Former Director-General  José Graziano da Silva
An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

The UN’s new marine research vessel sets sail

The Norwegian explorer and Nobel Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen once said: “The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”

It was in that very spirit 43 years ago, in 1974, that the government of Norway and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations launched a pioneering oceanic research partnership named in Nansen’s honor: the Nansen Programme.

Since then, Scientists aboard the vessels Dr. Fridtjof Nansen I and II have embarked on survey voyages around the globe, sampling fish populations, studying marine life, and assembling data that still serves us to this day.

Now, the newest vessel Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, the third of its series, will continue the mission of expanding the boundaries of oceanic science.

The Nansen vessels have now sailed the equivalent of 60 global circumnavigations, conducting research that has vastly deepened our understanding of underwater ecosystems -- in particular, of the life-sustaining fisheries that so many people around the globe depend on.

Indeed, a primary goal driving this effort is to ensure fishers and coastal communities benefit, especially in the Global South, by giving developing nations better scientific information for sustainably managing fisheries and feeding their people.

The only marine research vessel to fly the UN flag, the Dr. Fridtjof Nansen has carried out its research primarily in Africa, in some of the least observed waters on the planet. Nansen surveys provide a platform for developing nations that lack the infrastructure to conduct such marine research independently. Without these resources, they would face challenges in assessing their fisheries resources – something that is essential to making sound fisheries management decisions.

Additionally, the long trail of ocean data collected over this 40-year effort gives us a precious baseline for studying ocean patterns today and devising models to understand better the effects of climate change. This latest Dr. Fridtjof Nansen will ply new waters, in Africa but also in Asia and elsewhere, with an added focus on assessing how a changing climate is impacting our shared oceans.

Today, as we read headlines that tell us great coral reefs are dying, it seems that we face seemingly intractable challenges in protecting our marine resources.

International attention on protecting our oceans has never been as high as it is now. The challenges are numerous, but the will to confront them and find solutions has never been stronger.

Positive recent developments include the adoption in 2014 of FAO voluntary guidelines that help governments support small-scale fishing communities. This innovative instrument recognizes the key contributions that small-scale fishing communities – comprising more than 90% of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers – make to poverty alleviation and food security.

Last year, the first international treaty designed to eliminate illegal fishing – the FAO Port State Measures Agreement – entered into force. The 42 members (with the EU bloc counted as one party) participating in this ground-breaking accord are now working together to bar illegally-caught fish from ever entering into international markets through ports. Norway, a great champion of the accord, will be hosting the first ever meeting of treaty parties this May.

And this summer, the UN Ocean Conference will take place in order to ramp up international cooperation to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring that our shared oceans are conserved and used sustainably.

Norway has been at the forefront of these developments, mobilizing political will, providing financial support, and sharing the expertise it has gained through its history as one of the world’s great seafaring nations.

Together, we will steer towards those bright lights. The knowledge we are gaining through the ongoing Nansen partnership will help us, one day, realize what will be one of our greatest accomplishments: ensuring the health of our shared oceans, for the benefit of all people.

As Fridtjof Nansen said – the impossible is achievable. It just takes a bit of time, teamwork, and commitment to work together.

This opinion article was originally published by Reuters Trust