Highlights and challenges of the Ocean Decade Conference 2024 – the biggest ocean gathering of the year 

The key messages from the Barcelona Decade Conference send hopeful signals that ocean science is moving towards more inclusive thinking in terms of inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to support ocean governance in terms of solutions, as well as the identification of problems. At the same time, significant space for improvement remains in ensuring meaningful change in fair and meaningful partnerships with Indigenous and local knowledge holders, as well as fair representation of researchers from the Global South, including Africa and Small Island Developing States, across the UN processes, regional and national ocean decision-making for a, and the ocean research community. 

Conference highlights and key messages signalling positive shifts 

Though it has been over a month since the UN Ocean Decade Conference took place in Barcelona, Spain, the participation at this important international forum remains one of the this spring’s highlights for the Hub team, not least because of the overwhelmingly positive response to Hub’s deep-sea research, human rights work, as well as transdisciplinary, participatory, and art-based research: all which seemed to be in synchronicity with some central discussion points and key messages coming out of the overall conference. 

The Hub researchers gathered in Barcelona to connect with colleagues from all over the world and with the public alike, and to deliver an array of successful satellite events, talks, and interactive art sessions, including  the Hub’s satellite events presenting the Transdisciplinary Toolbox – a knowledge sharing and method implementing program the Hub is set to deliver across the Decade in its Implementing Partner capacity, and the Challenger 150 deep sea research programme, also endorsed by the Ocean Decade.  

This year, Hub researchers also partnered in the Ocean Literacy Dialogues organised by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO), participating in the discussion panels, engaged with the topics of ocean literacy and ocean fluency, empathy, inclusivity of multiple knowledge systems, and two-way communication as crucial ingredients for the transformative governance for a healthy ocean. 

The key messages from across the Conference signalled a hopeful shift towards such ocean governance: closer consideration of Indigenous and local knowledge, interdisciplinary approaches to research and decision-making, and conversations about transformative solutions. For example, the following question asked during a plenary session inspired many: ‘How can a healthy ocean improve human health and enhance well-being on a rapidly changing planet?” It brought forth the important link of the ocean to human health, the importance of breaking disciplinary silos, as well as of the social engagement and sharing of the research findings. 

Ella Whitman, early-career researcher from the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College, shared one the of the key messages of the plenary: “Elegant science is no good if done in silence.” She noted that silo breaking and interdisciplinarity is pivotal for inter-linking medical science, ocean science and climate change research. 

Expanding Whitman’s point beyond to the importance of silo-breaking not just within but also beyond scientific community to include local and Indigenous ways of knowing,  Hub early-career researcher Lysa Wini (University of Strathclyde, UK) delivered a key message questioning the implications of anthropocentric thinking, still prevalent across the sector: 

“Are conversations still focused on stewarding the ocean because of the natural resources it can give us, as opposed to for its intrinsic value?” 

Lysa Wini (University of Strathclyde, UK)

Supporting the argument that that multiple knowledge systems, especially Indigenous and local knowledge, must be respectfully engaged with and relied on for restoring collective relationship with the ocean, with ourselves, and with each other, Wini noted: 

Elevate our Indigenous wisdoms so that they’ll be part of conversation that the world needs to hear about connecting to their places”, building on the points she made earlier in the conference, during her presentation at the satellite event ‘Presenting Transdisciplinary Toolbox for transformative Ocean Governance’, where she argued that: 

“We must support researchers from ocean communities and provide space for them to engage in Indigenous research methods. These traditional methodologies offer alternative perspectives and approaches to transformative ocean science”. 

These messages resonated with the presentations on the Hub’s arts-based participatory research with Indigenous and local knowledge holders in South Africa, Ghana, Namibia and beyond, which were shared at different points of the conference. On these occasions, Hub researchers were approached by, and were thrilled to explore new potential partnerships, with other conference participants. 

Dylan McGarry (Rhodes University)

One of the Hub researchers championing the research ethics of art-based participatory research as a call-and-response approach, Dylan McGarry (Rhodes University) advocated for a more comprehensive recognition of art as a form of ocean research:  

‘Making is a practice of thinking and theorizing, and it is one of the most powerful instruments in supporting customary governance’ 

Following these discussion McGarry, was invited to participate in providing inputs to the White Paper in formal capacity, which made the Discussion on White Paper “An Inspiring and Engaging Ocean for All: focus on Challenges 9 and 10-Capacity Development, Ocean Literacy, Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Heritage” another highlight of the conference for the Hub. 

Areas for improvement 

The Hub researchers who took part in the official program of the Conference, for instance, came from Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, and the Caribbean. However, there were many researchers from the Global South who were not able to do so.  

Among other highlights at the UN Decade Conference was the Africa-focused session titled “Looking SEAWARD: African Oceans and the Ocean Decade Narrative.” While the Hub researchers who travelled from Africa expressed that this session ‘made them feel at home’, they also noted a prevalent underrepresentation of the African ocean stories, as well as African researchers at the conference. A researcher from South Africa noted:  

Only few delegates from Africa. It was very ‘European heavy’ in terms of participation. There are barriers reported by our colleagues from across the [African] continent – including the lack of funding, and lack of concrete support in tackling lengthy, complicated and expensive visa application processes.” 

The Decade criteria to invite participants perhaps needs to be re-examined and re-balanced for the future events of this scale, as this potentially excludes those travelling from afar and through underserved routes. Hub researcher Alana Malinde Lancaster (University of West Indies, Barbados) shared her insights: 

“With the Small Island Developing States, and developing states in general, participation in international processes is often an issue, especially in processes on the ocean and climate change. It certainly was a challenge for me to be able attend the Ocean Decade Conference.” 

She called for a more detailed consideration of experiences and challenges for the SIDS, African, and Global South Participants:  

“We need global engagement, but this is more challenging for persons from many island states for historical, economic and other reasons. I really do think the context we come from needs to be fully understood when planning conferences of this importance and scale. We need to really reassess how we could make participation not only possible, but also meaningful. It’s just not adequate anymore to say we’re ‘checking that box.’ We are at a stage where there needs to be meaningful participation”. 

On the whole, Hub researchers have learnt a lot in Barcelona about the progress made by the international ocean community, but also about the work that remains to be done in tackling inequity (including in terms of balancing marine sciences, social sciences, humanities and transdisciplinary) and underrepresentation of Global South researchers and knowledge holders at high-level gatherings, which remains one of the key issues to be addressed within the UN Decade for Ocean Science. 

Related SDGs:

  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions