by Tanya Brodie Rudolph

Complex systems are such that small perturbations can have disproportionately large impactful system-wide effects. The COVID-19 crisis is the classic example of this well-known ‘butterfly effect’: from the over-exploitation of nature in a Wuhan wild meat market to a global pandemic, this crisis demonstrates the absolute necessity to build the kind of resilience that enables effective, agile responses to sudden system changes. This is as true for the complex ocean system we depend on. Should the ocean system collapse, the resultant crisis would be as devastating as the COVID-19 crisis.   In fact, it is now more important than ever to understand complex systems and how they can be made more resilient for the benefit of people, the economy and the environment.

Pressures on the ocean as a result of climate warming, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, fragmented patchwork governance, declining biodiversity, demographic change, overfishing and pollution are increasing. Unsustainable economic, political and social institutions are facing pressures as social norms and values shift from national self-interest and growth, consumerism and marketization towards a culture of sustainability. This societal shift is accompanied by a growing recognition that the Biosphere we live in is inter-connected, that the humanity depends on the protection and careful use of natural resources. As these shifts occur, many niche innovations occurring across ocean spaces gather momentum, and demonstrate the potential for responsible stewardship of the global ocean commons. In Belize, visionary integrated ocean governance and management offers solutions that are scalable and transferable to anywhere in the world. Rights based fisheries management in Iceland, the Pacific and Chile have led to inclusive governance solutions informed by bottom-up innovations,  to improve the sustainability of system over time, contributing to fish stock restoration and equitable distribution of benefits. Pre-competitive collaboration between fishery corporations and supply-chain transparency initiatives (such as SeaBOS and Abalobi app have contributed to traceability informing consumer choice. Knowledge and information sharing platforms enabled by open-source data and analytical platforms allow for the possibility of creating an ocean knowledge commons. The potential inherent in a knowledge commons to catalyse local lessons , amplify local lesson sharing, track progress of national commitments under international agreements (such as the UNFCCC and voluntary commitments under the Our Ocean Conference),  will facilitate signals for priority policy needs and can accelerate the adaptive flexible and agile governance needed for decision-making at multiple scales.

A new paper prepared by leading experts in support of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy found that a more adaptive and responsive global ocean governance system could facilitate the transition for ocean stewardship through three key pathways. The first pathway is the need to re-configure governance—including top-down and bottom-up nested scales of governance from local to global. The second is by empowering people who depend on the ocean commons through knowledge sharing for adaptive learning and conferring rights to the ocean as a public good. The third is by integrating ownership, for example rights to a fishing quota, with stewardship, through mechanisms such certification and pre-competitive collaboration. These mechanisms will provide incentives and help build accountability. The Marine Stewardship Council’s fishery certification system and rights-based fishery reforms like catch shares are promising examples of such innovations.

The necessity for flexible, adaptive, moment by moment policy and governance decisions has never been more apparent. The COVID-19 experience offers vivid lessons for governance. Radical systemic change has demonstrated that profound change is possible, challenging old perceptions that barriers such as systemic rigidity, interest-driven politics and persistent patterns of unsustainable economic acceleration prevent transition. Many decisions are being made now, during a period of uncertainty, which will have lasting economic consequences. This reinforces the need for coordinated, science-based global action to meet the shared challenge of setting the ocean on a just and sustainable path.