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How can we transform evidence on the human-ocean-health nexus into action?

The ocean is the origin of all life on Earth and provides vital ecosystem services that sustain human health. To improve our understanding and governance surrounding the interdependence of human and ocean health, transdisciplinary research and strategic action are needed.

The ocean plays a fundamental role in maintaining all life on Earth. It is the largest component of the Earth’s system which works to regulate climate, influence weather, provide freshwater and generate oxygen. Human health is dependent on an abundance of ecosystem services derived from the marine realm, which influence livelihoods and quality of life, food security, medicine and the global economy.

The second webinar of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development virtual series discussed the vast range of interconnections between ocean and human health with input from stakeholders across the world.

In order to reverse the current degradation of marine ecosystems and ensure that future generations can continue to benefit from the ocean, the webinar explored how transdisciplinary research is needed to present more thorough evidence of the human-ocean-health nexus and raise awareness of this interconnectedness, regardless of where people live. Gaining a deeper understanding of this interaction will allow for more efficient, strategic action to achieve the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Marine biodiversity contributes directly to human health, food security and the global economy, with approximately 3 billion people globally relying on wild-caught and farmed seafood as a primary source of protein. This widespread reliance on seafood is in a delicate balance that is currently under threat. At the microscopic level, thousands of species of phytoplankton make up the bottom of the marine food-web, where they’re involved in carbon sequestration and help shape biogeochemical cycles. When excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) are added to the ocean as a result of human activities, harmful algal blooms (HABs) can form. These blooms contain toxic compounds that can accumulate in or kill filter-feeding organisms. This is the first link in the marine food chain and is vital to all fisheries, and to the livelihoods which depend on them. However, knowledge about the marine ecosystem is very fragmented. It’s function, biological importance and economic value are poorly understood by legislators, as well as the general public.

Marine Biologist Lota Alcantara-Creencia shared how more than 2 million people in the Philippines depend on fishing and marine tourism industries for their livelihoods. In addition, 70% of the population derive their main source of animal protein from the ocean. She acknowledged that while many citizens are dependent on the seas for direct and indirect resources, the current use of these resources is not sustainable. The Philippines are now experiencing an extremely high average of 20 tropical cyclones per year, and that is expected to increase due to climate change. Alcantara-Creencia called for transdisciplinary research and strategic action, particularly at the local and regional level within coastal communities, in order to address these complex issues and improve governance.

Biotechnology and medicine also play a key role in maintaining human health and hold potential solutions that may further advance society. Webinar speaker and CEO of BioFeyn, Dr Timothy Bouley, recognized marine-derived biotech innovation as a great contributor to human health and the advancement of society. Biotech innovation from the ocean has led to the discovery of cosmetic applications, surgical bioproducts, laboratory applications and dozens of established and potential drugs which combat a wide range of illnesses, including HIV and cancer. There is a great capacity of untapped potential in the fields of medicine, bioengineering, and marine genetics, especially when considering that more than 80% of the ocean has never been explored by humans. Dr. Bouley expressed the importance of involving the public health sector, as well as economists, in order to quantify the value of ocean derived products and create clear insights for policy-makers on the interconnection between ocean and human health.

In addition to these concrete applications of marine products to human health, the intrinsic value of the ocean should not be overlooked. The ocean is a  source of emotional, recreational and spiritual gratification. It has offered inspiration to humans for thousands of years with our earliest known record of maritime art created by ancient hunter-gatherers between 5,000-2000 BCE. Recent studies have discovered a link between improved mental health and coastal living, particularly for those in lowest-earning households. Professor Lora E. Fleming shared that this information may be critical when understanding ocean and human health interactions, as many of the communities that are predominantly affected by climate change are also low-income earning.

The human-ocean-health nexus covers many fields of study, and needs to be more deeply understood in order to implement changes that addresses the complex systems involved. Seagrass scientist and conservation leader at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Dr Jacqueline Uku, believes the largest threat to ocean and human health is not being able to track community knowledge, particularly in terms that are influential with and comprehensible to policy-makers. She highlighted the importance of influencing policy with transdisciplinary projects done at the local and regional level, giving the example of involving economists in fisheries research in order to quantify and clearly communicate the value of marine ecosystems to legislators. Transdisciplinary research, and the bottom-up, regionally driven approach of the ocean decade could realize connections between ocean and human health, and keep communities at the centre of the health dialogue.

An example of transdisciplinary research which works to link ocean and health research is the Seas, Ocean, & Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE) Project. By gathering information from many different sources including citizens, research findings and existing European policies, the SOPHIE project developed a ‘research road map,’ which sets the course for scientists to gather evidence and inform future policies with the intention of enhancing and protecting both human health and health of the oceans. The SOPHIE Strategic Research Agenda provides an overview of the research needed to answer fundamental questions in how evidence should be provided to policymakers and proposes how oceans and health literacy can be improved. These kind of questions are now informing the development of the Ocean Decade.

There are multiple ways to get involved with the Ocean Decade, such as joining generation ocean, establishing or joining a voluntary stakeholder network, becoming a member of the Ocean Decade Alliance, or participating in a decade action. The first call for Ocean Decade Actions is open from 15 October 2020 to 15 January 2021. In addition, registering for the “Human Health and Ocean Symposium”, which will be held virtually and in person in Monaco on 30 January 2020, is a way to stay informed and to learn more about the various risks of human activities to the oceans, including to human health, as well as the ways human health and wellbeing benefit from the ocean.

Photo by Daniel Klein from Unsplash

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