Skip to content


5 key takeaways from the UN Ocean Decade Conference

19 April 2024

The event in Barcelona brought together around 1,500 scientists and representatives of governments and environmental organisations.
Barcelona, Spain

In mid- April (8-12th), Spain hosted the 2024 Ocean Decade Conference and Ocean Decade Week, co-organized by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) in collaboration with the Region of Catalonia and Barcelona City Council.

Representatives from across the scientific community, governments, UN bodies, NGOs, civil society, philanthropy and industry gathered to discuss the global science agenda, celebrate areas of success across the ten challenge areas, and define future priorities for the Ocean Decade (to 2030).

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) played an active part in the run up to the conference and was highly visible throughout the week, with its scientists and experts taking part in the Conference Programme Committee, representing large international networks and national committees, organising events, giving presentations, panel discussions and a key feature of the conference, the Vision 2030 papers. PML, together with the University of Plymouth and Marine Biological Association (MBA), hosted the Marine Research in Plymouth booth highlighting Plymouth’s Decade contributions.  

Here we reflect on some of the key takeaways from Barcelona:

1. A step change in ocean monitoring capability is vital.

From the impacts of global warming, ocean acidification and pollution to our understanding of the relationship between ocean and human health, the conference bubbled with discourse on how increased monitoring, the filling of knowledge gaps, and improved marine management and planning are urgently required.  

The Barcelona Statement, which was published following the conclusion of the event, included priorities around enhancing and scaling-up marine and coastal ecosystem-based management approaches, gaining a better understanding of deep-sea ecosystems, the need for evidence-based Sustainable Ocean Plans, and an ambition for improved decision-support tools.

For PML’s Director of Science, Professor Steve Widdicombe, who sits on the Ocean Decade Conference Programme Committee, a systemic change in how monitoring is both financed and delivered is urgently needed to support these aims:

“As an ocean community we have spoken a lot about the need to gather data to help create a better Ocean. We recognise the pressing need to observe Ocean processes, to measure human impacts, discover new species and habitats, and understand how the whole ocean ecosystem functions.

But the ways we currently approach data collection are holding us back from delivering our ambition of a cleaner, healthier Ocean that supports both human society and all marine life. We need to fundamentally change the way in which ocean observing infrastructure is delivered through massive global investment. We need to follow the example set by the weather forecasting sector and create a global infrastructure that is supported by all governments. Only then will society be able to generate the knowledge and understanding we need, and ensure this need continues to be met long into the future.”


Above: Professor Widdicombe speaking at the conference.

2. International ambition requires national action (and action is already overdue).

The need to “strengthen the role of national, regional, and international policy frameworks as drivers of priority science and knowledge generation through the Ocean Decade to ensure relevance and uptake” was identified as one of a number of cross-cutting issues, and many speakers at the conference acknowledged the need for accelerated action on key ocean issues at national level.

The Barcelona meeting brought together more than twenty of the National Ocean Decade Committees for the first time in person. PML’s Head of the International Office, and Chair of the UK National Ocean Decade Committee, Professor Matt Frost said:

“International ambition can only be realised through national action. The outcome from the conference therefore isn't the soundbites, or the international declarations but about catalysing action at a national level. The governments, agencies, scientists attending the conference now have the opportunity to go back and move things forward at the national and even local level. The ten Ocean Decade challenges provide a great and ambitious global framework but we’re only going to get the outcomes we need for the Ocean if we go back and implement action at the national level. This means everything from undertaking transformative science at appropriate scales to establishing the necessary policy, legislation and governance frameworks.”


 Above: PML's Head of the International Office Professor Matt Frost speaking at the conference.

WhatsApp-Image-2024-04-11-at-10-37-19.jpegAbove: Professor Matt Frost (left) with Dr James Clark, Marine Ecosystem Modeller (right).

3. Stronger together: Cross-sector collaboration critical to a sustainable future.

In the official closing remarks for the conference, Vidar Helgesen, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) expressed the need for a “shift in the way that policymakers and decision-makers can co-design scientific research initiatives so that the knowledge is produced in a timely, relevant way and put to use.”

From science to policy, industry and sectors beyond the ocean community, there was an emphasis throughout the conference on accelerating action through closer working relationships and improving the mechanisms and opportunities to support collaboration and the co-creation of solutions for the most pressing of challenges.
The Barcelona Statement lists strengthened public-private partnerships, increased engagement with the health sector and more meaningful engagement of industry and the innovation sector within its priorities.

PML’s Dr Jim Clark took part in the “Global Awareness, Research activities and Network to Address Ocean Microplastic Pollution” event (which was organised by NORCE and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with PML and others co-hosting), which highlighted the importance of cross-border, cross-sector efforts to tackle the complex challenge of microplastic pollution and the need for increased technological solutions.

Technology and innovation have a key role to play as we look for better mechanisms to stem the issue [of microplastics]. We’ve had a lot of great conversations at the meeting and made a lot of new connections and I’m really looking forward to progressing on these.” 

WhatsApp-Image-2024-04-09-at-17-52-56.jpegAbove: PML's Dr James Clark speaking in the “Global Awareness, Research activities and Network to Address Ocean Microplastic Pollution” event.


4. ‘Outside the box thinking’ required for ocean communication and increased ocean literacy

As part of the Ocean Week programme, there were a number of satellite events focused on Ocean Communications and Ocean Literacy, including two flag ship symposia, and many conference speakers and panellists emphasised the importance of science being co-designed, communicated effectively, towards engaging with hard-to-reach audiences, and raising awareness and exchanging knowledge through creative methods.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay emphasised the need for “Maximum mobilization” to save the Ocean, and the Barcelona Statement includes an ambition to curate stronger links between the scientific community and professional communicators and an expansion of ocean literacy initiatives to ensure awareness of the importance of ocean science across all sectors of society.

PML’s Head of Marketing & Communications, Dan Jones, who attended the flagship Communications Symposium, said: “It was incredibly refreshing to hear science communication being acknowledged so widely throughout the week as a crucial part of efforts to accelerate progress towards a better understood, better protected and more sustainable future for the Ocean and society. The week also provided a valuable opportunity for ocean communicators to share learnings and discuss potential new approaches in terms of how we amplify, and galvanise action on, ocean issues.”   

5. Balancing perspectives: inclusion, equity and diversity a key to success

The importance of including diverse voices and perspectives in key decision-making was highlighted by the conference as a vital aspect of ensuring more holistic and sustainable approaches to ocean management.

There was recognition of the profound traditional knowledge systems and cultural practices within indigenous communities that have sustained harmonious relationships with the environment for centuries, and there was discussion around how integrating diverse perspectives and expertise into policy-making processes is not only ethical but also enhances the effectiveness and sustainability of ocean management strategies, something also on the agenda at the events PML hosted.

On the final day of the conference, Ken Paul of the Wolastoqey Nation, who leads work on “Advancing Indigenous Partnerships in Ocean Science”, spoke of the need to honour the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the need for a reciprocal relationship with the Ocean, and increased investment in indigenous knowledge systems, adding “I hope we can also take to heart the concept of true and equitable partnerships which means building a relationship and discussing the best things that can be done to be mutually beneficial”.

PML’s Professor Ana Queirós, who gave a presentation as part of the Science and Solutions for a Safe and Predicted Ocean session, said:

“The role of the decade in mobilising the ocean community has been really great to see. What I am thinking about now is how to engage more local communities. We have seen some good representations here from around the world, but it would be good to see them more involved in the delivery of the decade challenges.” 

WhatsApp-Image-2024-04-11-at-16-27-35-(1).jpegWhatsApp-Image-2024-04-11-at-16-27-35-(2).jpegAbove: PML's Professor Ana Queirós giving a presentation as part of the Science and Solutions for a Safe and Predicted Ocean session.

Related information

About the Ocean Decade:

Proclaimed in 2017 by the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) (‘the Ocean Decade’) seeks to stimulate ocean science and knowledge generation to reverse the decline of the state of the ocean system and catalyse new opportunities for sustainable development of this massive marine ecosystem.

The vision of the Ocean Decade is ‘the science we need for the ocean we want’. The Ocean Decade provides a convening framework for scientists and stakeholders from diverse sectors to develop the scientific knowledge and the partnerships needed to accelerate and harness advances in ocean science to achieve a better understanding of the ocean system, and deliver science-based solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The UN General Assembly mandated UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) to coordinate the preparations and implementation of the Decade.
Share this story: