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Maritime Foundation highlights the important issues facing the world’s ocean and seas

Following the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Nautical Institute in Plymouth, the Maritime Foundation provided an opportunity for the general public to learn about international, environmental and local marine and maritime issues at an event supported by the University of Plymouth Marine Institute and the Nautical Institute. Paul Wright MNM FNI reports from One Ocean – Seven Seas:

Chaired by Richard Clayton (Chief correspondent of Lloyds List), the event included three outstanding contributions from leaders in the field, Rear Admiral Chris Parry CBE PhD, Professor Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society London and the University of Exeter and Kevin Forshaw, Director of Industrial and Strategic Partnerships, University of Plymouth.

The first two contributions described particular challenges affecting the world’s seas and oceans. The third contribution gave an insight into the innovative activities being undertaken in Plymouth which are responding to the issues.

Rear Admiral Chris Parry provided the first contribution by giving a comprehensive oversight of the geopolitical importance of the world’s seven seas through which all nations are connected. Likened to a century’s old world-wide-web, it is the seas which have provided the opportunity for nations to communicate and trade with each other. As the world’s human population continues to expand, the seas have further strategic value concerning wealth and energy creation, environmental change, and globalisation.

Dr Parry’s presentation emphasised the overall dominance and undisputed control of the seas by the United States of America and its allies since World War 2 is being seriously challenged by China and Russia.

The relationship of China and Russia to the world’s seas was described in a series of maps giving the Chinese and Russian perspectives of the world. The maps emphasised the vital role that the seas play in geo-economics and geo-politics. They recognised the value that China and Russia place on the importance of sea power and the changes which are occurring. For example China’s interest in the South and the East China Sea, the development of the Belt and Road initiative and the expansion of the Chinese Navy. For Russia, access to the seas is seen as critical for its economic development with particular interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea and the growing seaboard created by the melting ice in the Arctic. The USA and the West as maritime powers still have a major influence, unlikely to be usurped in the short term, but there is little doubt that the 21st century will be the Century of the Sea.

Professor Heather Koldewey provided a beautifully illustrated presentation on the environmental challenges to the world’s ocean and seas. She recognised that the seas are interconnected and have to be seen as a whole. The ocean environment is changing at pace. Human activity and lack of awareness of interconnectivity are building up major problems for the future. Whilst plastic continues to erode the quality of the water, the major concerns are the increasing absorption of heat by the oceans and the over-exploitation of fish stocks.

Heather spoke of the enormous pressure from fishing leading to poaching. The call for Marine Protected Areas was recognised as being critical in restoring the health of the seas, and whilst the United Kingdom is taking the lead, by 2020 only 1.9% of the ocean’s footprint was protected by ‘no-take’ zones.

There is an internationally recognised need to ensure that the state of the oceans is secure and controlled. But there are major challenges ahead, including the development of a regulatory framework for the high seas and the ability to enforce new standards in areas where presently ‘freedom of the sea’ prevails.

The final contributor was Kevin Forshaw of Plymouth University. In his presentation, ‘Innovation and Autonomy at Sea’, he reminded the audience of the importance of the oceans to life on earth with the simple fact, that the ocean provides 50% of oxygen to the world’s atmosphere!

He drew attention to the UNESCO ‘Decade of Ocean Sustainability 2020 – 2030’ which has as its objectives a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable ocean.

The importance of scientific data gathering for good political decision-making at every level was emphasised – an area of activity that Plymouth excels in. Kevin briefly described the role of the scientists of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Marine Laboratories and the Marine Institute of the University who analyse data received. He also spoke about the value of ‘Smart Sound’, an experimental communications system using a 5G network in Plymouth Sound to gather data. He also highlighted the importance of innovation being developed at the Future Autonomous at Sea Technologies (FAST) Cluster, based in Plymouth.

The success of the autonomous surface ship, Mayflower 400 in completing an unmanned trans-Atlantic voyage in June 2022 was suggested as a glimpse into the future for ocean data capture. Building on the success of Mayflower 400, Plymouth Maritime Laboratories have revealed plans for the world’s first long-range autonomous research vessel, the Oceanus.

Finally, Kevin commented on other leading work being undertaken at Plymouth, including the development of offshore renewable energy devices, new areas of aquaculture and the Cyber-SHIP laboratory which is helping protect ships from infringements of cyber security.

One Ocean – Seven Seas was well balanced and informative, and those attending the free event could not have failed to recognise the importance of one ocean and its seven seas to their lives, and the positive role being played by Plymouth, Britain’s Ocean City.