Vidar Helgesen, assistant director-general of UNESCO: ‘We need to save the oceans to save the planet’

The head of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission warns that the world needs a system capable of monitoring in real time what is happening in the seas with respect to temperature, biodiversity and overfishing

Vidar Helgesen
Vidar Helgesen, assistant director-general of UNESCO and head of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.Albert Garcia

For many years, the seas and oceans have been invisible in the climate crisis. The climate-regulating capacity of this great body of water and its nutritional role for humanity are changing at a dizzying pace due to rising temperatures, overfishing and the large garbage gyres formed by ocean currents. This troubling panorama was discussed in Barcelona, where UNESCO organized the Oceans Decade Conference between April 10 and 12.

Vidar Helgesen, 55, who has been assistant director-general of UNESCO for just over a month and heads the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, attended the conference at the Barcelona International Convention Center (CCIB). A lawyer by training, he was Minister of Environment and Climate in his home country of Norway and was also executive director of Nobel Foundation Organization. His diplomatic work and his fight for the preservation of the environment paved the way for his role in UNESCO.

Question. The Ocean Decade Conference seeks to make the world’s oceans cleaner, healthier and more resilient by using science as a fundamental pillar. What is the most urgent challenge, and what are the objectives set by UNESCO for 2030?

Answer. It’s hard to say. They are all interrelated. We cannot escape the fact that climate change is now having effects at dramatic speeds in the world’s oceans. We need to save the ocean to save the planet. The Ocean Decade Conference is not only about scientists coming together. It’s a mobilization of science, politics, philanthropy and business to expand our knowledge so that we know how, when and where to act.

Q. How would you define the current state of the oceans?

A. It’s dramatic. The effects of plastic pollution, illegal fishing and the agricultural industry are not the same all over the world. Europe is warming twice as fast as the world average, and the Arctic is warming four times as fast. We must continue making efforts and investments into monitoring mechanisms that can combat issues such as overfishing.

Vidar Helgesen has been fighting for the preservation of the environment for years.
Vidar Helgesen has been fighting for the preservation of the environment for years.Albert Garcia

Q. The year 2023 was the hottest in history. Figures from various research centers such as the School of Marine, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the University of Miami reveal that there were 400 consecutive days of record-breaking ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic. How do these episodes impact ecosystems and coastal communities?

A. In several ways. One is that ecosystems are moving. High temperatures are pushing fish migrations in coastal areas that depend on fishing. For example, in my country [in the Arctic] much larger Atlantic cod have been found because of the high temperatures. Scientists believe the Arctic cod could essentially disappear. Coral reef bleaching, which is causing biodiversity problems, is another example. We need better observation systems to see what is happening in real time.

One is that ecosystems move. High temperatures are promoting fish migrations in coastal areas where they did not occur before and depend on fishing. For example, in my country (in the Arctic) much larger cod has been found coming from the Atlantic due to the high temperatures. Scientists believe that they may disappear in the long term. The bleaching of coral reefs, which is a problem for ecosystems, is another example. We need to observe real time what is going on.

Q. Some scientists have warned about a possible collapse of the AMOC marine current, which regulates the temperate climate in Europe. What are the chances of this happening?

A. It is one of the big uncertainties. It’s possible to prevent if we take efficient and strong climate action now. But if we continue on the present trajectory of climate emissions it will have dramatic consequences, although we don’t exactly know what they will be.

Q. Overfishing is another of the issue that was discussed in Barcelona, and one of the biggest problems facing the oceans. What can be done to address it?

A. First, listen to the science assessments, which determine how much catch can be taken and where it can be done. And then translate that science into policies that are rigorously enforced. Monitoring, control, satellites and other mechanisms at sea, but also at port. It is in the interest of fishers because if you overfish this year, you’ll see fewer fish in the future.

Q. A couple of years ago, the Spanish Government sighted Moroccan vessels using mile-long nets to fish in the westernmost area of the Mediterranean. This fishing system, which is lethal for many marine species, has been prohibited in Europe since 2002 and, in Morocco, since 2022.

A. It is the most difficult part of good fisheries management: enforcement. You need to have good monitoring mechanism and enforcement. New technology makes that easier, because you can observe by satellite, GPS systems, drone. But you also need to have the capacity to interject and demand accountability for violating the law.

Q. How do you propose to achieve international cooperation to save the oceans, seas and marine ecosystems from climate change?

A. Although today’s world is polarized, we have seen in recent years a number of very good achievements in the ocean domain, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the World Trade Organization’s agreement to end subsidies that contribute to overfishing in many countries. These are signs that the world is coming together, even when there are conflicts that otherwise challenge international cooperation. Especially when we all have a responsibility to point to what would be the consequences of climate change and biodiversity on the cost of living. We are damaging production capacity, so there will be food shortages and significantly worse price hikes.

Q. Tons of plastic waste and debris are building up in the sea. What can be done to stop the sea from being a dumping ground for plastic?

A. It is another of the big problems in our relationship with the ocean. It is difficult because we assume that plastic production will double between now and 2045. We need governments to consider how their production patterns in their country actually look in practice and what are the major sources of plastic pollution. Still today there is no global overview of the extent and the effects of plastic pollution, which seriously harms marine life.

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