We are entering an era of profound upheaval in the oceans – driven by climate change, and compounded by many other stresses, including acidification, pollution, overfishing and destruction of coastal habitats. Already, resource users and coastal communities are buffeted by wild fluctuations in the ecosystems upon which they depend. Important fish stocks are shifting toward the poles. And the convergence of multiple pressures poses the risk of catastrophic “state shifts”– and the sudden and irreversible transformation of ocean ecosystems from vibrant productivity and diversity to barren wastelands.

Existing policies, management regimes, and practices are born of a deeply entrenched assumption that oceans are infinitely resilient and a chronic under-valuation of the irreplaceable services they provide. They are profoundly inadequate to this new era. They are too static to deal with resources in flux; and they are hampered by political dysfunction, the paucity of information, misalignment of incentives, and myriad practical problems.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can transform our ability to understand what’s happening in the oceans, and to manage it. Crowdsourcing, autonomous ocean sensors and drones, remote sensing, animal and vessel tracking, imaging and image analysis, genomics and genetics, and citizen science are all producing powerful new data streams. Artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning offer the prospect of transforming streams of data into streams of understanding to illuminate sources, interactions, and impacts of stressors.

Together, these new capabilities also open up unprecedented possibilities for understanding the complex dynamics of systems subject to multiple stressors, anticipating risks, identifying key levers for resilience, and adapting in real time. They will enable a paradigm shift in ocean management – from static to dynamic and from siloed to multi-sectoral. They also offer the potential to transcend policy and directly influence the behavior of resource users, communities, buyers and consumers. Initiatives like Global Fishing Watch and Project Eyes on the Seas are using real-time data from vessel transponders and satellite imagery to spot illegal fishing and enable law enforcement. Ocean-going drones offer more timely data on ocean conditions and fish stocks at a small fraction of existing costs. Inexpensive DNA tests allow managers to detect what species are present in their ecosystems. Technologies like Blockchain, which underpins bitcoin, show promise for tracing fish from the boat to the supermarket.

New approaches

Historically, attempts to improve management of ocean resources have often been defeated by vested interests and the deep institutional and political inertia in the system. Three developments offer the opportunity to break through that inertia.

The first is crisis. As ecosystems collapse or fish stocks disappear, we are already seeing some resource managers and users jolted out of complacency and desperate for answers. These disruptions are a lagging indicator, to be sure, but as they increase in frequency and severity they will provide an impetus for action.

The second development is innovations in governance. New approaches to tackling the challenges of a global commons are showing great promise. Civil society and leading companies are finding that they can drive real change through voluntary initiatives like certification of sustainable fisheries. Broader coalitions are also emerging. For example, an initiative of the World Economic Forum is bringing together NGOs, the world’s largest retailers, tuna processors, and governments in a joint commitment to require full traceability of tuna fisheries by 2020, which is the foundation for sustainable management of that sector. These innovations offer avenues for breaking through political stalemates and driving needed changes.

The third development is the enormous potential for new solutions afforded by the data revolution itself. We have seen, as with the emergence of certification 20 years ago, that creation of new tools and solutions can in fact prompt action by making it possible to change practices. The data revolution offers abundant opportunities to create tools that can drive action, by illuminating risks and identifying opportunities, providing real-time information to support response, and creating new capabilities to more sustainably manage or use resources.

There are no easy answers to the daunting challenges that lie ahead. But it is clear that innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be an invaluable asset as we work to meet this challenge.