April 2024

The ocean is a dominant feature of our planet, representing over 90% of the Earth’s biosphere by volume, home to a large portion of the world’s biodiversity, and a significant source of protein for over 3 billion people worldwide. While the increasing attention given to the ocean by the UN and other political and intergovernmental entities is encouraging, the Partnership for Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO) considers that much more needs to be done to sustainably support the long-term, globally-coordinated ocean observations and data systems that are needed to provide continuous streams of data and information about the rapidly-changing ocean to address the triple challenge of climate change, biodiversity loss and well-being, for ‘you can only manage what you can measure’.

Our current knowledge of the ocean is insufficient to fully understand the implications of the climate emergency we are facing, to sustainably manage our ocean, or to conserve its biodiversity. In order to address these challenges, we need reliable, actionable evidence at global, basin, and regional scales, underpinned by systematic and sustained information on ocean biota – akin to the rapid increase in understanding of ocean physics following the development of remote sensing and robotic profiling floats over the last few decades.

Until recently, there had been few tools available to the ocean community, due to the complexity and costs of sampling marine biodiversity, but now through new and evolving approaches, including biomolecular ones (the analysis of DNA, RNA, proteins, and small molecules, not often considered in ocean observing strategies), we can begin sensing biota at the temporal and spatial scales required for sustainable management and even biodiversity forecasting. Applying autonomous biomolecular technologies to monitor aquatic life promises to accelerate the generation of knowledge regarding marine ecosystems and their variability; particularly analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA) – a forensics-style approach that detects organisms by sampling the water they reside in or have recently passed through, as well as those inhabiting the ecosystem, such as plankton. Biomolecular approaches can also provide complementary information to combine with, and/or validate, remote sensing, in situ imaging, and passive acoustic monitoring.

Societal applications of the knowledge generated by sustained, global-scale biological observations are wide-ranging, with an unprecedented power to inform policy makers on the progress of global initiatives including the Agenda 2030, the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, Convention on Migratory Species, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the World Ocean Assessment and many more.

POGO is leading the UN Ocean Decade-endorsed programme Ocean Biomolecular Observing Network (OBON), which uses the power of eDNA and other biomolecular technologies, to inform diverse ocean stakeholders and ocean managers. Combined with traditional sampling methods and taxonomy, biomolecular approaches have a wide range of societal applications, such as:

  • Measuring and understanding change in the 30% of protected ocean by 2030
  • Evaluating the efficacy of different Marine Protected Area (MPA) management practices in the framework of the High Seas Treaty
  • Supporting and managing fisheries
  • Predicting ocean hazards such as harmful algal blooms, pollution hot spots, or oxygen depletion, and their impacts
  • Improving environmental impact assessments
  • Predicting diseases transmitted by marine organisms (e.g., cholera)
  • Predicting responses to catastrophic events such as marine heat waves, tropicalisation, hurricanes, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification
  • Conservation of marine biodiversity, including threatened, endangered or protected species and invasives, especially in remote areas, and in the context of expanding industries such as aquaculture, deep-sea mining, marine carbon dioxide removal, and offshore wind farms.
  • Mapping the biogeography of all organisms from viruses to whales.

Recalling the Dubai Ocean Declaration of November 2023, which called for the urgent establishment of the global- and regional-scale ocean observing system as an essential global infrastructure, supported by new public- and private-sector investments, and for increased efforts to incorporate traditional knowledge to create a more holistic view of the ocean-climate system and enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems and human society,

We highlight specific global needs in the context of the UN Ocean Decade, for:

  • Innovation in technology and methodologies to advance biomolecular observations from the coastal to the open ocean;
  • Development of resources, networks and capacity globally, to advance observations and analyses while ensuring equitable access. This will rely on the creation and expansion of reference databases to interpret eDNA results; such reference databases require physical sampling and identification of organisms, and is dependent on the continued recruitment and training of taxonomists;
  • Sustained monitoring of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs) and Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) and submission of biodiversity data to the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), to increase the information available to national and global policy makers, with the tantalising prospect of directly measuring ecosystem health;
  • Enhanced use and interpretation of these observations through agreed data practices, model integration, and digital representations of the ocean (digital twins), for improved decision-making.

As a Decade Implementing Partner and lead organisation for the OBON Decade Programme, POGO, together with associated stakeholders, calls on world leaders, funders, industry, scientists and civil society present at the 2024 Our Ocean Conference, to adopt measures individually and collectively to sustain and greatly expand biomolecular ocean observations globally, to provide a basis for understanding current and future changes in biodiversity, and ultimately reverse the intertwined threats to marine ecosystems and humanity posed by climate change, pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction and other anthropogenic impacts on our ocean.

Scroll to Top