The Imperative of Ocean Exploration: Challenges and Opportunities in the Caribbean

Photo by Manu San Félix.

Ocean exploration is fundamental to monitor, understand, manage, and protect our oceans and to discover the economic potential hidden in their biodiversity in the form of genetic and biochemical resources. A better understanding of our oceans can set the stage for future decisions regarding sustainability, protection and responsible use of marine resources, and is as such a crucial part of the Blue Economy, a concept that -within a framework of sustainability and conservation- recognizes the importance of the oceans as drivers of the economy because of their great potential for innovation and growth. The Blue Economy is integrated with a fifth of the objectives outlined by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in its 2025 Vision, which is to promote actions to combat climate change.

Ocean exploration, which has been traditionally performed by people with formal academic qualifications, requires access to the ocean and scientific equipment that is relatively very expensive. In general, Caribbean countries have restricted access to their deep oceans despite their occupying substantial parts of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which translates into a lack of exploration, which in turn contributes to inappropriate or inadequate management decisions, and unaware populations.

This situation, however, may change: the emergence of lower cost technologies (for example, deep-sea dropcams, Remote Operated Vehicles or ROVs, and sensors), coupled with open data initiatives, such as Global Fishing Watch and satellite-based remote sensing, offer affordable alternatives to Caribbean countries for conducting ocean exploration and thus better understanding their oceanic surroundings and tapping into the potential for their economic growth.

At the end of 2019, the IDB hosted a virtual workshop titled “The Imperative of Ocean Exploration” to discuss the opportunities and challenges for promoting ocean exploration in the Caribbean, and how this exploration could support decision making by governments, as well as in the private sector and local communities. A panel of experts with extensive experience in this field, composed by Diva Amon[1], Katy Croff Bell[2], and Alan Leonardi[3], addressed the importance of ocean exploration to gain a better understanding of our oceans and shared with the participants -most of them from Caribbean countries- their views and perspectives on possible ways to conduct a broader and better exploration, as well as on ways to share their results.

The conclusions and recommendations that came out of this event, which we have synthesized below, can help inspire the necessary actions to promote ocean exploration in the Caribbean

Ocean exploration policy and governance

  • We know very little about the ocean. If we want institutions to understand the threats that affect the ocean, the opportunities it offers and how to take advantage of them, there is an urgent need to introduce ocean science in global policy.
  • There are very few policies about the sustainable use of the oceans. Ocean governance must be improved locally, regionally and globally.

Promoting the agenda from the government

  • The granting and monitoring of research permits to access genetic resources is an essential step in the earliest phase of ocean exploration. The procedure for applying for these permits and its associated conditions and fees can be an incentive (when it is a quick and simple process with affordable fees) or a deterrent (when it is a tedious and slow process with very expensive fees) to attract researchers from all over the world and benefit the local scientific community with new knowledge.
  • Ocean exploration involves a wide diversity of stakeholders with different skills and assets (policy, science, data, equipment, transportation, funding, outreach, others). A stable organization is required in terms of community or collective building, equipment procurement, fundraising, and other key related tasks.
  • Governments can drive this effort and also support the community, enabling it as a whole to move forward.

Efforts with the scientific research community

  • Up until recently, policy informed science. Now, science is more readily informing policy. Communication of ocean science is much more active today than two decades ago.
  • There is a critical need to increase access to the deep sea in the Caribbean. We need to know and understand what’s there and how it is being affected by climate change and human activity.
  • It is essential to initiate the time series through the collection of baseline data so we will be able to understand change in the future.
  • Given the speed at which the ocean is changing due to pollution, climate change, overfishing and other impacts, there is an urgent need to conduct exploration faster.
  • There are emerging efforts to borrow ideas, approaches and lessons from other scientific fields and technological disciplines such as low-cost technologies and distributed systems to develop tools for ocean exploration.

Photo by Diva Amon

Investing in talent and tools

  • It is critical to invest in people in country, both in their training to prepare them to use technology and in their work to collect and analyze data. This is a long-term investment.
  • It is also essential to invest in technology, fieldwork for ocean exploration and sharing the journey and the results with society, institutions and private sector.
  • Academia could introduce ocean exploration in the curricula of different fields, such as mechanical and electronic engineering, as well as in data science. This could increase the pool of scientists and engineers with interest in ocean exploration. However, this will likely require collaboration and financial support.
  • Capacity building should begin with youth – there is potential to intersect with aquatics and recreation, such as swimming and sailing to introduce children to potential ocean careers much earlier than university-level.

Partnerships: from alliances to diplomacy

  • Exploring the ocean is all about collaboration and partnerships. Government agencies are unable to do everything, so they need to leverage partnerships with academia, industry and philanthropy, in order to build financial and technological capacity. For example, the University of West Indies, St. Augustine, started a new collaboration with BP, who donated an ROV to the university for conducting research.
  • There could be many opportunities to collaborate with other local and international organizations if the importance of ocean exploration was conveyed effectively.
  • Sharing the journey and the results of ocean exploration with civil society, private sector and institutions requires partnerships with organizations that reach society at large. For example, the case of TV news in Puerto Rico, which broadcasts results of ocean exploration in their Exclusive Economic Zone.
  • Diplomacy is also a very important channel to discuss opportunities for joint work with other countries. Intergovernmental engagements are a good example (i.e. a NOAA vessel conducting research work in Trinidad & Tobago)[4].
  • These types of opportunities are discussed in the UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission[5], whose members meet regularly to share and discuss priorities regarding marine science and exploration, and capacity building.

Sharing resources

  • There are many opportunities for collaboration in ocean exploration in the Caribbean.
  • In general, Caribbean countries have high levels of education and expertise, but ocean exploration is still in its infancy given the lack of financial resources. Main constraints are access to vessels and equipment such as ROVs.
  • In the Caribbean context, the most feasible approach is sharing. It is not needed that each country has exploration vessels and ROV. A lot of equipment could be shared on a regional scale.
  • This sharing approach requires a regional needs assessment, understanding that countries are different and have common but also different needs.

The role of society

  • Prior to any research or capacity building being undertaken, local communities should be engaged to understand what their needs are before starting ocean research. Ideally, it would be the community that initiates this process. We need as many voices at the table as possible.
  • Need to educate people about the ocean in ways that are meaningful to them, not only through a scientific perspective.
  • Science communication is critical too, it helps create a willingness about ocean exploration and engage with different audiences.

The two main conclusions of the workshop could be summarized in a single message: opportunities exist, but action is urgent. If we could motivate society, NGOs, institutions and the private sector to jointly tackle at least one of the above-mentioned recommendations, we would have an entire multi-sectoral team of people that could accelerate action, motivate change, and really tap into the vast potential of our oceans to bring about sustainability, employment, competitiveness and economic resilience. In the words of oceanographer Sylvia Earle about the ocean, “Our past, our present, and what remains of our future depend absolutely on what we do now.”

1] Deep-Sea Biologist, Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum in London, and co-founder of SpeSeas.

[2] Director, Ocean Discovery League and National Geographic Fellow. Former MIT Media Lab Research Scientist.

[3] CEO, Consortium for Ocean Leadership. Former Director, Office of Ocean Exploration and Research at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

[4] NOAA interacts with several Caribbean nations from its center in Miami.

[5] The purpose of the Commission is to promote international cooperation and to coordinate programs in research, services and capacity-building, in order to learn more about the nature and resources of the ocean and coastal areas and to apply that knowledge for the improvement of management, sustainable development, the protection of the marine environment, and the decision-making processes of its Member States.

Rafael Anta

Rafael Anta

Principal Specialist on Science, Technology and Innovation at the Inter-American Development Bank

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