How to use ocean data to create an informed debate about the future ocean economy
Oliver Steeds used his 2016 Ted Talk to highlight the unintended, but none-the-less, colossal, damages that are happening in the ocean.
What is striking about the image he uses to highlight this, is the perfect neat lines, similar to a recently furrowed farmer’s fields, that rake across the seafloor following a trawler’s attempt to harvest scallops. It is sheer devastation. There’s nothing left but barren seafloor.
There are similarly negative stories about the oceans, they seem to be more frequent than ever, from depleted fish stocks, coral reef devastation, the impacts of climate change and the giant plastic garbage patches. With so many bad stories about the ocean’s health it is difficult to find a positive narrative about the ocean economies and what the oceans can mean to mankind. But that is what Steeds is now all about. Using science and exploration to enable informed decisions about our future use of the oceans.
Steeds is a former investigative journalist, making a name for himself with a number of British and American broadcasters before seeing for himself the devastation caused by the scallop trawlers off the coast of Scotland.
This is a man accustomed to telling a story. His understanding of the issues and his natural inquisitiveness made him want to dig further. Steeds will be bringing is story to the stage of Copenhagen Opening Oceans Conference in May this year. There’s a lot more information we can get from the oceans and it can help society, business, everyone find a way to develop the ocean economies sustainably.
“If I didn’t know this was going on, on the ocean floors, hidden from view, then who else didn’t know,” he says.
The narrative we need to find is of how we create a sustainable way forward he says, and for that we need knowledge, much more knowledge of the oceans.
Steeds founded the Nekton Oxford Ocean Research Institute to garner the knowledge needed to both educate, inform and make decisions about the economic potential of the oceans.
Most mainstream discussions about the seas are negative. It is all disaster and woe, it is finger pointing and blame, with very little positivity. Steeds idea has been to look at space exploration. He sees how NASA has captured the imagination and has huge budgets. He alludes to the huge differences between what we know about the ocean depths on our own planet and what we know and have done in space.
When you ask him about this he is quick to point out that billions of dollars have been spent putting 11 astronauts on the moon, while only three explorers have been to the depths of the ocean. The huge budget differences, and the disparity of knowledge between space and what is going on on our own planet is telling.
Through the Nekton Oxford Ocean Research Institute Steeds wants to bring the spirit of space exploration into the ocean space.
Nekton is a research institute based around exploration missions that have the goal of raising levels of education, policy, governance and ocean action.
Steeds is keen to point out that this is not an advocacy group, it is not trying to say what should be done, but it is helping raise awareness so the right kind of discussions can be had about the positive actions that can happen.
Steeds knows that this requires a huge amount of support and he has been successful in getting it, despite the odds. Currently there is a decline in funding for ocean research, and a shortage of marine engineers he says, insisting that people need to be to investigate the 95% of the inspired ocean that remains unexplored.
To explore and understand, to be able to then sustainably exploit Steeds says the industries that are currently expanding into the maritime sector should be part of this broader ocean economy.
Steeds does not know that much about the shipping industry, but nonetheless his vision of the future of the oceans revolves around the technologies that shipping has become focused on: autonomous systems, robotics, connectivity and other advanced maritime technologies.
“We need a swathe of technologies,” he says “We need capacity, objectives, and the development of the leadership skills, networks and technologies.”
This is a geopolitical challenge, as it demands that nation states, particularly the established western economies, step up with their funding lest they miss out. Steeds believes that 75% of new jobs in the marine sciences may now be in China, a country that, perhaps not coincidentally, has one of the most advances submersibles with the ability to dive the deepest.