Oceans– they define our coastlines, generate weather patterns, and host the largest habitat on Earth– covering most of the planet’s surface. They are largely unknown, yet dangerously overexploited

Photo by David Fleetham/WWF

Photo by David Fleetman/WWF

Set against the sound of crashing waves in La Jolla, California, Conservation X Labs, a conservation innovation firm, partnering with the World Wildlife Fund, hosted an “Oceans Big Think.” It was a meeting of the minds from marine scientists to policy advisors, innovators and investors. Lisa Rauter is the First Assistant Secretary of the InnovationXchange initiative in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“When you tackle a challenge from a single perspective which we know, traditionally we tend to do, you come up with one perspective worth of solution,” Rauter said. “I think by bringing all of that together you’re actually going, how do we use the technology we have? How do we use the big data that we’ve got? How do we use emerging technologies? How do we actually link into the marine science that’s behind these things?“

La Jolla, CA #OceansBigThink November 9, 2015
Photo by Maya Trabulsi. La Jolla, CA #OceansBigThink

The goal of the “Big Think” was to prioritize the oceans’ most urgent grand challenges, develop an international consortium & fund to accelerate solutions through innovative technology, and create the platform to bring those solutions to scale. Participants discussed ten challenges identified by Conservation X Labs, touching on the biggest topics facing conservationists, and the entire world.

The topic of aquaculture quickly emerged as a common thread. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates by the year 2050, the planet will have to sustain more than two billion more people which will require 70 percent more food, and the clearance of land equal in size to the U.S. Land-sourced protein may not be able to keep pace with demand and current aquaculture practices are not economically or environmentally sustainable.

Colin McCormick is the lead engineer with Conservation X Labs. He says growing a variety of sea vegetables is a sustainable addition to fish farming, and creates new markets. But there is the problem of introducing new foods to middle class palates.

La Jolla, CA #OceansBigThink November 9, 2015
Photo by Maya Trabulsi. La Jolla, CA #OceansBigThink

“Most American families aren’t going to want to eat seaweed, and wouldn’t know how to prepare it if they were handed a chunk of it. So, we see a technology challenge there, but also a market introduction and cultural challenge.”

As one challenge is addressed, other critical concerns affecting ocean health float to the top in degree of urgency.

Simon Reddy is the executive secretary for the Global Ocean Commission, and says that the sources of fish, or even species, may be incorrectly reported to consumers, which is a major transparency issue. Another is the lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of fishing boats– there are few laws that require tracking on large vessels.

La Jolla, CA #OceansBigThink November 9, 2015
Photo by Maya Trabulsi. La Jolla, CA #OceansBigThink

“In the world that we live in today, the idea that there are fishing vessels traversing the high seas from continent to continent and we don’t know where they are, where they’re going, what they’re carrying, the reality is that twenty percent of all our fish is reckoned to be illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing,” Reddy said. “And the vessels that engage in that activity are also responsible for human trafficking, drug running, and in some cases, terrorism.”

Carter Roberts is CEO and President of the World Wildlife Fund – US. He suggests private and public sectors have an opportunity to collaborate on the issue of tracking. He added if aquaculture practices can be refined through technology and governance, it will go a long way toward lessening its impact on the ocean.

The more the population grows, the more people will experience the ill-effects of our depleting environment. However, the democratization of science & technology has transformed the tools available to conservationists, from advances in synthetic biology & microbiology to robotics, to global connectivity through mobile platforms, humans now have the ability to address mounting challenges through exponential technological advances.

The grand challenges for ocean conservation will not be solved at one “Big Think,” but it served to help rethink potential solutions, and build the tribe that will help create new innovation platforms. Continued discourse that emerges from diverse sectors, cultures, and countries are what will create the pathways toward concrete goals that could re-shape the way we relate to our oceans and our Earth.

Roberts pointed out the need for a solution that can come soon, even if it’s not a complete transformation, because planet health is the top priority.

“When you look at the set of sustainable development goals, they reflect the acknowledgment, the degree of which we rely on a healthy planet. Half the goals are about the planet, because if we lose the planet, we’re sunk.

Author: Maya Trabulsi is an anchor/reporter/producer for the NPR and PBS member station in San Diego.  She earned her BA in Media Communications from Webster University, and her MA in Television, Film, and New Media Studies from San Diego State University.

Editor: Eleanor Greene is a digital media intern at Second Muse and writer based in Washington, D.C. She has a BA in Journalism from American University.

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