Experts warn limits on ocean observations in national waters likely to jeopardize climate change mitigation efforts

Experts are raising a red flag on institutional and logistical constraints scientists face when deploying ocean observation systems in countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – areas up to 200 nautical miles from the coast that fall under governmental jurisdiction for the exploitation of natural resources and the conduct of marine scientific research. The concept of EEZs was formalized in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), commonly referred to as “the constitution of the ocean”.

The alert issued by global experts in ocean observing and maritime law comes through the Workshop Report recently published by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO), the result of a multi-agency workshop on how scientific networks can carry out systematic ocean observations within UNCLOS in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which cover almost one-third of the global ocean.

Forty years after UNCLOS provided clear guidance on access to EEZs for scientific purposes, managers of the sustained ocean observing system raise concerns about inconsistencies in how governments regulate scientists’ access to their national waters. These inconsistencies are constraining scientific enterprise and severely impair the implementation of the Global Ocean Observing System, needed to deliver essential information for sustainable development, safety, wellbeing and prosperity.

According to the report, inhibiting the access of scientific teams and ocean observing networks to EEZ could constrain the development of a truly global ocean observing system, resulting in major gaps in our ability to mitigate climate change, improve weather forecasts and warnings for hazards such as coastal inundations or tsunamis, and sustainably manage marine resources and ecosystems.

Years of consultations and negotiations by experts in international scientific cooperation and law of the sea have generated innovative ways to adapt ocean observing infrastructure to national restrictions to access into EEZs. The best example is the notification scheme used by the Argo Programme, which collects ocean information using a fleet of robotic instruments called Argo floats that drift with the ocean currents. Whenever an Argo float draws closer to a country’s EEZ perimeter, the country receives a notification and can opt whether to share the data from that float. In practice, 99% of coastal countries choose to share the data through global data systems. One option raised through the workshop could be negotiating a similar framework under the auspices of UNESCO for several other types of ocean observing instruments, such as ocean sensors attached to animals.

Since the release of its Open Science recommendations in 2021, UNESCO has called on countries to increase scientific collaborations and information sharing, making all scientific data and knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for the benefit of society.  The Open Science approach, which is also supported by the new Unified Data Policy of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), asks governments to work on developing an enabling policy environment for open science and to promote international cooperation in order to reduce digital, technological and knowledge gaps. Such actions are fundamental for facilitating ocean observations within areas under national jurisdiction such as the EEZs.

Beyond warning about the current negative impacts of inhibiting sustained ocean observing in EEZs, the recent Report proposes a number of potential and practical solutions within UNCLOS, to be implemented through collaborative action across UNESCO, WMO and the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs through its Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS). 

One of these suggestions is to invoke Article 247 of UNCLOS, by which governments would agree to “fast-track” or facilitate access to national waters for all ocean observing programmes organised through an intergovernmental body or organisation, such as IOC-UNESCO.  Article 247 of UNCLOS has never been used in this way before, and such an approach would require close concertation between IOC-UNESCO and UN Member States, starting likely with some pilot projects.   

Governments are set to discuss this important issue for the future of global climate and ocean science at the Fifty-fifth session of the IOC-UNESCO Executive Council in June 2022. Unlocking the full potential of ocean science within the existing framework of UNCLOS will be a major step forward in making change under UNESCO’s Open Science approach and make the ocean more accessible and sustainably managed, ultimately contributing to the vision of the Ocean Decade: the science we need for the ocean we want. 

Read more: Report of Ocean Observations in Areas under National Jurisdiction Workshop

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