You cannot manage what you do not measure

Leonard Sonnenschein, World Aquarium and Conservation for the Oceans Foundation and Jason McNamee, Ocean NAMA Network

Climate change significantly affects physical and biological properties within ocean and coastal areas. Understanding, financing, protecting and restoring these natural areas requires strategic integrated components, leading to transparent communication, mitigation and measurement actions.

Oceans are changing, ecosystems are changing and interactions between ecosystems are changing – what is unclear is how they are changing. Satellites tell us that the ocean’s surface is warming and that ocean deserts are growing. Catch statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tell us that fisheries are declining and species ranges appear to be shifting. Oceans are becoming more acidic. Currently, measurements are really inadequate to fully understand how to provide appropriate mitigation, restoration and conservation. In the laboratory, we can control many variables and can gain a good understanding of the relationships between freshwater and saltwater, and terrestrial activity effects upon the aquatic ecosystems – such as agricultural run-off in relation to eutrophication and development of anoxic areas (dead zones). We hope that participation in land, coastal, and deep ocean mitigation, restoration and conservation actions can give way to real change – creating improved data sets, and provide measurable cause and effect patterns for future management.

Oceans represent the world’s largest ecosystem, covering more than 71 per cent of the planet and representing more than 90 per cent of the world’s biosphere. Not surprisingly, they are the primary reservoir of Earth’s biodiversity, much of which remains largely undiscovered. Measurement and management of this complex ecosystem must take advantage of existing opportunities, while also creating new ones.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) represent possibly the best opportunity to measure and manage ocean space. On average SIDS nations have 28 times the sovereign ocean space versus land space, and their lives are intertwined with the ocean, from food to jobs to cultural identity. Owing to their relatively small land mass, the ability of SIDS to develop land based climate mitigation strategies is difficult. Further, it is well known that most SIDS have experienced significant decline in the health of their ocean ecosystems, including mangroves, salt marshes, sea grass, reefs and plankton, which results in declining food security, job security and biodiversity. Also, all SIDS are at risk from rising sea levels.

The opportunity to measure and manage ocean space can be constructed through development of ocean-based Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA). Ocean-based NAMAs can give SIDS the opportunity to develop and finance restoration projects, which not only sequester carbon, but improve biodiversity, food security and job security, and alleviate poverty. Financial mechanisms must be created as parts of the Lima COP20 outcome to more fully embrace NAMAs as fungible ways for the ocean to act as a resource to mitigate climate change effects, in the same way as forests have with Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) framework. Furthermore, we recognise the ability for mangroves as a natural REDD+ link between the land and sea. Mangroves are the metaphorical toes of the climate change body. Mangroves are also most prone to pollution, degradation and sea level rise, and are key to fisheries productivity, biodiversity and shoreline stability. One of the most undervalued and most often destroyed ecosystems in the world, mangroves have been uprooted for commercial aquaculture and other coastal developments. Mangroves provide food security and livelihoods to coastal populations while sheltering these same communities from extreme weather events.

A second opportunity in measurement and management of oceans is the opportunity of shared data and measurement platforms as information sources that already exist. We share the same land, air and water; why not share the data that links us together? We recommend a public data platform be created for environmental and oceanographic data to be stored so that scientists and other stakeholders can better understand oceanic ecosystems and how they are changing as a result of rising CO2 levels, which can help decision makers to make better decisions in order to protect and conserve and the world’s largest ecosystem.


Leonard Sonnenschein is the President of the World Aquarium and Conservation for the Oceans Foundation, Chair of the World Ocean Network’s Sustainable Actions Committee & Sustainable Seafood Campaign and President of the St. Louis Aquacenter and is a co-founder of the World Ocean Network.

Jason McNamee is the CEO and Founder of Oceanea and Blue Carbon Solutions and is dedicated to research and restoration of ocean ecosystems. He also acts as a scientific advisor to the World Aquarium.