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What might be the future for the sea?

April 11, 2018

Huw Williams, SAMI Principal, reviews a report from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Foresight Future of the Sea.


The Government Office for Science Foresight team published this report in March. It looks to suggest a new strategic direction to UK marine and maritime policy, in particular to seize opportunities and avoid strategic threats.

The report points out that the sea matters to UK because of the economic effects both on established sectors (eg fishing, oil and gas) and emerging ones (eg aquaculture, off-shore wind); and environmental effects (biodiversity and ecosystems). They also focus on governance (eg international treaties). It argues that the UK can seize new opportunities because of its historically strong marine and scientific capabilities, and that “business as usual” is not an option (it didn’t actually say why, but it would have been surprising if it said it was!).

The report makes many recommendations for policy action, but in this note I have focused more on the trends it identifies. SAMI itself has produced a set of 12 “megatrends” (email for a copy) and it’s interesting to compare those with what Go-Science have come up with.

At a top level they suggest that:

  • New technology, such as autonomous vessels, will open up new areas for exploration and exploitation, and increased trade will make the oceans busier;
  • A growing world population will put pressure on resources;
  • Climate change will impact both industry and communities.

Looking in more detail, the report uses a STEEP approach to identify trends:

  • Social: Population growth and consequent resource demand; the impact  of an ageing population on workforce and coastal communities “where people are on average older than in the rest of the UK”; global migration to the coast as a result of urbanisation – 12 of the world’s largest 16 cities are within 100km of the sea. The SAMI megatrends also identified changing generational values as an interesting trend, which in this context could translate into greater environmental awareness and willingness to act.
  • Technology: Autonomous vessels and AI will enable a better understanding of the sea’s potential, make exploration of the deep sea easier and also improve monitoring of the marine environment and illegal activities; as will improved satellite communications (we would argue that the Internet of Things plays in to this too); cybersecurity will be an issue here too; biotech will open up new “marine genetic resources”; alternative fuels are being developed to help reduce carbon emissions; AI will also impact the skills requirements for the maritime industries.
  • Environment: Clearly climate change is a major issue but more immediately so is over-exploitation – fish stocks are under threat with over 30% being fished unsustainably, creating opportunities for aquaculture (fish farming in plain English); ocean warming is leading to a decline in cold-water species and changing patterns of fish distribution; sea levels are forecast to rise by up to a metre by 2100 impacting coastal communities and infrastructure; the sea is become more acid and algae blooms are leading to de-oxidisation; pollution from plastics (expected to treble by 2025) and chemicals continues to increase; there could be an effect on carbon sequestration, which to date has absorbed much of the anthropogenic carbon emissions.
  • Economics: The report notes OECD expectations of growth in the “ocean economy” eg in trade and offshore wind power, and growing reliance on the sea for resources ; there may be a decline in some UK industries (eg offshore oil and gas) and disparities between regions; overall they expect to see more seaborne trade and the emergence of new sectors such as deep-sea mining and offshore renewable energy (wind, wave and tidal).
  • Politics: Brexit, and what follows the Common Fisheries Policy and its impact on trade patterns, represents an opportunity for a “Global Britain” to take a lead in international maritime organisations; the increasing value of marine resources may increase potential geo-political conflict eg in the South China Sea or Eastern Mediterranean; political instability may be caused by extreme flooding and the failure of economies based on fishing. Wider geo-political issues which we’ve identified, such as challenges to international co-operation and the rise of other economies are, perhaps understandably, missing.

As to the implications of these trends, the report takes an upbeat view for the UK, arguing that is uniquely positioned to lead because of its historical position. It calls for an Industrial Strategy that features the “ocean economy” and, through appropriate support for marine science policy and certain emerging sectors, maximises the UK strengths in areas like offshore wind power and marine insurance.

The report makes some 16 different recommendations, the first and most fundamental being that “The UK should develop a more strategic position, with clear priorities, with regards to its marine interests”. No surprise there. Generally, the recommendations focus on ways for the UK to exploit commercial opportunities, manage environmental challenges, and take a leading position in international governance bodies.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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