A Pacific Ocean Expedition
A Royal Australian Air Force C-27J aircraft performs a flypast near the waterfront at Apia, during Operation Solania 23-2

A Royal Australian Air Force C-27J aircraft performs a flypast near the waterfront at Apia, during Operation Solania 23-2, 23 May 2023. Defence Image.

Written by

Anthony Bergin and Maurice Brownjohn

Pacific leaders have long recognised the benefits to be derived from investing more in ocean science to support national and regional economic growth in ocean sectors. The islands, while small, have huge ocean areas. That makes them large ocean states.

Managing the sustainability of marine resources is vital for the Pacific. This region delivers two-thirds of the world’s tuna. There is more known about the moon than this ocean. It’s still very much an unknown frontier but is increasingly attracting geopolitical interest, driven partly by its vast and often untapped marine and mineral resources.

Ocean science research vessels in the region have historically been chartered, often for fisheries research. Most are being decommissioned due to their age. But now Australia, the US, and New Zealand are funding a $34 million fisheries and ocean science research vessel for the Pacific. New Zealand has recently announced its contribution of $8.2 million.

Australia’s funding commitment is expected to be announced soon. The vessel will be operated by the South Pacific Community (SPC) in New Caledonia, the organisation that coordinates research and mobilises scientific knowledge for the region. The fisheries and ocean science research vessel will have several missions, ranging from tuna tagging, deploying instruments for ocean observation, and implementing bathymetry surveys.

The trilateral donation is timely: ocean science can make a significant contribution to our island neighbours in responding to sea level rise, ocean warming, the impact of plastics on marine biodiversity, tuna management and the development of marine protected areas. The vessel will complement current Pacific marine research conducted by France, US, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Despite these efforts the Pacific remains the least researched ocean. Our island neighbours lack ocean science research vessels and sampling equipment, even though as seen with the collection of fishery data, fish tags, and biological samples a lot can be done with national programs and basic onshore laboratory equipment.

Conducting marine science research isn’t cheap. Coordinating the required efforts across countries from within and outside the region is almost an art, but SPC has served the region well here. There are no national oceanographic centres. Most island states have only a handful of people with ocean science backgrounds in their key maritime agencies. Australia can lead this capacity building with secondments to our marine research institutions.

The islands are reliant upon foreign research vessels. They depend on foreign expertise for much of their marine science research requirements, oceanographic and meteorological advice. There are limited opportunities for islanders to participate in regional research cruises and often the data isn’t shared. When an ocean science project ends capacity often dissipates and any capacity building is grounded.

When it comes to the future of ocean science in the Pacific Islands region, Australia, along with like-minded friends, should now be thinking much bigger than just donating a single research platform.

We should be utilising island nations and remote communities for a network of data collection centres. This might include data from fishery observers (based upon the region’s 250 purse seine vessels) and other oceanographic data such as gathered from 25-30,000 fish aggregating devices tracking the ocean currents. There are typically 1,000 times more FADs in the region’s waters at any one time than dedicated oceanographic data buoys, (which can also sample the water column vertically and collect a raft of additional data). This can be supplemented with autonomous oceanographic vehicles taking targeted sample data, a step up from underwater drones and Argo floats.

Finally, there’s never been a coherent examination of the Pacific as has been occurring in the Indian Ocean through the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition. IIOE-2 is a global coordination effort that advances the understanding of the biological, geological, climatological, and socio-economic role of the Indian Ocean.

Launched nearly a decade ago, the IIOE-2, is due to go through to at least the end of next year. It brings together institutions and scientists under a multi-national framework to support research under a science plan and implementation strategy.

The IIOE-2 was motivated by the need to advance understanding of oceanic and atmospheric processes and their interactions in the Indian Ocean, and how these dynamics will affect the impacts of climate change, pollution and fish harvesting in the Indian Ocean. Twenty-eight countries are represented. Numerous research cruises have been completed as part of the program.

The Pacific should adopt a similar type of overarching ocean science program. Regional bodies, such as the SPC and the University of the South Pacific should work with the International Oceanographic Commission to draw up a prospectus. That could then be taken to stakeholder meetings in the Pacific to identify key marine research needs at the regional and sub-regional level. This would produce a united ocean research plan for the Pacific Islands region.

Projects could be endorsed under a Pacific Ocean Expedition. It would make for a powerful “branding exercise” framed under the current UN Decade of Ocean Science. Australia should take the lead and “kick start” the Expedition working with the region. It would be a once in a generation ocean research initiative aimed at improving livelihoods, sustaining the Pacific’s marine environment, and preparing for an uncertain future under global warming.

The strategic case for Australia choosing to cooperate with New Zealand and Pacific Island Countries on ocean science should be clear. Being a strategic leader requires Australia engagement in many areas. Working collaboratively and respectfully in ways that Beijing cannot, we will benefit from the science and reinforce our partnerships with Pacific regional partners.

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia and Maurice Brownjohn is an independent consultant on fisheries and marine resource management.