Forum on the Future of the Oceans

What do we really know about the current state of the world ocean, where it’s headed, and what can be done to keep it healthy in the long term?

SeaMonster asked for answers from a diverse group of >60 distinguished experts at the frontlines of marine science, conservation, law, and policy at local to international levels. We heard from 23 of them, and the following forum records the wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation that resulted.

The forum was stimulated by the recent release of the “International Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts. Summary report” by the International Program on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) (link to the report here). The report attracted considerable media attention—as well as perhaps predictable criticism—from various quarters. The SeaMonster forum is intended to provide some backstory on the report, to make available expert commentary on its broader implications, and to get deeper into the subject than the brief news reports allow.

Although we the editors (Emmett Duffy and John Bruno) are marine scientists with an interest in ocean conservation, we consider ourselves non-partisan and sought only a thoughtful, broad-based discussion of the issues.

A printable PDF copy of the forum, suitable for class discussion, can be downloaded here.

We asked the experts for comments on any aspect of the report and its broader context of the state of the oceans, and suggested the following questions to get the ball rolling:

Do you feel the report presents an accurate picture of the state of the oceans?  Are there any major stressors that have been under- or overemphasized?

The report concludes that “Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean.” Do you agree?

Among other recommendations, the report calls for establishment of a UN Global Ocean Compliance Commission to set out regulatory requirements for, and enforce, compliance with provisions of the UNCLOS regarding high-seas biodiversity and environmental conservation. Does this seem a reasonable approach? Any thoughts on the prospects of achieving this politically?

What is, and what should be, the role of working group reports such as this one (“gray literature” according to some), relative to peer-reviewed publications in publicizing scientific consensus on environmental threats? Do you have experience with similar efforts or reports, and has that experience  provided any lessons about the most effective strategies for influencing policy and public opinion?

Some have noted that the press release for this effort was issued before the final report is available. Is this appropriate?

For those of you who were involved in drafting the report, we would be keen to hear any perspective you’re willing to share on the process of the report and reactions to it so far.

Comments were emailed to the editors and copied to all individuals on the original distribution list. We are grateful to all participants for helping to bring the nuances of this important issue to a broad audience.

Emmett Duffy
Forum Editor


Contributors to the Forum, in alphabetical order:

Jesse Ausubel
Manuel Barange
Nancy Baron
Jelle Bijma
Don Boesch
Denise Breitburg
John Bruno
Mark Costello
Emmett Duffy
Matthew Gianni
Kristina M. Gjerde
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Terry Hughes
Camilo Mora
Steve Palumbi
Tony Pitcher
Kelly Rigg
Alex Rogers
Charles Sheppard
Mark Spalding
Bob Steneck
Derek Tittensor
Chris Yesson


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Dear All,

It has been a white knuckle ride of interviews and talks over the last week but I welcome this opportunity to discuss these findings with the wider community. Maybe if I take the points below one by one:

Do you feel the report presents an accurate picture of the state of the oceans?  Are there any major stressors that have been under- or overemphasized?

I will leave this for the wider discussion but I point out that we went through a great deal of effort and heartache to get this report to reflect the evidence presented at the meeting. Initial attempts were too policy orientated. Then we tried to bring out connections with the broader picture, human population growth etc. This just ended up sounding nebulous. Eventually we decided to do for a broad report that referenced the literature regarding the areas that were discussed to paint a synoptic picture of where we are and where we are going assuming a business as usual scenario. To do this in the space that will encourage reading of an entire document is hard but you will see that the report has not only been picked up by the media but has now been picked up by politicians (Richard Benyon, David Milliband and others) and industry (Seafish Authority in UK are completely backing the report) so I think we got the size and content of the report about right.

The report concludes that “Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean.” Do you agree?

Personally yes. With regard to the meeting, all who were present with one possible exception agreed of this point. Consider this. If only the species at endangered or critically endangered status go, along with coral reef ecosystems, which at the present time seems inevitable, we are there. The combination of climate change and other pressures are the drivers of this. Bear in mind that the rate of climate change we are seeing now is unprecedented. The mass extinctions (the big 5) are defined as ~75% species extinction in 2 million years. What we are seeing is staggeringly fast in terms of a rate of change. The overall levels of extinction we see may not be in the class of a “big 5” extinction but a global extinction event is likely if things continue at the present rate.

Among other recommendations, the report calls for establishment of a UN Global Ocean Compliance Commission to set out regulatory requirements for, and enforce, compliance with provisions of the UNCLOS regarding high-seas biodiversity and environmental conservation. Does this seem a reasonable approach? Any thoughts on the prospects of achieving this politically?

No doubt we will be told that it is not the job of scientists to make these types of recommendations. The meeting not only comprised scientists but also policymakers and legal experts. Hence this recommendation. What we can say as scientists is that we have evidence that the international regime for management of activities on the high seas is failing, especially with respect to fisheries. See the recent overexploitation of jack mackerel in the Pacific, a massive stock that has been devastated even while SPRFMO [South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation] was being negotiated. It is most certainly our job to continue to provide evidence showing where these failures are occurring and also where best practice is leading to sustainable management. See the recent IPSO report on Implementation of 61/105 – where we tried to do this. We then should work with appropriate experts on legal and policy matters to help redress this situation. The suggestion of a GOCC (Global Ocean Compliance Commission) is one approach that our policy attendees thought could prove useful in addressing some of the problems we see. The idea is not to throw away the international management regime we have but to try and fix it so it works.

What is, and what should be, the role of working group reports such as this one (“gray literature” according to some), relative to peer-reviewed publications in publicizing scientific consensus on environmental threats? Do you have experience with similar efforts or reports, and has that experience  provided any lessons about the most effective strategies for influencing policy and public opinion?

The role is clear to me. It is to communicate using the latest available science, to all levels of society, the value of the oceans to humankind, the risks we now face in terms of losing the good and services the oceans provide and to show clearly that there are solutions to these problems. Why should we be doing this as scientists? That to me is also clear. We are in the best position to tell the truth about what we see happening. Is this effective as a means of communication? Yes – I think the last week has demonstrated that. The oceans as an issue have now been raised in all fora and in particular have been made a firm part of the climate debate, the debate on food security and the debate on land use.

Some have noted that the press release for this effort was issued before the final report is available. Is this appropriate?

I will explain this as this is one thing I think we could have done better. The summary was meant originally literally as that, a meeting summary. However, as the process of writing shaped it, it has become more than a simple abstract or summary of the meeting, it is a synoptic report. As such the word summary on the front of it is a bit of a misnomer. IPSO has used third mode of meeting / communication previously in a meeting on the future of coral reefs. We held a one day meeting in the Royal Society in London. Actually drafted a meeting statement at the meeting (that was a tough 3 hours) and all present signed off on this statement, essentially a summary. We then followed this up with a paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin, in time for the Copenhagen meeting. This is not the way most of you will be used to doing things but it is effective because:

1.      By the end of the meeting and preparation of the summary statement participants have to agree on its content. This really focuses discussions.

2.     The summary report has immediacy and for this reason is attractive to the media.

3.     The summary report can then be followed up with detailed reporting / scientific papers that are either under less time pressure or are focused at specific policy makers or policy meetings like Copenhagen or the UN or more national processes. I point out here that an important facet of science is that it is communicated rapidly and effectively. An MP at the meeting in Oxford pointed out (very forcefully) that the marine community had failed collectively in doing this.

For those of you who were involved in drafting the report, we would be keen to hear any perspective you’re willing to share on the process of the report and reactions to it so far.

I hope you have some idea of how the report process occurred from my comments above. The process was simple, bring together experts, review the information, synthesise the information and express this in the form of the report. The report has to be readable and understandable by any reasonably minded member of the public but also contain enough information for the interested to dig into the evidence behind the report.

For some participants this meeting was “one of the most rewarding few days of their careers”. For me it was very difficult in formulating all the opinions around the table in a single document and we lost one person who agreed with the report content but was not happy with the media release materials. I must say that to undertake to do something like this requires courage. You do stick your head above the parapet for everyone from the rabid climate sceptics to those with vested interest to take a shot at you. The very public approach is not favoured by many in our own community and I have no doubt that we have irritated some. To me, the stakes are so great that we cannot stand back and continue to watch the oceans completely side lined in debates about climate change and the use of the planets resources. It is time to stand up and be counted.

I would add one other comment. Emails and letters are now coming in from people around the world stating that their piece of the ocean is in trouble and they need help to do something about it locally. That to me says volumes. Perhaps this report has given these people a voice.

Best wishes, Alex


Manuel Barange
Director of Science, Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Chair ICES Science Committee
Plymouth, UK

Dear Emmett and John,

Thank you for setting this up, and good luck in the management of the responses!

I feel that I need to make a brief statement on the fact that I attended the workshop, but decided to pull out of the report at the eleventh hour. I withdrew after several intensive edits of the report (well, intensive at least on my part, as I saw very few comments from other participants), and particularly when the draft press release came to my attention (as I felt it took a very distinctive turn from the tone of the report). As a result of my withdrawal, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme also withdrew their logo from the report and Press Release.

While many of the threats and challenges mentioned in the report are real, they are often presented in overly simplistic ways. The report disregards scientific uncertainty (especially with respect to climate change impacts) and does not acknowledge the diversity of views on specific facts. When in doubt, the worse reading is the one highlighted. Assessments that could be considered positive, and human actions in the right direction, are disregarded (and there are large communities working very hard on the latter). The report also tiptoes around the elephant in the room: what are we suggesting that we do to feed 9 billion people? What are the alternatives and the stakes? What does sustainability mean to us – what are the compromises, alternatives and the non-negotiables? To me this is what would have given the report the edge that is needed to shift a debate that has got stuck.

With regards to Climate Change, I believe that the report missed the most important point: climate change is going to create winners and losers. And this will create significant conflict (e.g. Changes in the access to water and food). It is important to recognise this and to state that as global citizens we need global measures to ensure that those negatively impacted are compensated. It would be easy to combat climate change if all impacts were negative. They are not (at least not at all temporal scales) – Certainly countries in the northernmost north are looking with interest at the opening of markets, transport routes and new resources associated with a retreat of sea ice!

I mentioned that the Press release was particularly one-sided and had statements that I did not feel I agreed with, including the first paragraph:  “panel of experts warns …/…that the world’s ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of mass extinction of marine species, which would be unprecedented in human history”. I missed the last day of the workshop, but at no point were we asked to debate this statement and consider the evidence. I personally do not believe it is scientifically correct. There are other points in the PR and Report that I could not agree with (including 3 out of the 4 “conclusions” mentioned n the press release), and so while I respect the views of those that think otherwise, I pulled out.

Without getting onto too many details, the above summarises my position.

Thank you, Manuel


Terry Hughes
Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University
Townsville, Australia

Dear all,

I have to disagree with Roger’s characterization that the world’s coral reef ecosystems will “go”. Go where exactly? The answer is they’ll go to a new configuration of species.  Ecosystems don’t disappear, they change. With appropriate policies, governance and management, we can steer ecosystem changes in a tolerable direction. It’s not good science to overstate poorly understood trajectories of coral reefs (“they’ll all be dead in 20 years”), and it’s terrible politics because it turns people off and undermines our credibility. As scientists, we need to offer solutions.

Allow me to indulge in a self-quote:

“Scientists can help by undertaking solution-focused research, by participating more vigorously in policy debates to improve coral reef legislation and implementation, and by sending the clear message that reefs can still be saved if we try harder” (Hughes, Graham, Jackson, Mumby, and Steneck et al, 2010 in Trends in Ecology & Evolution).

Cheers, Terry


Charles Sheppard
School of Life Sciences
University of Warwick, UK
(Report co-author)

Dear all,

Responding to Terry Hughes:  I’m not sure most readers will see the difficulty Terry highlights about where coral reefs will ‘go’ (the quip ‘go where exactly’).  Terry remarks that ‘ecosystems don’t disappear, they change’.  In many areas where I work, reefs have indeed ‘gone’.  They are now mud or rubble fields (which I would call a ‘change’ also, but when chalk changes to cheese I’d say the chalk has ‘gone’ too).  Some have returned to what I see as a more 2-dimensional coral assemblage of low massives. Some have not, even after many years.

It is again a question of time and space scale, and semantics.  Where reefs have gone, there are reefs along the coast still of course (‘changed’ but still coral assemblages).  Perhaps the danger is to imagine there is only one kind of extinction – i.e. a museum/taxonomic extinction, when functional extinction, and commercial extinction in the case of economic species, can happen well before that.  To most of the world’s people, the last two are the important ones – not the absolute confirmed disappearance of the last individual.

One example:  What may have been the largest Arabian Gulf individual reef is/was Fasht Adhm.  Our survey in 1985 showed it to be thriving.  2 years ago is/was a sedimented, eroding area with less than 0.1% coral (almost no fishes either).  In another country I dived for 2 hrs on reefs and saw not one live coral, fish, echinoderm or mollusc (I’m not exaggerating).  The area was all sediment and rubble, and bioerosion was continuing fine.  So, have those reefs ‘gone’?  Yes they have.  My prediction is that given good management now, some corals would return (and there are expensive attempts to coax this using ‘coral ball’ structures), but they have gone for now (at best) and when bioerosion erodes them down to the height of the surrounding soft substrate, I wouldn’t bet on recovery happening either.

In general I agree with Terry’s quote about turning people off, and I’m sure it works in western cultures.  But there are cultures too when the reverse works.  If we can work harder to ‘save’ something, well lets get around to it one day!  If its too late or almost so, well: shame on us, loss of face, fire the incompetents, get people in who can help stop the slide… and so on.  It turns the important people ON in several cases I have faced.  Problem is, too many people haven’t sufficient understanding that their reefs are important, even the communities that depend on the reefs (they don’t eat reefs after all, they eat fishes!)  I have experienced something like this in Arabian, African and Caribbean cultures, so it isn’t that rare.  We have been trying the ‘lets try harder and it will all be ok’ approach for many years.

Personally, I’m afraid I groaned when I read your quote in the original TREE article when it came out, and thought that Id seen that advocated for 30-40 years now, so why are we still where we are?  (Because of shifting baselines, is one reason!)

Best wishes, Charles


Camilo Mora
Assistant Professor
Department of Geography,
University of Hawaii Manoa, USA

Hi Terry, Charles, and all others,

This is a very good discussion indeed and one that hopefully will provide some illumination about what should be our best position as scientists.

You have discussed two interrelated issues:

1. Will reefs change or will they disappear?

2. Shall we advocate a positive message or a negative one no matter how bad it is?

In my opinion both of these issues are the extremes in a continuum of options. I agree with Charles that many reefs are disappearing, and in fact, remember a presentation by Terry showing a photo from reefs in the GBR, right in front of Townsville, where 100 years ago there were very diverse reefs while a recent photo of the same place showed that all those reefs disappeared. But I also agree with Terry, that the current wave of human impacts most generally will make reefs change rather than disappear. The question is whether this change will be acceptable? Having just finished a global survey of reef fish communities we observed reefs with over 3 metric tons of biomass per hectare to reefs with only few grams. The former reefs are characterized by sharks, groupers, snappers and so on while the later have only a few species of labrids and pomacentrids. Some of this range is due to natural variability but a huge chunk is due to humans and we have the statistics to prove it. Clearly, reefs are changing — and going back to the question of whether this is acceptable or not, we have to consider the large number of people that rely on this system as a supply of food; with nearly 80% of countries with coral reefs expected to double their populations in the next 50-100 years one has to really worry whether the ongoing change in coral reefs is acceptable or not.

I have myself debated about the second issue of whether one should advocate a positive message or a negative one. I think things are bad but my dilemma about advocacy is that I know people get turned off with bad news but I also know that they use good news as an excuse to postpone the development of solutions — why use critical resources now when there is good news? In this new era of multidisciplinary studies, perhaps it will be a good idea to join with psychologists or even some marketing people to get some insights about how to best get to people’s heads. After all, people (general public and politicians) have to agree with our message and take matters into actions.

Cheers, Camilo


Mark D Spalding
Senior Marine Scientist, Global Marine Team
The Nature Conservancy &
Conservation Science Group, University of Cambridge, UK

Great idea to discuss this – I’d hope widely. I have quite a few thoughts here:

1 – What amazing press coverage! I’ve been party to similar press-orgies around gray reports in the past and find it surprising that journalists are so easily impressed by a “panel of experts”. Because I agree with a lot of the content my first response is “fantastic, the public needs to know this”. Even those not caught up in this particular event can use it as a hook to draw attention to their own work and reports, to their own concerns, or even as a fund-raiser!

2 – But what about the circumvention of due scientific process? Should I care if I know the facts are broadly true (haven’t seen it, don’t know the detail). Well imagine if a group of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) -deniers held a similar short expert meeting with just 30 participants, over half of whom were funders or policy people, and with the remaining scientists being a fairly narrowly focused group, mostly from the UK? Imagine a BBC headline “new evidence from expert panel of scientists shows global warming to be false”. I’d be livid.

3 – Is there anything new here? I don’t think so (but of course I haven’t seen it). Perhaps it’s just a review, and while we experts know it all already there is a fine argument to use the “occasion” of a workshop to persuade the press to tell the public. Still it is very frustrating to read:

“the multi-disciplinary approach of the IPSO workshop made clear for the first time was the multiple threats reefs are facing, that are now acting together to have a greater impact than if they were occurring on their own.”

When I read that this I fear that these experts didn’t do any reviewing at all! It is only 3 months since Reefs at Risk Revisited was produced, the culmination of 3 years work, with input from some 300 scientists worldwide, with a modelled approach (therefore queriable and challengeable). There were 3 earlier Reefs at Risk publications which themselves were inspired by dozens of decent scientific papers that all made it very clear that reefs were facing “multiple threats, acting together”.

As to the broader claims of novelty, well of course global “state of” reports come out all the time from IUCN, UNEP, GEO, WRI, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. And quite a few others that DO get peer reviewed –  Halpern et al, Blanchard et al etc. So I’m happy in principle with this joining that litany, and maybe we have to say its novel just to get coverage, but don’t lets fool ourselves?

4 – I’m impressed with Manuel Barrange for pulling out, these sorts of things can be very hard to do. I feel his concerns that we are twisting the science, over-emphasising the negative and not offering solutions (or not very practical ones that can be undertaken locally/nationally at least) are often all too real, and offering the sceptics a chance to hammer us. But again, having not seen the final report my comment here is general rather than specific.

5 – Not having the report is somewhat ridiculous in this debate, but for me there is considerable interest in the process. It seems to me that journalists are too thinly stretched (either that or lazy, gullible…), and that clever conservation communicators are able to exploit that. I’m worried about the risks of them then being unwilling to cover truly new ideas, studies or innovations (“we just did something on the oceans”), and I’m a little worried about the public getting compassion fatigue (see here if you don’t think this is already happening). I would like to forward some of this debate on to some of them and invite them to comment, unless anyone objects?

These are my views, not those of The Nature Conservancy!

Mark


Kristina M. Gjerde
High Seas Policy Advisor
IUCN Global Marine Programme
(Report co-author)

Dear all,

I thank the initiators of this discussion for bringing us all together. This is very impressive group of scientists and other experts whom I hope will become involved in this conversation and more importantly, some follow-up activities.

I participated in the ocean impacts workshop as a lawyer, not a scientist, so I won’t pretend to know more than any of you.  But I can say that the report was thoroughly vetted by the diverse scientific experts who attended the meeting.  I encourage those of you who have not read the report to see that it rigorously cites previous peer-reviewed work in support of its alarming conclusions.

With respect to the workshop recommendations, I can only say that if they fall short, it is in that they do not call for urgent or drastic enough action.   But the focus on global level cooperative actions is timely and appropriate.  Nations are now preparing for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June of 2012 (referred to as Rio+20 in honor of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992). Government delegates met last week at the United Nations to discuss the many ocean-related threats and potential responses as a basis for their commitments at Rio+20. Many, but not yet all, are eager for action. I attach the summary report of last week’s meeting for your reference.

Scientists may also participate in this Rio+20 preparatory process. If I can suggest a way forward that might constructively use the time and talent of the many eminent scientists on this email list, perhaps you could join together in a letter or report to governments, calling for a renewed commitment  to safeguarding the global ocean.  You could highlight the evidence for a changing ocean and indicate the potential consequences of not taking any action.

As evidence gathers of the changing state of ocean, it would seem timely to call for action and not just for more discussion and debate. If the conversation on this list has shown anything, it is our collective recognition that the global ocean is in serious trouble.  I humbly suggest you all can have a key role in the future of the ocean by working together to get governments to commit to forward-thinking action to address these vital issues before it is too late.

Respectfully yours, Kristina


Jelle Bijma
Professor, Biogeosciences
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research
Germany
(Report co-author)

Dear all,

Of course, we all accept the withdrawal of Manuel, but I still think that the outcome of the meeting and its report is scientifically sound. Also, I agree that it would have been nice to talk about, e.g. geo (or climate)-engineering solutions etc. but this was not the focus of the meeting. We wanted to assess that “state of the ocean”. All of us have reviewed the current knowledge in our fields, based on scientific literature and discussed this. In my case, it meant reviewing the current status in the field of ocean acidification (OA) from two angles:

Biology: 1) we know from laboratory experiments with single species that there are “losers” and “winners” (I don’t particularly like this terminology, but it makes a point). 2) we don’t know the impact on the ecosystem level nor how the system could acclimate or even adapt, but: 3) consensus in the OA community is that “calcifiers” will lose. Calcifiers play an important role as “ballast” for the effective operation of the biological pump (which stores a lot of carbon in the deep ocean). Without an efficient biological pump, the atmospheric pCO2 would increase significantly and amplify the impact of global warming and climate change. In the case of tropical coral reefs, both OA and global warming (causing “coral bleaching”) act in concert — and “winners” such as some (filamentous) algae may kill the reef ecosystem before OA and bleaching do — we simply don’t know. But using straightforward reasoning (no rocket science) brings me to this possible scenario and there are examples! Recent findings at cool (!) shallow volcanic CO2 seeps in Papua New Guinea (a natural laboratory) show that the reef communities that were physiologically acclimatized and ecologically adapted to elevated CO2, still do “well” (i.e. the coral cover can remain high at pH 8.0 – 7.8) but with declining pH, reef communities undergo fundamental changes. For example, species richness, the cover of corals contributing to structural complexity, and coral recruitment progressively decline with declining pH. Reef development ceases at pH 7.7, suggesting that a pH below 7.8 is a catastrophic and terminal threshold for any form of coral reef development, even without global warming!!! Other calcifying planktonic organisms play an important role at the base of, specifically high latitude, foodwebs (pteropods!).

We don’t know the outcome of the combined OA and global warming impact but it is safe to assume that the foodweb structure due to i.e. changes in competition will be affected. In addition, it has been shown that the windows of optimal performance of non-calcifiers become narrower and that this effect will ripple up the ecosystem with unknown outcome. What counts for society is the impact on the services of the ocean — the impact of OA on this is not sure but there are enough indications to take it at least serious and the precautionary principle demands us to act.

Geology: 1) From Earth history, to our best of our knowledge, all major extinctions show fingerprints of a carbon perturbation (symptoms: global warming, climate change, OA and deep sea dysoxia). 2) Again to our best of our knowledge, the rate of carbon release today exceeds the one during those extinctions by at least a factor of 10! 3) Even if we would be in the middle of such an extinction event, we wouldn’t even notice: Many people think of extinction events as happening overnight because in their mind the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs happened in a blink of the eye! In reality, such a global extinction event is defined as “at least 75% percent of all species going extinct over a period of 2 million years”!!! So, in two million years we know whether we are at the start of the 6th or not! Humans evolved 5-7 Million years ago — they didn’t interfere with the 5 major extinction, nor with the 23 or so significant other extinctions (i.e. not global, not exceeding 75% of the species). Hence, (chemical) pollution, overfishing, etc. add to the carbon emissions — doesn’t it make sense under these circumstances that we as scientists should warn for  “a significant loss of species over a very short period (less than 500 years and possibly less than 200)?. Looking at the “Red List Index”, this is even a modest warning, and we even add to the report that we could still “save the oceans” by reducing the impact of all stressors. Last but not least, chemical restoration of the ocean after the PETM ocean acidification event, took 100kyrs (i.e. 4000 generations!).

Isn’t it our duty to voice these facts? At the end it is the same to the Earth but the growing world population will probably face a socio-economic crisis if we continue our business as usual.

All the best, Jelle


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Hi All,

I think that now we have some further comments coming in I will respond to some of the previous emails.

To Manuel’s comments, I agree more could have been made of the winners and losers argument, particularly on issues related to fisheries, sea level rise and coral reefs. The scope for conflict has been proven by the Somalia piracy issue and its link to fisheries. Clearly the developing world are going to lose big time. However, I disagree with tiptoeing around population. The report states:

“The continued expansion in global population exerts ever increasing pressures on scarcer ocean resources and tackling this issue needs to be a part of the solution to current concerns.”

Given this report is about the state of the ocean I think the balance of reporting here was about right. It is not possible to go into further detail on this in a brief report and the issue is clearly stated.

In Manuel’s own words, he was content with the report but disagreed on the press release. He is entitled to change his mind of course. However, I completely reject the implication in his email that somehow the process of the meeting was incorrect / biased. The reason he was not aware of other comments coming in was because his views were so divergent from those of anyone else on some issues that to prevent a breakdown of the editing of the document into a tit-for-tat exchange between people with differing views I took everyone’s comments and administered the changes that in my (and Dan’s) view improved the accuracy and readability of the report. Given the number of people we were consulting, this was also a limitation on a review not only of the report but of each other’s edits. This allowed me to take on board the constructive comments of everybody, including Manuel, and the document was much improved as a result. With regards to the extinction statement in the report, this indeed was discussed on day three and again I do not believe that the comments on this are warranted or justified in a discussion that is supposed to be about science, communication and policy (see Jelle’s email).

With regards to Terry’s comment – sorry mate, but your statement is baffling to me as it would be baffling to any right-minded member of the public. Destruction of an ecosystem is “change” and will mean a “change” in species present. That is obvious. There is a lot of work out there that demonstrates that following the destructive impacts of bleaching, or other drivers, reefs are destroyed and the complexity and diversity associated with them, as a result, decreases. They cease to exist as coral reefs and become something else. Charles has certainly witnessed this as have many other reef ecologists such as Camilo, by the sounds of his email. Unfortunately, we have been so lax in researching the true level of diversity associated with reefs (something CReefs aimed to change) that we have no idea how extensive this loss will be for many parts of the world. The evidence clearly indicates these ecosystems are in peril from a number of stressors.

Camilo’s email was interesting and there are points here worthy of discussion. One of the things that came through very clearly from the meeting, especially from the MP [Member of Parliament] present, was that our message is not getting through. The situation is very serious and yes – I do believe people need to understand how serious and urgent the situation is, even if that is frightening. By the same token, both in the report and in the many interviews I have given we offer solutions. We emphasise that it is not to late but that something must be done now. I acknowledge there is a lot of good work going on but it is simply not enough. This report has raised the issue globally, to the public and policy makers.

Mark’s email had some interesting comments. To these I say – unfortunately IPSO’s budget was not sufficiently large to invite all of you. We also invited many more people to this meeting but because we are busy people many could not come. Of those that did come we had representation from the US, Germany, Canada, Poland, Switzerland (IUCN), Australia and, indeed the UK. This was by no means a UK group or one of narrow interests. To somehow disregard the expertise represented by IGOs, NGOs (which includes IPSO) and policy makers present is ridiculous, given the work that these people have undertaken and funded (including TNC), much of which has ended up being published in the peer-reviewed literature. Many of them have a very broad view of human impacts on the oceans, including an excellent view of policy and governance issue, better in fact than us scientists at the coal face of research. This is hardly comparable to a meeting of climate sceptics – whose peer-reviewed work would they be citing in a report? Also, this was not a meeting just about coral reefs and I believe because of its breadth, its independence and the international nature of the meeting it was unique to date.

Finally, I would say that on the whole the reporting of the report has been excellent. There have been gaffs and mistakes in the media, there always are, but on the whole many of these correspondents are professionals who know about communication. I think the reporting has reflected the genuine concern we have and which was conveyed / communicated in the report. For myself, some of the interviews I have participated in have included some of the most detailed and in depth (pardon the pun) questions I have experience working in science / policy for over ten years.

Anyway – moving beyond this something I will throw out there is that if we think this was a useful process that moved us forward then perhaps IPSO can organise another meeting next year if we can get the funding and if you can lend us your time.

Best Wishes, Alex


Jesse Ausubel
Director, Program for the Human Environment
The Rockefeller University, USA

Dear Alex and Co.,

Those of you interested in sound as a stressor may find exciting the proposed International Quiet Ocean Experiment (IQOE) as tentatively described in the new issue of Oceanography magazine.

The article resulted from a 2010 exploratory meeting, whose participants concluded that SCOR and the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) should continue development of the IQOE idea.  This will happen through an Open Science meeting to be held at UNESCO in Paris at the end of August (see link here)

Yours truly, Jesse


Terry Hughes
Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University
Townsville, Australia

“There is a lot of work out there that demonstrates that following the destructive impacts of bleaching, or other drivers, reefs are destroyed ………They cease to exist as coral reefs and become something else.”

The response of the world’s coral reefs to climate change is a lot more nuanced than Roger’s statement above. Certainly some reefs have been virtually destroyed – as Charles and Camilo point out. Most of this damage pre-dates the recent impacts of global warming. Camilo’s example is from my own work on muddy reefs damaged by runoff a century ago on the Queensland coast, and Charles’s is also from marginal reefs that are the hottest on the planet.

But a much larger area of reefs globally has not been destroyed out of existence by bleaching or other impacts. For example, reefs across Polynesia have experienced 4-6 bleaching events since the mid-1980s and they have retained about 40% coral cover. Tim McClanahan’s work in the Indian Ocean shows a substantial recovery following the 1998 bleaching event. Some of these reefs lost 80-90% of their corals from the largest bleaching event yet recorded. But their subsequent recovery shows that they were not “destroyed”.

There is some evidence that repeated bleaching is less severe the second time round, and there are interesting changes underway in the composition of zooxanthellae strains with different thermal tolerances. Bleaching is patchy and incredible selective, and so too are regenerative rates of corals. This two-side filter is changing species composition at regional scales. In French Polynesia for example, acroprids are much less abundant now than 30 years ago, pocilloporids and favids have increased, and Porites is about the same. The ecosystem has changed, but it’s still a reef system that supports tourism and fishing.

If it’s all doomed to be dead soon, the logical response is give up. The misguided “canary in the goldmine” metaphor for coral reefs is an invitation to abandon them in favour of saving a less vulnerable alternative. If however, we as scientists present options for the future rather than giving up, the public and politicians can be convinced about adopting appropriate actions. The message that reefs are in trouble has been well established – now we need to focus on what to do about it.

Cheers, Terry


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Professor and Director, Global Change Institute,
University of Queensland, Australia

 

Dear Terry,

Some nuances upon your nuances. A couple of slightly different perspectives:

a.  Coral cover as the only proxy for reef recovery? I think we have to be careful with equating coral cover as proof that reefs have completely recovered. Fast-growing species such as Stylophora have grown across damaged coral reefs in French Polynesia but it is questionable about whether the original community composition has returned, however. I think we need to be careful when we talk about reef recovery.  We also need to be careful about only using examples where reef recovery has occurred, when ignoring the other examples that are quite abundant throughout the world of reefs that have not recovered.  But your point is a good one, that we need to look very carefully at this issue of recovery following these climate impacts.

b. Repeated bleaching makes tougher reefs? The evidence that repeated bleaching results in a less severe result the second time round is equivocal at best. One of the problems is that people have concentrated solely on temperature and not on other contributing factors such as light level.  Without the full set of information on the intensity of a stress event, the conclusion that a second event of the same magnitude has had less impact is hard to prove.  One of the other issues here is that many reefs impacted by thermal stress end up with a community composition biased towards the reduced number of tougher species which is more resistant to mass coral bleaching.  This type of progressive change towards lower diversity communities has to be distinguished from some sort of true physiological acclimation or genetic adaptation that would indicate a change towards reefs that will survive permanent increases in water temperature of 2-3 degrees Celsius.  For me, the latter has not been adequately supported by studies in the literature – in fact, most of the evidence from thermal exposure experiments indicate that a permanent increase of this much will mean that even the tough species will not survive future excursions of sea temperature beyond +2°C above preindustrial.

c.  Different zooxanthellae to the rescue? As for the issue of different zooxanthellae having different thermal tolerances.  The work here indicates that there might be the ability for physiological acclimation in species that host 2 or more genetic varieties. This is a case of pre-existing symbiotic associations within a particular coral up regulating or down regulating according to the external conditions. But like all physiological acclimation, this is limited in terms of adapting to truly novel conditions such as those projected for the mid to late part of this century.  There is no evidence that corals can throw out one variety of zooxanthellae and form a completely new symbiotic association in ecological time.  In fact, all of the evidence suggests that this very complex endosymbiosis takes a long time to evolve (thousands of years at the very least). So the prospect that corals could somehow change their thermal tolerance by switching their zooxanthellae to more heat tolerant varieties is both unsupported and both unlikely given the intracellular nature of the symbiosis. The other problem that exists with the idea that swapping zooxanthellae is only one part of the problem for corals.  There is the abundant evidence that coral hosts also experience thermal stress, and that changing zooxanthellae would only go so far when it comes to adapting to the novel sea temperatures of the future. That is, adapting your zooxanthellae will not make you better able to cope with warmer sea temperatures.

d. Telling it as it is versus telling rosy stories? I agree that there is a risk that painting a picture of reefs being doomed on our current emission pathway has the potential to turn people away.  However, this is a major conundrum in my opinion which will not be solved by simply telling rosy stories or stories that only get half the picture.  In our present situation, I believe that not relating the true prognosis for coral reefs will lead to a lack of action on a global scale on the core issue, emissions. I think what we need to do is to manage that message and actively communicate that we really are at a fork in the road.  If we deal with the emission problem in the way that it needs to be dealt with, then coral reefs will survive and we will have to spend substantial energy in reducing the other stresses around them in order for them to get through what will be otherwise a very tough century.   This has to be matched with the message associated with the alternative pathway which that failing to take action on the emissions issue will mean that coral reefs are doomed irrespective of whether or not we take care of those other local stresses. I don’t think we have much choice in that regard.

Regards, Ove


Mark D Spalding
Senior Marine Scientist, Global Marine Team
The Nature Conservancy &
Conservation Science Group, University of Cambridge, UK

Perhaps what I am questioning is the boundary between science and communication more generally – and Ove and Terry have underlined this beautifully – the “nuances on nuances” are science. What I’ve seen (not the report) was communications. The fact that issues aren’t getting through, and that you have “got through” points clearly to the need for more communication like this, not less.

Then there are the recommendations. Again I don’t see much new here, but they still haven’t been adopted and so again need to be stressed again and again.

But do we need some clear ground between the hard, plodding, nerdy language of science ALWAYS to be couched in the language of uncertainty, and the simply dramatic summary language of outwards communications? Al Gore did wonders in raising the climate change issues up the agenda, without being a scientist. He made some science errors, but could get away with it as we all knew he wasn’t a scientist, while his overall message was accurate, and it got to some critical new audiences.

What about us? Can we do science and communications with the same document? Maybe we can, using the punchy communiqués of press releases and exec summaries to twist a more dramatic message out of a more balanced report still heavy with caveats and uncertainty.

The problem is that if “summaries” lose a neutral balance (e.g. emphasise the negative) then they leave the authors open to challenges of bias. At that point scientific objectivity is lost. Again I must emphasize that I’m interested in the generality here, not your specific case – again and again, even with top peer reviewed publications, the press releases seem to tell a different story from the paper. And those who don’t play this game don’t get any press coverage!

I copied yesterday’s messages to a BBC journalist who doesn’t want to get drawn in, but offered the following:

My comments (which you are welcome to circulate, though I won’t get tied up in an extended discussion) would be these:

- decisions on news coverage have a largely random component, depending as much on what side of bed the editor got out as on the intrinsic importance of a story

- often things that people such as x and I think are important get no coverage, because editors do not buy into them, while things we think are relatively trivial get promoted

- issues such as exclusivity do affect editors’ judgements

- the wider conservation community should therefore be happy if and when the overall state of play makes its way onto mainstream outlets, whatever the provenance of that particular report, so long as there is nothing factually wrong in the reporting – because on the next 10 occasions, the story is likely to end up buried beneath a spat over healthcare policy, an aeroplane crash and Ryan Giggs’ latest dalliance.

So maybe you were just lucky! But I still think this debate is needed. How to communicate science? And who should do it? The oceans are in a parlous state and overall the public don’t know enough or care enough. We have to change that.

All best, Mark

(and for the record I still don’t understand how you can claim to be the first expert group to identify the combinatory impacts of multiple stressors on reefs? Terry’s 1994 classic Science paper is basic year-1 undergraduate fodder. Hundreds of references follow from that).


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Professor and Director, Global Change Institute,
University of Queensland, Australia

Some good points, Mark. I guess my perspective on promoting science is to try and link it as much to issues that people are concerned about.  And more than often, we don’t know what those are or how to link them.  Often linkages that we think are straightforward and have been in the scientific literature for what seems like millions of years are unknown outside our immediate communities (which are the majority).  Announcing the obvious here but I am forever struck by the fact that I meet people who don’t understand how threatened coral reefs are when it comes to local and global factors – especially after having banged on about it for decades (since the early 90s). Sometimes, I wonder if this is due to the fact that we are preoccupied with presenting the precise history of science while failing to help people wake up to these critical issues that often fly (unjustifiably in our minds) under the radar.  This may mean representing the best peer-reviewed science in forums such as IPSO.  With your caveats, I don’t see why this is a bad idea, especially given we are not making much progress in so many other venues.

However depressing, I think your comments from the BBC journalist are very informative.  Thanks again.

Regards, Ove


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Hi All,

I cannot add anything to Ove’s comments to Terry’s email – I was about to reply along similar lines but Ove hit the nails on the heads. I would say this with regards to messages and action. The audience to this report, everyone from the public to policy makers are not stupid. They are sophisticated in their use of media and, especially the younger people, increasingly aware of the issues we discuss. I think it unlikely that they will respond in a “what’s the point of doing anything” way and we have to be very careful that we are not delivering a message watered down to a level that we think will be accepted because it’s mostly harmless and simple to fix. That is not in the nature of the challenge we face on Earth now and we are at a critical point in time, the fork in the road as Ove puts it. We also need to think in terms of “what if”. What if we cannot alter the current trajectories of emissions and resource depletion? What scientific challenges does that future Earth hold for us and how will we meet them. What is “plan B”? That is not a debate we can have if we ignore the big issues and it is not an issue the policy makers will tackle unless we communicate the gravity of the situation to them and to the public who vote for them.

Mark, I agree with much of that and the words of the reporter are only too true. Barry Gardiner eloquently pointed some of this out to a very disturbed audience at the meeting.

Cheers – Alex

PS – the report was not just about reefs but the oceans in a general sense.


Chris Yesson
Institute of Zoology
Zoological Society of London
(Report co-author)

Hi all,

Picking up on the issue of how to present the message to the public.

One of the criticisms of the workshop has been why so many non-scientists were present.  I felt one of the most useful aspects of the workshop was how it brought together a group of scientists discussing science alongside a number of non-scientists (a journalist, MP, lawyer, etc).  We debated the message at length and I think having the variety of input from people outside science really helped boil it down.  Now it may have been just luck that got the press coverage, but I’d be willing to bet that if it was just a meeting of the docs and profs then we wouldn’t be having this debate.

Following the point about prioritisation, I thought this anecdote from the workshop was pertinent.

Barry Gardiner was trying to get across just how low on the average MP’s priority list the issue of climate change really is, by suggesting that a local constituent’s complaints about parking tickets always get priority.  I think many of us felt pretty frustrated by this.  The following break out session had a group of us discussing some issue of oceanography or chemistry (I forget the details), now we had a limited time for discussion of each topic and we really needed to clear something up but the particular expert who could do this for us couldn’t be found.  It turns out that he skipped out of the session because he was about to get a parking ticket.

Regards, Chris


John F. Bruno
Associate Professor
Department of Biology
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

Thanks so much everyone for the really fascinating comments and perspectives on this!  So many of Mark Spalding’s points resonate with me too.

Like Ove, it continually blows my mind how unaware “the public” is about things like coral bleaching and reef loss, when to us, it seems like there is tons of media coverage on the topic. This leads me to think any media coverage, however imperfect, on the plight of the oceans is good.

Yet on the other hand, opposition to conservation via policy and regulation has evolved substantially in the last few years.  Ove and I and some of you have been fighting this growing cabal in the trenches of the blogosphere and MSM at places like ClimateShifts.org, SkepticalScience.com, HuffPost, the Yale Forum, etc.  This environmental opposition is largely united by an extreme free market ideology (see merchantsofdoubt.org) and goes directly after perceived flaws – some real – in the science of climate change, species extinctions, reef decline, etc.  They read and pick apart the details of reports, eg, see this example of a “skeptic” analysis of the IPSO.

Our primary papers, our synthetic articles and NGO / working group reports like RAR and IPSO are being carefully scrutinized (as they should be) by smart people with a big audience.

Some of you might scoff at a blog-based critique, but far more people will read that than will read the original paper or report!   eg,

http://rrresearch.blogspot.com/2010/12/arsenic-associated-bacteria-nasas.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/12/10/arsenic-bacteria-a-post-mortem-a-review-and-some-navel-gazing/

One bad piece of science or exaggerated projections and the coverage that follows, can easily nullify a lot of good science and effective communication about realistic threats.

There are countless recent examples were minor mistakes in the science of doom and gloom get all the attention, causing a backlash that overwhelms the original message. This clearly affects the credibility of scientists, NGOs and environmental reporters and some of the latter that I talk with have become wary of the science (I’ll bcc a few of them in case they want to chime in). And as we all know, flaws and exaggeration in the science of doom and gloom is fueling a backlash even in the scientific community, as evidenced by our recent forum on fisheries and even a backlash to the backlash, eg here.

My broad point is that I do think more communication about the oceans is good, but it really has to be based on sound, bulletproof science.  I’m not arguing that the IPSO doesn’t meet this criterion—as Mark reminds us, we haven’t seen it.  I only hope it uses solid references from the peer reviewed literature to back up its findings (both major and minor, as these endeavors often get tripped up by poorly referenced minor points).

Finally, I wanted to echo Terry Hughes’ message about not only propagating bad news. Our goal at SeaMonster is to communicate some of the wonder and awesomeness of the oceans, even in their current highly degraded state, while explaining the science about biodiversity loss, threats to ocean ecosystems, etc.  I think people have to hear the unvarnished truth as Ove says and also that there is still something out there very much worth saving.

Ciao, John


Steve Palumbi
Director, Hopkins Marine Station
Professor of Biological Sciences
Stanford University, USA

All – I’ve been watching the conversation with great interest because it is characteristic of the great climate debate everywhere – is there a conflict between the bad news about the environment and the need to find solutions? Does focusing on one damage the other?

And the answer is, of course not. But some of the back and forth in this forum of forums makes it seem that way. The easy analogy is that every cancer patient ends a physician visit wanting to know what they can do about their condition. A doctor who could only tell them they were sick would not be acceptable. A doctor who did not tell them how serious the problem was would not be fair to them.

For marine ecosystems like coral reefs, all signs point to big trouble ahead – bleaching severity, storms, pH decreases in growth rate, overgrowth by algae, sea level rise, run off, etc. Listing the problems is an important part of the diagnosis. And it should not be a surprise that most people don’t know this already (do you know how the ice machine in your freezer works until it breaks?). But it is a critical part of our job to take the next step and lay out what can be done – even if what can be done only delays the damage. Can a local Fijian village change the trajectory of CO2 emissions? No, but they can change where they put their pig farm and how that damages their reef. And they can set aside an area as a fish preserve to up the number of herbivores. And they can work with their neighboring villages to create coral gardens all along their coastline that might last a bit longer into the 21st century than they would otherwise.

HIV has never been cured. Our current strategy of triple drug therapy delays the disease and thwarts its evolutionary potential. But that delay has extended the lives of millions of people and given us some breathing room. What we need is a triple drug therapy for the oceans – and an eventual cure for CO2 addiction.

Steve


John F. Bruno
Associate Professor
Department of Biology
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

Thanks Steve.  I really like your comment and medical analogy.  However, I just re-read the email chain and I couldn’t find where someone suggested there is a conflict between communicating bad news and finding (and communicating) solutions.  Obviously, we can do both at once.  But maybe you perceived something in the discussion that I didn’t catch.

I also think your ice machine analogy misses the mark: I would notice if it wasn’t working (no mojitos!) even if I didn’t know how it operates. Nobody is arguing the public needs to know how a complex marine ecosystem works (we barely know).  A few of us in this exchange have simply expressed surprise that they don’t seem to know the oceans are broken, despite all of our collective raving about it for decades.

JB


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Hi Steve,

Many thanks for your comments. I agree that we need a quick follow up on solutions. We will be looking towards doing this with IPSO and I will talk to the meeting organisers tomorrow about how best to do this.

Best Wishes, Alex


Camilo Mora
Assistant Professor
Department of Geography,
University of Hawaii Manoa, USA

It seems that we all agree that the solution to environmental issues needs to involve the understanding of the general public about the problem and their willingness to act. I consider that there are two fundamental parts to this aim. Firsts is the type of message we have deliver and second where is delivered.

We have discussed the former part already but not the later. We are surprised of the ignorance of the general public about environmental problems. But in reality it’s what we expect. We consider as major successes when our articles get featured online in CNN or BBC. I get most of my news from web-pages but on TV from CNN (and in my early days as a politically ignorant Colombian just arrived in the US, I also watched Fox News; please do not hold that against me). On all those years, I never saw a news story about an environmental issue. So on the big scheme of things, our message is not reaching enough people and sadly the great majority that prefer to be informed by TV only.

For some of the biggest problems faced by humanity like lung cancer caused by smoking and HIV, I can perfectly recall TV commercials about them. Perhaps our ability as a species to significantly prevent those problems lay in those media campaigns and where they were delivered? The key here is how to gain access to that media outlet and in prime time? Perhaps I am asking to much?

Another thing, I am certain there have to be experts (e.g. marketers, media communicators, publicists, etc) that study how to persuade people, just as much as we study biodiversity. Among the several editors in this group, perhaps it will be good to invite some of these experts, perhaps teaming up with a panel of marine ecologists, to write a short review outlining the science behind communicating messages to people? It seems that this piece of info will be very useful.

Best, Camilo


Mark D Spalding
Senior Marine Scientist, Global Marine Team
The Nature Conservancy &
Conservation Science Group, University of Cambridge, UK

If you have 3 minutes watch this video: Love not Loss.

It seems to be saying the opposite of what we are talking about (the IPSO press releases seem to be exaggerating the gloominess by ignoring caveats or positive stories), but maybe there’s something in it.

A solutions follow-on would be good. You can see a quick and rough list we compiled in the following paper here.

With the full paper here:

Jacquet, J., Boyd, I., Carlton, J. T., Fox, H. E., Johnson, A. E., Mee, L., Roman, J., Spalding, M., and Sutherland, W., 2011, Scanning the Oceans for Solutions: Solutions, v. 2, no. 1, p. 46-55.

But of course examples are going to be much more powerful and Nancy Knowlton has been a great leader of “beyond the obituaries” thinking (and I know is on this list of weary copyees!)

Mark


Emmett Duffy
Glucksman Professor of Marine Science
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
The College of William and Mary, USA

Dear colleagues,

Thank you all for your insights and contributions to this important discussion. The exchange has been fantastic—far exceeding my expectations!

Despite the range in opinions and perspectives among participants so far, the one clear unifying message I hear is the urgency all of us feel about getting the message out about the troubled state of the oceans, its importance to global society, and the critical need to act now. Alex and other contributors to the IPSO report should be commended for taking the initiative to craft and deliver that message, as should those before them—including many on this list, some of whom we’ve heard from and other not—who’ve also lifted their heads above the parapet (to use Alex’s phrase) and exposed themselves to critics.

It can sometimes seem incredible that the general public appears clueless about the ocean when so many people have worked so hard to get the message out. But as several have noted the challenge we face is much more one of psychology and marketing than of simply communicating the “facts” that we know. This is not at all to gloss over the scientific uncertainties, which are real, nor to justify overgeneralizations and cherry picking, which end up being counterproductive. But these don’t negate the point that we do know with considerable certainty that the ocean is sick – and focusing on the uncertain details at the frontier, which is our job as scientists, can end up being a distraction in situations (like the IPSO report) where the primary goal is educating the public and policy makers and inspiring them into action.

The modern world of 24/7 information overload creates a formidable distraction level in trying to communicate (like the whales struggling to make their way through the underwater noise field), and the signal has to be that much more compelling and innovative to get through and reach the target. It also has to evolve constantly to maintain currency in a world of short attention span. This is a central theme of many of the contributions to this forum. Beyond that, to inspire action, the message has to walk the fine ridge between being factually accurate on one hand, and reaching people on the emotional level were they actually live on a daily basis, since that’s where motivation to action comes from. Andrew Hoffmann has recently written cogently about this in the context of climate change  (see here).

The best conclusion to this forum for me would be the beginning, or expansion, of a broad-based, continuing collaboration among scientists, policy makers, conservation practitioners, legal scholars, journalists, and importantly (as Camilo noted) advertising or marketing people (a few fabulously wealthy benefactors wouldn’t hurt either) toward a common goal of (1) crafting the most compelling possible explanation of the plight of the ocean and why it is important to small-town families in Iowa or Mongolia or wherever; and (2) applying the same ingenuity to developing a long-term strategy for keeping up a constant drumbeat on this that can counteract compassion fatigue, panic-induced paralysis, boredom, short attention spans, and competition with Lady Gaga’s twitter feed (or maybe she could be recruited to the effort–or maybe Beyonce??).

How can we translate the talk into meaningful action? It’s very heartening to see the conversation turning to suggestions for concrete action, and as we move toward closure of the forum I’d like to highlight the following:

Kristina Gjerde: “Scientists may also participate in this Rio+20 preparatory process. If I can suggest a way forward that might constructively use the time and talent of the many eminent scientists on this email list, perhaps you could join together in a letter or report to governments, calling for a renewed commitment  to safeguarding the global ocean.  You could highlight the  evidence for a changing ocean and indicate the potential consequences of not taking any action.”

Alex Rogers: “moving beyond this something I will throw out there is that if we think this was a useful process that moved us forward then perhaps IPSO can organise another meeting next year if we can get the funding and if you can lend us your time . . . agree that we need a quick follow up on solutions. We will be looking towards doing this with IPSO and I will talk to the meeting organisers tomorrow about how best to do this.”

Mark Spalding: “A solutions follow-on would be good.”

Do we hear others?

Emmett


Kelly Rigg
Executive Director
Global Campaign for Climate Action
(Report co-author)

Hi everyone — thanks for including me in this interesting discussion. I attended the Oxford workshop in my capacity as a climate campaigner and communicator, but also as a long-term oceans advocate (I coordinated the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition for several years, amongst other things).

As others have pointed out, the conversation about how to get the public to wake up is happening in parallel in the climate community. In fact, that it’s happening in parallel is the main reason I came to Oxford — I think it’s a problem that oceans and climate issues are largely addressed in separate silos, when they are clearly inseparable. We need the oceans community (both scientific and advocacy) to weigh in more vocally on the need for reducing CO2 and rapidly developing renewable energy, and we need the climate community to use the reality of what’s happening in the oceans to advocate not only for action on CO2 but also for increasing the resilience of ocean ecosystems.

As for communicating these issues to the public, there’s quite a lot of good research about how to communicate with different segments of the population, in terms of their values, beliefs, political persuasion, and nationality etc. With regard to whether people are motivated more by positive or negative messages, the general rule of thumb is that you need to make people care by explaining the reality of what’s happening and what’s at stake, but you need to give them a reason to take action — a reasonable solution that they can take as individuals that will make a difference. Otherwise they will just go stick their heads in the sand.

My organization, the GCCA (an alliance of about 290 organizations), is developing a rapid response initiative which aims at distributing messages (backed by science and other high-quality documentation) through influencer networks. It would be great to have ocean experts involved. If you’re interested in hearing more, let me know.

Best wishes, Kelly


Steve Palumbi
Director, Hopkins Marine Station
Professor of Biological Sciences
Stanford University, USA

Alex – Good luck with the organizers. One format we have used to reach people on Pacific Islands about sustainability issues is our Short Attention Span Science Theatre – which uses 3-4 minute science documentaries streaming on the web to address issues one by one. It’s at http://microdocs.org

Want to know what sustainability is? Or how a coral grows? Or what manta rays in Pohnpei are doing? These different short videos let people take a quick knowledge snack and go on about their lives. The format is easily adopted to any set of topics and the film company I use is fabulous to work with in the field.

Cheers, Steve


Bob Steneck
Professor of Marine Sciences
University of Maine, USA

Steve and others,

Clearly the discussion has moved beyond discussing whether we have a problem (of course we do) to how do we cultivate the political will to deal with it.  Nothing will happen unless lots of people are willing to change what they are currently doing.  Such transformations only occur if people want to change or people have to change.

I like your short attention span pieces and use a few in classes I teach.  However, our biggest problem is getting a real impact to more than the choir.  Three decades ago, there were shared mass-media experiences via Jacques Cousteau or National Geographic specials. Today, the diffuse information/entertainment sources make those shared experiences practically impossible.  The problem isn’t getting something on video, it’s getting it to go viral.

I think “An Inconvenient Truth” had the highest information value and greatest impact of any production I’ve seen in recent decades.  But how much of that “stuck”?  The trend lines for educating the public on science, environmental issues or evolution are not in a good direction.

The best we can do is to keep up the good fight.  Get the word out.  Your entertaining videos and those made by Randy Olsen and Alex and his organizers at least diversify the channels over which information flows.  But as scientists we must all be concerned about how low our signal to noise ratio is on these important matters.

Bob


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Hi Bob and Steve,

I like the idea of the short videos and will have a look. One think we should all consider are ways to actually get people involved via new forms of media. We will be pursuing this and will hopefully have something to say on it shortly. There may be other ways to make the threats and the solutions things that are local and which actually empower people to do something about the situation.

Best Wishes, Alex


Don Boesch
Professor of Marine Science and President
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
USA

Emmett and John have initiated a constructive discussion and I have enjoyed reading the various responses and debates.  I am not going to criticize the principal conclusions or the recommendations—I agree with most of them, although I might have stated them differently—or take sides in the debates, but rather I will address the questions originally posed about the role of working group reports such as this, experience with similar reports, and effective strategies for influencing policy and opinion.  My perspective is as a contributor or reviewer of many synthetic reports intended to inform policymaking, most recently as a member of a Presidential commission on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (www.oilspillcommission.gov) and the committee that produced a series of U.S. National Research Council reports under the rubric America’s Climate Choices (www.americasclimatechoices.org).  Outside of the U.S., I have participated in working groups to assess environmental problems of the Baltic Sea, for example.  Many of these reports were subject of intense scrutiny and demanded great care in analysis, expression and documentation.

From these perspectives, I found the brief report suffering problems of legitimacy and rigor, despite how much I might agree with its observations and recommendations.  First, the title clearly implies the report was produced by international Earth system experts, yet of the 27 participants only 15 have scientific credentials (an advanced degree relevant to the conclusions drawn), all but one of these scientists are biologists and two-thirds reside in the U.K. (2 scientists are from Canada, 1 from Germany, 1 from Australia and one from Chile, now residing in Switzerland).  Lacking are experts on the geophysical aspects of the Earth system that are essential for understanding and projecting climate change and the impacts described.  Although the distribution of participants meets the minimum definition of “international,” one would expect more diversity given the lofty descriptor.  By the same token, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean is apparently not a science program with international participants, as some might expect from its title, but an effort with the aim of “saving the Earth and all life on it” involving two people in the U.K.—at least there are only individuals mentioned on its website.

The heavy participation by environmental activists—don’t get me wrong, I respect the work these folks do and am grateful they are doing it—opens the report to the kind of criticism of agenda-driven bias that the Climate Resistance blogger leveled.   Indeed, if we are honest—now don’t shoot the messenger—the blogger is probably correct that the participants were indeed a preselected group who shared beliefs and assembled, not to assess the evidence critically, but assemble it in a way to make their case for a call to action (“the scientific outcomes . . . will be used first and foremost to strengthen the case for greater action”).  Now this is a fine and noble thing to do, but it does reduce the authority founded on inclusive, objective appraisal by scientists. As a result, although the IPSO workshop report enjoyed a press splash and thus may have affected public opinion on scope and urgency of ocean stresses, I suspect it will have limited staying power and long-term impact on policymaking.

This poses a dilemma for those scientists who, while dedicated to the objectivity of science and reticent to go beyond the facts, are seriously, even morally, concerned about the need for substantial and prompt action to avoid catastrophe.  I count myself among this class, often speak publically on such issues, and am on the board of directors of an environmental NGO.  But, in my contributions to “expert” work groups I work hard to meet standards of evidence, objectivity, logic and measured rhetoric on which the power of the report produced is founded.  In the area of climate change, the Climate Change Synthesis Report (http://climatecongress.ku.dk/pdf/synthesisreport) and the Copenhagen Diagnosis (www.copenhagendiagnosis.org/), also by concerned scientists, do a more objective job of updating scientific findings that demonstrate that prompt action is required.

Finally, I offer constructive criticism on two structural aspects of the report.  Lengthy sentences, one 16 lines long, including lists with litanies of authors names embedded are unreadable by the intended audience.  Better presentation with bulleted lists or tables and endnotes would have been more effective.  Secondly, the report does not very effectively link the seven “key points needed to drive a common sense rethink” with the recommendations.  The recommendations are the standard marine conservation laundry list and it isn’t obvious or compelling to the reader why marine protected areas or avoiding mineral extraction, just to name two, can avoid the threats listed in the key points.

Don


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Dear Donald,

I agree with some of the constructive comments you have here but let me clarify a few things with regards to the run up to the workshop. We decided on the areas of science that needed to be covered not a list of our mates. We then developed a pre-meeting report and set out to invite scientific participation to fill our science areas. We had a great deal of difficulty in attracting anybody from the geophysical community. This was partially a result of bad timing, it so happened we clashed with a number of other meetings, but I think it also reflects a lack of will amongst this community to engage with communication on these issues, at least at this level. Part of this is the usual reasons – everyone is very busy, too many meetings etc etc. But part of it is a genuine lack of connection between the biological community and the geophysical. This goes both ways, and one thing the IPSO workshop starkly revealed was that the two sides are not conversant with the latest science in their different fields. This translates to policy makers and the public never getting the full picture of the changes we are seeing or there implications.

Whilst Climate Resistance and such like will zero in on the size and make-up of the workshop I think it is worth checking out their blog. This is clearly a site with a single agenda, who – whilst finding all sorts of conspiracy in IPSO / the meeting (for example, I have worked for Greenpeace, but no mention that this has been as an expert witness and no mention I have also worked for the UK government and UN in similar advisory roles)  – have no real answer when someone tackles their criticisms, as someone has in the IPSO discussion on their own site (not me incidently). We need to be very careful not to give these people legitimacy by treating them and their message TOO seriously. What is their answer to the overwhelming peer-reviewed evidence on climate change and impacts on the oceans? Their answer is to attack and try and discredit anyone standing up and discussing this matter because they have nothing else. That will happen whatever the size of meeting and whatever the expertise present if that meeting has a high profile impact like the one we have just completed. A more worrying situation, and one I personally witnessed in Italy, is where governments ARE actually using these people to further their own political agendas to scupper political action to tackle climate change and that is something we need to be vigilant for and tackle with science wherever it is found. I suspect that in the USA this is also a significant problem.

In response to your comments about legitimacy and lifetime of the report let me say that, as Steve stated (I think), the emphasis is now on the follow up and this is what we will be looking at over the next weeks. The report has probably had a larger immediate impact than any other marine biological report I know of and it has already had influence at the level of policy makers, certainly in Europe. I very much hope we can count on support from the science community on this but we also need to find financial support…….as usual. We are a small outfit at present (not as small as two people though and clearly we need to sort out our website on this issue), but that is because we are new and on minimal funding.

Best Wishes, Alex


Don Boesch
Professor of Marine Science and President
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
USA

Alex,

Thanks for the prompt response.  Just two quick comments on it.  On the issues of climate change, I would say that the geophysical science community is quite willing to engage in such communications, witness the Copenhagen Diagnosis, James Hansen, Steve Schneider, Stefan Rahmstorf, Gavin Schmidt, etc. etc.  There is also a well-developed involvement of ecologists with this community.  Second, in no way am I subscribing to the views or tactics of Climate Resistance and similar deniers.  However, the present reality is that we must carefully tend to rigor and legitimacy so as not to make it this easy for them.

Hope to meet you sometime,

Don


Mark Costello
Associate Professor
Leigh Marine Lab
University of Auckland, New Zealand

Dear Emmett et al.

I am pleased to read all the good feedback on this media release. Thank you for organising this.

I agreed with the release overall and was especially pleased to read the emphasis of how the global effects of climate change may replicate the conditions during the last mass extinctions on Earth. I also applaud the citation of supporting literature in the Summary Report. Some of the media and public are not impressed by bold statements alone, even by scientists from prestigious institutions, so citing the literature sources is very important.

As recent papers argue, and the IUCN Red Lists show, we are not under a mass extinction crisis at present. Nigel Stork wrote a review of extinction estimates a few years ago and noted that half of all species would already be extinct if the estimates of some authors in the 1980’s proved true. In part perhaps this may be because society has put some controls on pollution (e.g. banning of DDT, TBT, CFC), over-harvesting (how many whales would be extinct were it not for the IWC?), and makes wider conservation efforts (e.g. MPA, fishing methods and/or gear modified to avoid by-catch).

In a future study it would be interesting to see how bad the situation would be without fishery and whaling regulations, measures to prevent species introductions, and pollution control. Governments have been taking action to limit these impacts. However, reducing impacts beyond national jurisdictions (in the high seas and atmosphere) are much more difficult. So I think this report was correct to highlight that a major ocean crisis and extinction may slowly happen due to climate change, and if so, there is little we could do about it. Hence, addressing the causes of climate change is also a top priority for the oceans.

I was asked by the local media here to comment on the media release.  They seemed to want me to be critical of it.  However, I supported the release, and emphasised that many governments are making progress in reducing impacts on ocean biodiversity, but that the consequences of climate change are global and beyond what local governments can do; they thus demand global action.

I often hear concerns that the public or politicians are not hearing the message from scientists because they do not give the issues we raise higher priority. Actually, I think many have heard our concerns. However, they must also address many other (often more visible) issues like employment, public health, education, national security, etc. The extinction of a few species may be the price for our life-style. Instead of painting an entirely gloomy picture perhaps it would be more constructive to lay out the consequences of current practices, but give examples of how their impacts can be minimised; i.e. present solutions rather than problems [I just noticed the idea of solutions was mentioned in previous emails].  It is not unheard of in the business world for staff to be told to stop pointing out the problems and instead provide solutions and get the job done. Nevertheless, there remain many people who are not listening, and we need innovative and diverse methods of communication to influence all of society in all countries.

Best regards, Mark Costello


Derek Tittensor
Microsoft Research
(Report co-author)

Dear All,

Thank you for this very interesting and engaging debate.

The use of empirical data and the process of hypothesis falsification is one of the key assets of the scientific method and lend its conclusions greater weight than assertions that are made without this rigorous basis. And while we all recognize that the science is implicitly couched within societal and personal goals (as highlighted by Thomas Kuhn), this process of testing theory against data serves society well. I like to think that if we discovered that biodiversity was of no consequence for human well-being we would report it and would stand by our findings, regardless of our own personal proclivities. Nonetheless, this is not what we find, and the marine science literature indicates that things are not well with the ocean and that the situation is deteriorating. The communication of these findings to the public, and to decision-makers, is a complex issue. There is an enormous spectrum that lies between empiricism, interpretation, and advocacy, and everyone sits in a different position in this space.

As Alex Rogers said, the public is sophisticated in its interaction with the media and its sourcing of information. If we view people as rational actors concerned with using their time optimally (not necessarily a theory to which I subscribe, but useful for interpreting behaviour), then the overwhelming majority of people quite rightly would not waste their time reading original, peer-reviewed scientific articles. The communication of the scientific state of affairs through media releases and reports (and videos/blogs/podcasts!) summarising available information on the issues in a readily digestible form is therefore a necessity. The reasons behind some press releases garnering extraordinary attention while others receive less are, as Mark Spalding highlighted, complex, not necessarily predictable, and subject to whims beyond our control. If we also apply the theory of rational choice to decision makers then they will, again quite properly in my opinion, weigh up the consequences and costs of environmental decisions against other considerations such as economics, healthcare, etc. (as Mark Costello noted). Information that we provide will be interpreted in this context, so the human cost associated with decision-making that does not take into account consequent environmental degradation has to be properly conveyed.

Thus there is a need for reports such as this one in order to draw attention to key issues, provided that they are based on and assessed against scientific evidence. I personally was satisfied that the evidence provided and sources cited in the report justified the conclusions that were drawn. Of course, no one person can critically appraise all of the evidence from multiple disciplines, which is why you must at some level trust your fellow scientists to judge whether the conclusions in their area of expertise are sufficiently justified and supported. I also recognize (and respect) that scientists will have differing opinions about the strength of evidence. However, this divergence highlights that scientists are at a tremendous disadvantage in presenting a ‘unified front’ relative to advocacy groups or other organizations. While this disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing – debate and criticism are fundamental precepts of the scientific method – it can severely damage the chances of communicating the issues and the risks relative to other societal actors. It is also worth recognizing that every scientific article is subject to criticism from colleagues, and that this sometimes robust scientific debate can easily be used by those who assert particular agendas to highlight perceived flaws and problems regardless of the merits of the work. I do not necessarily agree with John Bruno that bloggers target what is believed to be flawed or ‘doom and gloom’ science; rather, those with agendas can use scientific criticism (provided for free by other scientists!) to downplay or discredit any scientific finding that does not fit with their world view. This suggests engaging more directly in terms of values, as per the Andrew Hoffman blog post mentioned previously.

The communication of uncertainty is another fascinating topic. I was particularly interested in how Charles Sheppard highlighted cultural differences in response based on how the consequences of action or inaction are presented. The risk is that uncertainty can be misused as an excuse for inaction or pointed to as a lack of consensus. Is there a clear way of presenting uncertainty without people using the ‘best case’ scenario to excuse inaction, or at the other extreme the ‘worst case’ scenario to get things moving? I don’t know, but I wish that I did.

I was also fascinated by Mark Spalding’s thoughts about who should be doing the communicating. Should it be scientists? Should it be Al Gore? And should the language used by scientists in such dialogues necessarily be more ‘scientific’ than that used by other members of society – should it be rigorous, matter-of-fact, and perhaps a little dry? I don’t believe that scientists should, by virtue of their profession, be excluded from communicating with other members of society in an engaging manner. As long as we are clear about when we are presenting evidence and fact, when we are making interpretations of those facts (i.e. the distinction between the ‘results’ and the ‘discussion’ sections of a scientific manuscript), and when we are advocating for a particular position based on our individual ideals, then this, to me, seems fine.

Thank you all for this stimulating debate about a very important topic. This process enables us to clarify our own approaches and positions on these issues, while recognizing that there are not necessarily any concrete ‘one size fits all’ answers.

The views above are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my organizations.

Derek Tittensor


Nancy Baron
Science Outreach Director, COMPASS
National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), USA

Dear All,

I have been reading this exchange with great interest.  The very fact you are having it, is exciting.  You are sharing so much rich insight and truth in your multiple perspectives - and providing grist for everyone’s mills.

I come at this from the communications side, and having just returned from the Aldo Leopold Leadership program where I am one of the trainers, this discussion resonates with those that  many people were having there – for a full week. (A number of you have been involved with the Leopold program, and in fact some of you are past fellows.)  Andy Hoffman was one of this year’s Leopold fellows and you have cited his recent op-ed piece. If you read the comments you’ve also seen the backlash he received for his clear-eyed perspective. It took courage for him ”to stick his head above the parapet” and he did not relish the mud-slinging, but after considerable soul searching –he did it anyways .

Unfortunately, all too often today, “Science is a contact sport ” as Steve Schneider said.  How each person chooses to engage is a very individual decision. But today there are many options and each person can decide how far to push into their own “discomfort zone.” I applaud the scientists who are experimenting with social media and having probing conversations with growing audiences (including this one.) I also applaud those who strategically promote their peer-reviewed science through more traditional press releases and outreach to mainstream media. While the mainstream media is shrinking in numbers – the media still have powerful sway with many policy-makers and can help set their agendas. I applaud those trying new things like Steve Palumbi’s microdocumentaries, and Emmett Duffy’s and John Bruno’s Sea Monster and the Love video on YouTube. I also applaud the IPSO initiative and the messages you are communicating. I like your website, the interactive graphics, and how you have themes with embedded interviews with experts. And you had great success with your media outreach. These are all good things.

In all these instances and approaches, I think everyone agrees  that the integrity of the science has to be fundamental or it undermines the messages. But then how to communicate it?

Certainly people want and need to hear solutions as problem fatigue is widespread. And it’s important to say what you can, then caveat if you must. And to talk about what you do know with high certainty rather than starting with the uncertainty. And to emphasis what you agree on rather than what you don’t.

There is certainly no one way to get your messages across. Or one best way. We need as many scientists as possible communicating in as many ways as possible – and experimenting. How scientists can engage different audiences so that they will care, is limited only by time and imagination. A terrific book that we used at Leopold,  that gets at how to engage people both rationally and emotionally, is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath of Stanford. It helps you think about new possibilities.

“The public” ” “policy-makers” and “journalists” are not single audiences.  It will take different approaches to reach individuals. The culture and style of journalism in the UK for example, is quite different than that in the US, which is often why things sometimes don’t translate from one country to another. (This was also seen in the coverage of the Millenium Assessment where it had a big impact internationally but not particularly in the US.)

How can scientists be change agents- and what does that mean for you?  The answers are deeply personal. But I think the good news is that there are a growing number of scientists who are indeed engaging and in a whole variety of ways, “sticking their heads above the parapets.”

And I know that many of you are seeing that changes for the better can happen  - albeit perhaps not fast as you’d like - because you’ve engaged.  The people on this listserve are some of the brightest and best- scientists and communicators. We need more and more scientists to continue to engage and communicate.

Discussions like this are helpful.

Nancy Baron


Tony J Pitcher
Professor of Fisheries
Fisheries Centre, Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory
University of British Columbia, Canada
(Report co-author)

Dear Colleagues,

This exchange has been fascinating, especially the discussion about the role and operation of this type of workshop report.

As a ‘fisheries’ contributor to the IPSO workshop with recent research on seamount and coral reefs fisheries, and recent evaluations of the quality of fisheries management, I found it a very valuable experience. I especially enjoyed the clarity of colleagues in other disciplines (including geophysics!) making the latest findings accessible to another scientists. Two findings especially galvanized my attention.

1. It sure was alarming to hear that in each of six disciplines, experts could find an example of their ‘worst case scenario’ already existing somewhere on the planet.

2. Although nothing was new as such, at the workshop we saw the pernicious synergies among biogeochemical ocean stressors coming into clearer focus.

For me, the longer version of the report (complete with the references!) summarizes it quite well, although we were nowhere near the level of detailed scientific analysis seen in the IPCC (a much larger operation of course).

Even though I don’t agree 100% with the nuances of some of my colleagues (for example the long term genetic impacts of fisheries in reducing resilience to geochemical stressors have I feel been underplayed), and I have to confess to some uneasiness among media people, the workshop and its follow up has encouraged me to try to do something to support the main recommendations and “stick my head above the parapet” – not a naturally comfortable position for the Editor of Fish and Fisheries. Weathering the backlash on the Climate Solutions website is not too hard. And as the large, well-funded, Nobel prize-winning IPCC has experienced backlash – so should we expect to have to deal with that!

My thanks to IPSO and to the contributors to this blog.

Tony Pitcher


Denise Breitburg
Senior Scientist
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
USA

Dear All,

Thank you for including me in a really interesting exchange on both the science and communication of critical environmental and societal issues. Both the report and the online dialog have raised important points.

I have only two points to add to the emails that have been sent so far – and these pertain to the issue of multiple stressors. The summary report does a good job of providing examples of multiple co-occurring stressors worsening problems for species and ecosystems, but I hope that future discussions also include these two points. First, multiple stressors, whether co-occurring or in sequence, can greatly increase the difficulty of predicting their effects and predicting the potential for recovery if one or more stressors are reduced. One consequence is that the efficacy of regulations intended to be protective may vary spatially and temporally depending on the presence, intensity, and residual effects of other stressors. Second, multiple co-occurring stressors can make it difficult to implement regulations that are seen as fair to the range of stakeholders who are potentially affected.  In Chesapeake Bay where I work, for example, any suggestion of further restricting fisheries is met with loud objections from watermen that the problem causing declines in fished species is really pollution, and calls to reduce nutrient loads are often met with protests from farmers that it’s the removal of oysters and menhaden by fishermen that has caused the water quality problems we face.

I realize a short report can only say so much, but the problem that the host of insults we throw at our oceans not only makes ecological problems worse, but also makes governance more difficult is important to point out.

Best wishes & Thanks to Emmett and John for organizing this.


Alex Rogers
Professor in Conservation Biology
University of Oxford, UK
(Report co-leader and co-author)

Hi Denise and all,

This is a really valuable point and one that we have first-hand experience of with the fishing industry and, for example, deep-water mining. One is complaining that management measures they are expected to take do not apply to the other. It is something we will see more and more of as human use of the oceans widens to include a wider breadth of industries and more stakeholders. Fully supportive of many of the comments from Tony, Matt, Mark and Nancy.

Best Wishes, Alex


Matthew Gianni
Political and Policy Advisor
Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
Netherlands
(Report co-author)

Hello all,

This is a very good discussion and I would like to add a few comments on the interaction between policy and science. The release of the IPSO report last week coincided with the annual meeting (20-24 June) of the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) in New York. UNICPOLOS is essentially an informal meeting of the UN General Assembly to discuss oceans related issues open to civil society participation as well as all States members of the UN.  The topic of this year’s UNICPOLOS was an assessment of progress and gaps in meeting the oceans related targets and goals adopted by previous UN Summits and “addressing new and emerging challenges” in preparation for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development which will take place in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. This upcoming UN Conference, often referred to as Rio+20, will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development).  You may recall that a number of important new treaties and international initiatives were associated one way or another with the 1992 Earth Summit, including the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement. The results of the Rio+20 conference next year may not be as ambitious but nonetheless it does provide an important opportunity for major new global initiatives.

As a result of the press and media generated by the release of the IPSO report, the Co-Chairs of UNICPOLOS invited Alex Rogers to make a formal presentation to the meeting last week. The group of people in New York last week was an important audience of policy-makers and included a mix of UN based diplomats, legal and technical experts and regulators from national capitals, and representatives from NGOs and intergovernmental organizations. This was an extremely valuable opportunity to get a message directly to decision-makers at a high level that, from a scientific perspective, urgent action is required.

Equally important are the recommendations from the report, given that the Oxford workshop consisted of policy experts as well as scientists. One of the key recommendations is the Global Oceans Compliance Commission which addresses an issue that is very much in play in the context of oceans related negations at the UN General Assembly at the moment. A large number of countries including the G.77 group of developing countries and the European Union have recently, jointly proposed that a new treaty (an ‘implementing agreement’ of the Law of the Sea Convention) for the conservation of biodiversity on the high be negotiated that would, among other things, provide for the establishment of representative networks of marine protected areas and require environmental impact assessments for any activity with the potential to adversely impact biodiversity on the high seas.

This relates to the fact that there is a widespread recognition that although international oceans law contains many provisions which, were they effectively implemented, would go a long way to addressing the problems raised by the Oxford workshop participants and others, there are both gaps in the international regime for the management of activities on the high seas as well as serious issues with lack of State compliance with existing obligations under international law. For example, both the Law of the Sea Convention and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement contain general and detailed obligations to protect marine biodiversity and the marine environment, apply the precautionary approach, conserve fish stocks, conduct environmental impact assessments for fisheries and other activities, and to require flag States to exercise effective control over their vessels including penalizing vessels in breach of international legal obligations such that the penalties should serve as a deterrent to any future illegal activities.  However, these obligations are not being complied with, or only partially complied with, by many States. Part of the problem is that the Law of the Sea Convention lacks the institutional infrastructure to monitor and oversee compliance, hold States accountable for their actions, and promote the use of sanctions for gross violations or repeat offenders, e.g. failed fag States – a particularly pernicious problem in relation to the management of fisheries for straddling fish stocks, highly migratory fish stocks and high seas fish stocks and the impacts of these fisheries on associated species. Thus the IPSO recommendation for a Global Oceans Compliance Commission (granted the name could be catchier) is germane to the current debate on this issue at the UN.

This is not to say that there haven’t been important successes in global cooperation for the conservation and protection of the oceans over the past few years. The London Convention agreement to ban the disposal of radioactive and hazardous waste into the oceans is one; another is the ongoing restriction of deep-sea fishing on the high seas in response to a series of UN General Assembly resolutions adopted since 2004 although this is still very much a work in progress and much more needs to be done to comply with the resolutions (the UN will review the actions taken, or not taken, by States, and regional fisheries treaty organizations in September of this year).

Not surprisingly, a number of the other panelists at the UNICPOLOS meeting last week – amongst them Jackie Alder (UNEP), Rashid Sumaila (UBC), Maria Teresa Mesquita Pessoa (Brazilian Mission to the UN and head of the Brazilian delegation to UNICPOLOS), Babajide Alo (University of Lagos), Tulio Scovazzi (University of Milan) and Phil Weaver (EU Hermione Project) – touched on many of the same problems, and in some cases others, as those in the IPSO report. (For those of you interested, the UNICPOLOS presentations can be found on the UN website at http://www.un.org/Depts/los/consultative_process/ICP12_chart_of_presentations.pdf)

Regarding the broader discussion of how best to communicate the results of scientific research, I recall a very lively discussion on the subject of science and advocacy at a Pew Fellows Meeting in Bonaire in 2002, based on presentations by Ray Hilborn, Charles Peterson and, I believe, Carl Walters. There are clearly a range of views amongst scientists as reflected in the previous messages to this list; nonetheless, as a conservation advocate, I appreciate the view expressed by Jeremy Jackson in his 2008 PNAS paper, Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean:

“Predicting the future is, at best, a highly uncertain enterprise. Nevertheless, I believe we have a sufficient basic understanding of the ecological processes involved to make meaningful qualitative predictions about what will happen in the oceans if humans fail to restrain their style of exploitation and consumption…Some may say that it is irresponsible to make such predictions pending further detailed study to be sure of every point. However, we will never be certain about every detail, and it would be irresponsible to remain silent in the face of what we already know.”

Matthew Gianni

8 Responses to “Forum on the Future of the Oceans”

  1. Trevor Branch says:

    In my opinion, both the report and this SeaMonster discussion of the report, are utterly and completely biased by the vast majority of participants being conservationists with an obvious agenda. It is easy to come to consensus about an upcoming extinction of marine life if you primarily invite people who have publicly stated they believe this to be true.

    Kudos to Manuel Barrange for having the integrity to withdraw and publicly state his reasons for withdrawing when it became obvious that the meeting intended to ignore the actual scientific evidence in order to make as bold of a media splash as possible.

    For example, here are some notable fisheries papers totally absent from the report, that show no sign of upcoming fish extinctions, and indeed find current stability in fished populations, and rebuilding in some regions. For instance the Collette paper finds only one of 61 tuna, billfish and mackerels are highly endangered and one more is endangered, and in their supplementary materials is evidence that very few marine species are endangered. These papers in many instances overturn the assertions in the papers that are cited in the report (e.g. Collette et al. 2011 vs. Myers and Worm 2003; Branch et al. 2010 vs Pauly et al. 1998; Hutchings et al. 2010 vs. Worm et al. 2006).

    References:
    Branch et al. 2010. The trophic fingerprint of marine fisheries. Nature 468: 431-435.

    Branch et al. 2011. Contrasting global trends in marine fishery status obtained from catches and from stock assessments. Cons Biol doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01687.x.

    Collette et al. 2011. High value and long life – double jeopardy for tunas and billfishes. Science doi: 10.1126/science.1208730.

    Hutchings et al. 2010. Trends in the abundance of marine fishes. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 67: 1205-1210.

    Worm et al. 2009. Rebuilding global fisheries. Science 325: 578-585.

    • John Bruno says:

      Trevor, I am writing a longer more serious reply, but first; have you ever been snorkeling or diving , ie in the ocean? Because your opinions truly sound like they are coming from someone who has never seen what many of us see all the time, ie, extreme overfishing (no matter how you define it).

      You literally cant spend 10 seconds in oceans that I work in and not “see” what is described in quantitative graphics in Myers and Worm and even Pauly et al. I thought Branch et al 2010 made some valid analytical points, but again, anyone working, for example, in the Caribbean can see fishing down the food chain in space and time, regardless of what the extremely limited (in terms of species, space and time) catch data suggest.

      Maybe that is another difference between ecology and fisheries biology: lessons from the former, though supported by experiments and field sampling, are usually ultimately based on field observations. If what you are seeing in the field doesn’t match what your computer is telling you, it is usually pretty easy to decide where the error lies.

      • Trevor Branch says:

        John: I’m certainly not saying that everything is totally fine, or that there are no places that are trashed. And yes, I have been out snorkeling on St Kitts and Nevis and seen reef rubble too, and am going to Bali next week for CCSBT. But to extrapolate from your field experience in coral reefs to a statement about global fisheries and pelagic predators is equally incorrect.

        Additionally, the contrast you make between ecology and fisheries biology is baffling. Fisheries assessment and management is based on very intensive and broad scale scientific surveys and biological sampling. The studies you so strongly support by Myers, Worm and Pauly are based on the same fisheries data and computer models I am using, not on ecological field data. So let’s look at the two studies you so strongly support.

        Worm and Myers (2003) say that all large predators including tunas declined by 90% by 1980 and then stabilized. Now the declines happened when tuna catches were one-fifth what they are now. So if what they are saying is true, then 1/10th of the tuna biomass are now supplying (sustainably) five times the catch (i.e. they are 50 times are productive). Of course there are some places where this is true (e.g. sharks on reefs), and naturally shifting baselines also have a big effect.

        The IUCN Collette et al. paper that came out in Science this week makes this clear: of the 61 species of tunas, mackerels and billfish, one (southern bluefin tuna) is Highly Endangered (85% decline in 3 generations), one (Atlantic bluefin) is Endangered (29-50% decline in 3 generations), and all the rest are in better shape (though some unfished species are Data Deficient). The 90% decline of Myers and Worm (2003) would result in every one of these species being classified as Highly Endangered, not 1 out of 61. And this is an IUCN report, not a report by fisheries biologists.

        Similarly, Pauly et al. (1998) takes a pattern (fishing down) seen in some places and assumes it applies to the whole world. The very catch data he used to show this, now show no evidence at a global scale. Furthermore, Essington showed several years ago that catches of top predators are either stable or increasing in most places, which is contrary to fishing down. And Sethi et al. show that profits (price, catch amount, depth) explain fishery development far better than trophic level. Again, there are clear places where fishing down is true (North Atlantic, coral reefs, Northern Line Islands) but other places where the opposite is happening (North Pacific shift from shrimp and crabs to large demersal predatory fish). In the haste to use northern cod as the iconic fishing down image, we conveniently forgot the low-trophic-level collapse of shrimp, Alaskan crab, herring, Peruvian anchoveta, Cannery Row sardines, and abalone.

        I see no disconnect in agreeing with you that global warming and ocean acidification and overfishing are trashing coral reefs and nearshore areas (which need rebuilding), while arguing that the same problems do not afflict demersal and pelagic regions that support large commercial fisheries to the same extent. Experience on coral reefs cannot be used as an argument that open ocean tunas are depleted by 90% or more, neither can the rebuilding of California rockfish be used to argue that all coral reefs are doing just fine.

        We need to move beyond these all-sweeping generalizations that everything in the oceans is failed and doomed to extinction, and instead rebuild those areas that need rebuilding, learn from areas where management is actually working, and encourage better management, institutional capacity, and monitoring where this is most needed.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Trevor, Thanks for your comment. We were of course not part of the IPSO report and thus had no influence on its content.

    The SeaMonster discussion is another story, and I disagree with your assessment of bias. Our invitation for comment went out to ~60 individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, including several individuals who have been openly critical of perceived alarmism regarding the state of marine systems, and co-authors on some of the papers you cite above. All comments received were published.

    The fact that those individuals did not comment could reasonably be interpreted as meaning that they don’t feel as strongly as you do that the coverage was biased.

  3. Ben Pile says:

    I am surprised by Alex Roger’s complaint that my site, Climate Resistance — and therefore my criticism of the IPSO report and its uncritical reception by the media — ‘is clearly a site with a single agenda’, and that I should not be given ‘legitimacy’ by being ‘taken too seriously’. Isn’t that, after all, what I was saying about IPSO?

    My ‘agenda’ is to understand environmentalism as a political phenomenon. It is the conceit of many environmentalists that their political ideas simply emerge from ‘science’, rather than from their own prejudices. From this idea, extraordinarily powerful political institutions have been created at national and supranational levels, and a range of far-reaching economic and industrial policies have been created, especially in the UK.

    My main concern is that this policy-making happens without due democratic process — that environmentalism’s values have not been tested in the public sphere, let alone at the ballot box. To criticise environmental politics is to seem to stand up and identify oneself as a ‘denier’ of objective science. Second, I am concerned about the consequences for development, both in the industrialised world, and poorer parts. So, I want to know, what kind of society will environmentalism create? What form of social organisation will be created by the construction of supranational political institutions that determine, above democracies, how much energy you may consume? How many political freedoms will we enjoy, once we surrender control of our lives to what appears to be the ‘overwhelming majority’ of scientific research? What will life be like in an eco-utopia?

    Is this a conspiracy theory, as Dr Rogers claims it is? No, far from it. I’m sure he and his colleagues are acting in clear conscience. And I’m just as sure that there are many environmental problems. I think that Dr Rogers is doing what many other environmentalists are doing: acting on their beliefs that the world is in peril, and something must be done, or we’ll all die in some ecological catastrophe. However, the content of those beliefs is, I argue, environmental ideology, not ‘science’.

    This is not an attempt to simply ‘discredit’ IPSO. However, it stuck me as the epitome of environmental ideology. What brought its members to the table appeared to me to be their shared prejudices and presuppositions about the world: that they could find justification for those prejudices in scientific research, and present their findings as ‘science’, and that the world would sit up and listen to a ‘panel of experts’, and agree that ‘something must be done’. The media were obedient.

    Let me compare it to two other studies I think were similar. The now defunct Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF), led by Kofi Anan, published a report in 2009, which claimed that each year 300,000 people in the developing world die from the effects of climate change, and that this figure would rise to 500,000 by 2030. This report borrowed its method from a 2002 report from the WHO, which claimed that 150,000 people die each year in ‘High Mortality Developing Countries’ (HDMCs) from the same. The WHO estimated the effect of climate change on the prevalence of malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition. They then multiplied that estimate by the estimate of the number of cases of those conditions that caused death, and attributed the result to ‘climate change’.

    These estimates amount to a model of sensitivity of humans to climate. But take a closer look at the model’s assumptions. It assumes that changes in the prevalence of diarrhoea caused by climate change are as sure as the changes in the climate caused by CO2. The implicit assumption, then, is that poverty is a natural phenomenon, same as the weather. This is environmental ideology, I argue, and it informs the WHO and GHF reports in a very dangerous way. Malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, even if they are Nth-order effects of climate change, are FIRST order effects of poverty. In the 21st century, diseases of poverty cannot have natural explanations. We could intervene, in very simple ways to prevent these diseases.

    If we look at the WHO’s report, we discover that the deaths attributed to climate change in HMDCs amount to the smallest of problems that HDMCs face. According to the WHO’s own statistics, being overweight kills nearly three times as many people as climate change. Physical inactivity kills four times as many. Dirty water kills nearly 11 times as many people as climate change, and being underweight kills 24 times as many people. Yet rather than emphasising the abolition of poverty, which kills tens of millions, the WHO emphasised instead that ‘climate change is the biggest problem facing the developing world’, and urged immediate action. Similarly, the GHF, rather than emphasising the 7.55 million deaths from malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, and encouraging us to focus on poverty, emphasised the 302,000 deaths caused by climate change. NGOs, politicians, and the media took the figures at face value, and climate change moved up the agenda with new moral purpose.

    Political priorities and scientific research are distorted by environmental ideology, whose fundamental presupposition is that we live in a fragile relationship with the natural world. The fact that the fragility of this relationship is exaggerated is shown by the WHO and GHF’s calculations and their emphasis on climate change over development. Second, it follows that over-stating the fragility of the relationship causes an over-sensitivity to changes within the environment, be they natural or anthropogenic. Change is too easily seen as destruction. Any trend, no matter how small the sample, or how short the series, can be extrapolated far into the future to depict a world denuded of the study’s subject. Uncertain science is turned into ‘best available evidence’ under the logic of the precautionary principle. Last, these ideas form the notion of a vast, fragile, infinitely complex ‘self-regulating’ system, which we interfere with in ways that can never be measured or predicted, yet which cause devastating consequences. Thus, there is a need for the strict regulation of productive enterprises, and political institutions to serve this function. This much is environmental ideology, and the IPSO report seems to me to be stuffed full with it, as do many of the studies which informed it.

    The fact that it was so easy to show that the members of the panel all seem to share a mindset demonstrated to me the problem with the wider debate in microcosm. If there were a conspiracy, it would be so much less a problem. But here we see a totally uncritical media and credulous politicians taking as ‘science’ a self-selecting political panel’s mere opinion. Never mind that this was ‘grey’ literature, produced by a defacto campaigning organisation, the panel, and those taking the report at face value were all convinced of its rectitude, the safety of its provenance, and the soundness of its conclusions. Yet it was little more than a talking shop. Why, then, even bother with the discussion? If all it takes for ‘science’ to be done, and to influence policy, why not just admit that opinions are ‘science’ in today’s world? Why bother with all that boring, hypothesis-experiment-replication stuff, if panels of ‘experts’ can be assembled to determine the truth, merely by phoning the contacts in just one political activists phone book?

  4. Alesia Lafaver says:

    OMG! That is adorable! I need to make one!

Leave a Reply