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The Future of Oceanography: Where are the People?

March 27, 2013

Could randomized control trials help conservationists determine which fisheries management tools produce the most benefits to fishers?Photo: Vera Agostini/TNC

By Vera Agostini, senior scientist, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team

For a marine scientist, there is nothing like being on a boat.  Your senses become alive, your creativity peaks. As you gaze over the side of a boat, the ocean mysteries you have been trying to solve suddenly come into focus.

But being on a boat is expensive.  A recent article in the journal Science, “A Sea Change for Oceanography” by Eli Kintisch, clearly spells this out.  Kintisch tells us that shrinking budgets and increasing costs are driving a change in how people study our oceans.  A growing array of high tech devices that remotely collect information are being deployed and less days on sophisticated boats are spent at sea.  The article suggests that this shift from field data collection programs to remote data collection programs is a change from “small” to “big” oceanography.

But what should “big” oceanography really be? Should the ability to connect to society’s needs be a part of “big” oceanography? If the answer is yes, I would say oceanography is failing.  The good news is: there is still opportunity to redirect course.

Why has a field critical in describing the fabric of anything that has do to with oceans (how we use them, how we depend on them) failed in demonstrating its relevance beyond primary science? Perhaps it’s because oceans are still primarily viewed—by oceanographers and the public—as one of the last great frontiers. Kintisch calls attention to this in the Science article, concluding with a call for support of ocean studies “…comparable to [funding for] research in outer space…”

Indeed oceanic exploration has always generated tremendous media attention and public interest. But the ocean is much more than a last frontier.  Our decisions around assigning priorities and allocating resources, the stories we share about the ocean should reflect this.

When the field started the ocean was mostly un-explored (and large sections of the ocean still are).  The last frontier should and will continue to provide inspiration for years to come.  But what about all the people that we now know live and depend on the ocean? Who solves their mysteries and the integral part that the ocean plays in solving their riddles?

There is nothing like traveling to Indonesia’s incredible island archipelagos to bring this point home.  Water comes alive in this part of the world, as it twists and turns to set up incredible current systems that swiftly move between the islands.  An oceanographer’s candy store, a “lively” last frontier to explore.

What is also apparent is that these currents are at the core of a significant portion of coastal people’s livelihoods and well-being in this part of the world; anyone who lives and works on the ocean in Indonesia knows this.

One of my first trips to the region really brought home the extent to which we are failing as a community to make oceanography relevant.  Sipping a sea-moss milk shake I carefully listened to a local villager’s perspective of how his life was impacted by the ocean.  He shared a simple sheet where he had carefully recorded sea conditions and what these meant for his livelihood.  One month he was fishing as the currents were coming from the north; the next month ocean temperatures were warmer, currents were now coming from the south and the fish he depended on were no longer in sight.  So he shifted his livelihood to his wife’s sea-moss farming business.  He shared with me that he adapted as he could, but was looking for more to prepare.

I felt responsibility as an oceanographer to help solve his riddle, and quickly made it my mission to figure out what kind of “guerilla oceanography” I could make available to folks like this or organizations working with them.  If we could help them anticipate changes in the ocean we could help them better prepare.

My efforts quickly reached dead ends.  I could find very little that would help solve this problem, understand the local ocean and its tie to human well-being, short of expensive equipment that required a lot of training to run and interpret.

There is a lot more we could do here, as scientists, funders and communicators.  We have a responsibility to make sure that the cultural shift that Eli mentions in his excellent Science article does not forget that there are people that depend on oceans and our attempts to unravel its mysteries should be connected to them.

Shifting from expensive research programs at sea to sophisticated remote technologies–as the Science article describes–is not going to get us there.

Yes, the ocean may be a last frontier for us as scientists; this is certainly what first got me into oceanography. But it is getting heavily used now.  How do we serve information in a way that it is relevant and accessible to ocean users? We need to help solve this riddle before it is too late.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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1 comment

  1. Thought you might be interested in this piece on oceanography which was forwarded to me by Barbara Agostini, from her daughter Vera who is in Florida and has studied the subject!