Ocean Voyages Institute's marine plastics recovery vessel, removing 103 tonnes of fishing nets and consumer plastics.

The Ocean Voyages Institute’s marine plastics recovery vessel removed 103 tonnes of fishing nets and consumer plastics in 48 days from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.Credit: Ocean Voyages Institute/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

Three billion people need the ocean to make a living. But climate change and industrial pollution mean there are now more than 700 ‘dead zones’, areas of ocean that can no longer support marine life because of reduced oxygen. This is up from 400 in 2008. This week, scientists and policymakers are meeting for a much-delayed United Nations summit in Lisbon (27 June to 1 July) on how the world could do better to ensure ocean sustainability.

The meeting is the first such high-level gathering since the end of 2020, when 14 world leaders, led by Norway and Palau, promised to accelerate science-based solutions to managing ocean areas sustainably in their national jurisdictions. Back then, members of what they named the ‘High Level Panel’ (now called the Ocean Panel) appointed a team of researchers to advise them. They also commissioned a series of ‘blue papers’, research illuminating various aspects of how to meet environmental goals while simultaneously protecting livelihoods and food security. All this was in line with the UN’s 14th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), called ‘life below water’. Rather ambitiously, the leaders pledged to achieve ocean sustainability within their national borders by 2025, instead of the SDG deadline of 2030.

Now, the group is bigger — France and the United States have joined. The Ocean Panel has published a toolkit: a guide to how countries can make their own sustainable ocean plans and ensure that they are acting on those plans. Sensibly, the toolkit proposes indicators to measure progress. This is a welcome development, but the work of researchers is far from over.

To avoid unnecessary extra work, the toolkit proposes that countries adopt existing measures, such as indicators of SDG progress and those developed through the UN’s System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA). These could include, for example, the contribution of sustainable fisheries to national income; tracking the share of energy research and development spending that goes to ocean and offshore renewables; and reporting the density of ocean plastics. But new indicators will also be needed, for example, to monitor a pledge made last week by some 164 countries (at the World Trade Organization) to stop government subsidies that threaten the sustainability of fisheries. That will need researchers to advise on the nature and extent of subsidies and how these can be reduced in a way that people, especially those on the lowest incomes or who are most vulnerable, are not harmed.

Kristian Teleki, the head of the Ocean Panel secretariat and global director of the ocean programme at the World Resources Institute, based in London, told Nature that the panel plans to report on how member countries are “converting ambition to action”, and that they will do so by the next UN General Assembly meeting, in New York City in September. This is promising. But Ocean Panel countries need also to report how they, collectively, are making progress on the indicators they have proposed in their toolkit. This should ideally be a separate, easily identifiable part of their September report so that readers can judge whether, or how, their ambition is being matched by progress.

Not all countries will have access to the required data and some might need time to collect, standardize and analyse the information. That’s where the panel’s research advisers can, and should, help. The panel members are being advised by an expert committee of more than 70 researchers, in addition to more than 250 researchers representing 48 countries who contributed the blue papers ahead of the 2020 launch.

Researchers must now work with the panel to help improve and standardize existing indicators and, where necessary, create new ones. Reporting on progress doesn’t need to be a legally binding process. Most important is that progress is measurable, based on a consensus of international expert opinion, and that it is reported on regularly by the panel. A number of frameworks might be suitable for this, including one suggested in a study in Nature Sustainability by Eli Fenichel, a researcher now at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington DC, and his colleagues (E. P. Fenichel et al. Nature Sustain. 3, 889–895; 2020).

Ocean sustainability is now on the agendas of the UN, the G7 group of wealthy countries, the World Economic Forum and the seafood industry, through its ocean-stewardship initiative with scientists, called SeaBOS. The Ocean Panel has set itself an ambitious goal — 2025 will soon be here. A system of indicators is an obvious next step for the researchers involved in the panel’s work. But, more important, it is needed for accountability, which is integral to trust in public institutions and is urgently needed to ensure that promises translate into policies and real change.