ocean below two kilometer depth. Australia’s already doing a lot with the US here, (calibration and validation of ocean data) and there’s scope to include Japan.

It’s really about gathering environmental intelligence for the oceans: understanding the ocean’s role in climate change and the resultant weather pattern changes, sea-level rise, acidification, biodiversity and evolution of marine ecosystems functioning.

There’s also the driver of the blue economy for our region, such as coastal aquaculture and hydrocarbon exploration in increasingly deep environments.

Our three countries should work together to support the capacity building of developing countries to monitor the oceans by, for example, installing tide gauges to quantify sea-level rise and predicting coastal flooding, delivering training in the use of freely available satellite information and assisting in the operation and usage of low cost (relative to ships) technology such as ocean gliders.

The three countries should engage more the merchant shipping industry on their collaboration in ocean observation. Commercial vessels spend far more time at sea than research vessels.

Last month the G7 Science and Technology Ministers met in Tsukuba City, Japan. The communique (PDF) states that the group believes that it’s crucial to develop far stronger scientific knowledge necessary to assess the ongoing ocean changes and develop appropriate policies to ensure the sustainable use of the seas and oceans.

They supported the development of an initiative for enhanced global sea and ocean observation required to monitor climate change and marine biodiversity, an enhanced system of ocean assessment through the UN Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment to develop a consensus view on the state of the oceans, promote open science and improve the global data sharing infrastructure to ensure the discoverability, accessibility and interoperability of a wide range of ocean and marine data.

They agreed to strengthen collaborative approaches to encourage the development of regional observing capabilities and knowledge networks in a coordinated and coherent way. Japan and the US signed off on this G7 commitment.

Australia can play key role in advancing that ocean observation agenda through IMOS. Organisations like AIMS and GBRMPA can enhance future regional ocean observations. We’re uniquely placed in the southern hemisphere to help countries test new technologies, like ocean gliders and autonomous systems.

The best way to advance that agenda is for the three countries to jointly support a strong ocean observation statement at APEC in Port Moresby in 2018. That would raise awareness of the value of earth and marine observation and data systems to support regional priorities and assist to prioritise regional marine observation needs.

One real issue for Australia, however, is that the RV Investigator, our only blue water research vessel, is tied up for half the year due to weak government funding. CSIRO own and operate the vessel, but it’s a national facility and there’s ample demand to keep it at sea year-round. That’s constraining research in the Southern Ocean and other regions and limits international collaboration, including with the US and Japan. It’s also hard to frame the recent CSIRO ocean program cuts as anything but a negative for trilateral cooperation.

Overall, however, the US, Japan and Australia are in an excellent position to bring their combined influence to bear in providing a strong impetus to strengthen ocean observation systems across the Asia–Pacific.