The ocean represents 99% of the living space on Earth. It provides livelihoods and nourishment for more than 3 billion people, and brings $3 trillion into the global economy each year. Yet, for all of human history, the ocean has been largely out of sight and, as a consequence, largely out of mind. We have been able to see very little of what’s happening in the water, or even on the surface. We have been blithely confident that the ocean is inexhaustible; able to provide all the fish we can catch, and absorb all the waste we produce.

But today the ocean is coming into view with startling rapidity. New technologies powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are creating an information revolution that will transform our relationship with the ocean. A rapidly proliferating array of advanced sensors - carried by fleets of satellites, ocean-going drones, fishing nets and even surfboards - is producing a flood of new data. New analytical techniques, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, translate this flow of data into streams of understanding, providing powerful new tools for governments and communities to manage ocean resources - all in a process transparent enough to create new accountability for resource users and businesses.

These capabilities arrive not a moment too soon. The ocean is in crisis. Most of the world’s fisheries have been fished to the limit or beyond. The ocean has mitigated our impacts on the climate – absorbing 30% of our CO2 emissions and 90% of the excess heat we have produced. But the result is that we are making the ocean warmer and more acidic. In 2015 and 2016, record global temperatures drove global bleaching across 70% of the world’s coral reefs. Fertiliser running off our farm fields has created more than 400 dead zones in estuaries and coastal waters. And each year we dump 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean; it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

 By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans
By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans
Image: Ocean Conservancy

In the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), governments have agreed on an ambitious global agenda to address this crisis. SDG 14 sets out a wide-ranging set of targets for better stewardship of ocean resources – including better management of fisheries, large and small; protection of key marine resources; and sustainable development for the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Success will require bold action by governments, communities, companies and civil society. Harnessing the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be essential.

New technologies can help governments better manage their fisheries. Ocean-going drones can cruise the ocean for a year at a time, offering a cost-effective solution for assessing fish stocks and patrolling remote areas. Real-time reporting allows dynamic management of fishing to reduce bycatch of protected species. Facial recognition technology can even be used to automate the tracking of catch – identifying every fish as it lands on the boat.

New technology creates new possibilities for small-scale fisheries as well. Smartphone apps can deliver information on weather, fish stocks, and market prices, and provide a platform for fishers to collect data on where they’re fishing and what they’re catching, helping them to achieve and demonstrate sustainability and access new markets.

Image: World Economic Forum/Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Oceans

As governments redouble their efforts to protect critical marine areas, 4IR technology strengthens their ability to make those protections stick. Satellites now track the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders that must be carried by all big boats. Three initiatives are now combining AIS data with other datasets and machine learning to monitor fishing and other activities, enabling countries to monitor all the waters within their 200-mile limit. In 2015, for example, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati used Global Fishing Watch to snare a fishing vessel operating illegally in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and collect a $2 million fine.

These capabilities provide new opportunities for sustainable development in SIDS, whose economies depend on a healthy ocean. They allow these countries to monitor and regulate their own fishing fleets, as well as the foreign fleets who license the right to fish their waters or who fish as pirates. More broadly, they allow them to monitor ocean conditions to help sustain the health of their ocean ecosystems.

The history of technology in the ocean gives cause for caution. Too often, technological advances – more powerful fishing gear, ever-deeper oil drilling, industrial agriculture – have accelerated depletion and pollution. As innovation enables even more intensive exploitation, the weaknesses of current governance are thrown into sharp relief. The 4IR thus demands strong action both from the governments who own the resources and from the governments whose companies would exploit them.

Success will require a commitment to flexibility – to open up entrenched management regimes to take advantage of the tools now becoming available – for dynamic management of resources, more effective law enforcement, and better understanding and control of risks. It will require a willingness to allow managers and communities to experiment with new capabilities in order to find better ways of managing their resources.

Most importantly, harnessing the power of the 4IR will require an openness to collaboration between a wide range of actors – allowing fishers and other resource users, NGOs, companies, communities and consumers to find creative ways to use new technology to create new solutions.

With flexibility, and all hands on deck, the 4IR can be a powerful resource in achieving SDG 14, and sustaining the ocean resources that are vital for our future.