Ahead of Our Ocean Summit 2018, Dr Peter Heffernan, Marine Institute chief executive, outlines to Inshore Ireland  what can be expected in  this year’s programme.

He also talks about the influence the Galway Statement on Atlantic Cooperation is having worldwide, five years after it was formally signed on May 24th 2013 by Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn and Commissioner Damanaki on behalf of the European Union, together with representatives from the USA and Canada and which launched the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance (AORA).

What is your message this year?
I’ll be emphasising the tremendous support we have had for the event from across all government departments and the Marine Coordination Group and the agencies that are taking lead roles in assembling different sessions. The challenge was to build on the scale and the quality of previous summits which I think we have achieved through a very exciting programme. I truly believe this year we have world-class contributors and the best range of topics. In that sense I’m indebted to all our partners in the endeavor.

Ocean issues are increasingly populating the human mind, why is that happening?
We’re at a very interesting juncture with marine affairs both nationally and internationally. Internationally there’s never been a greater awareness of ocean issues. The BBC’s Blue Planet series coupled with Sky News’ championing of ocean issues for example, and then at a local level we have Ken O’Sullivan’s wonderful Ireland’s Atlantic documentary.

Looking laterally, in almost thirty years working in the marine area, I’ve never seen anything that has grabbed public attention like the plastics issue right across the Atlantic region, North America and Europe. Plastics is the ‘buzzword’ that has connected a global awareness of the oceans and the relevance of oceans to life on earth.

The potential impact of Brexit on Ireland’s marine economy features prominently in OOW 2018. Outline the challenges the marine research community might face? Do you see any positives in Brexit?
Directly related to fisheries, the Marine Institute’s key role with other agencies is to support the government’s negotiating position and inputs to the EU. That involves serious effort on the Institute’s part. Depending on how the whole Brexit debate evolves, you could envisage a scenario where a significantly greater demand and workload could fall on the Institute in undertaking surveys and assessments of stocks. That could possibly require enhanced partnerships with scientists in France and Spain. But all that remains to be seen in the context of the broader Brexit negotiations.

Right across the spectrum of marine research Ireland, traditionally this sector would have had very strong relationships with UK partners. In the future, with Ireland the only remaining English-speaking country in the Atlantic area of the EU, this could open opportunities for scientists. A lot of water will flow under the bridge before we know exactly how that plays out however. Nevertheless, Ireland is well positioned in terms of scale and range of its partnerships and the research we’ve been engaged in so far. All in all, we’re bearing up well for whatever eventualities may come post-Brexit.

Is Marine Ireland Inc on target to meet the 2030 target to contribute almost 2.5% of GDP?
Yes, according to the latest figures from 2016. The target figure in Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth was to achieve a turnover of €6.4bn by 2020 and we already reached €5.7bn by 2016 – that’s very encouraging. If the current trend continues, Ireland will be well on course to not only achieve but exceed the 2020 turnover target. And we’re well on course, I would say, for the 2030 target which is that the marine economy will be contributing 2.4% of GDP.

What new research alliances can you reveal?
Ireland is very well positioned; we have a great research track record of partnerships with all EU key partners. We also have bi-lateral agreements with the UK, France, Norway and the US. Then in the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance (AORA) we’re very central to the whole Galway Statement and its implementation, and that brings another order of magnitude to the partnership and the scale of collaboration efforts being planned and executed between the EU, Canada and the US.

And in the last year I was privileged to be invited to chair an international review panel of global experts for GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. As a result, we’re now exploring opportunities and enhanced partnerships with Germany.

The Galway Statement was signed five years ago; how effective and influential and relevant has it been for marine research?
It’s one of the achievements I would be most proud of in my time with the Institute in the international arena. Earlier this month as part of the first series of events marking 20 years of the formal research partnership between the EU and the US, a dedicated event was held in the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC to celebrate the fifth anniversary of achievements under the Galway Statement.

This event was attended by the highest-ranking EU and State Department officials. So, in terms of international science diplomacy the Galway Statement has been very influential. It has been replicated in the South Atlantic with the Belém Statement last year on Atlantic Research and Innovation Cooperation between the EU, Brazil and South Africa modeled very much on the Galway process.

There’s real money and real initiatives available for over five hundred research teams working across five key priority areas. That has achieved investment to date from Horizon 2020 EU funding of more than €140m. It has also seen very significant research programmes both in the Science Foundation and in NASA aligned with Galway.

Canada has also made massive strides to align with Galway by creating a federal alliance on ocean research resulting in up to a quarter of a billion Canadian dollar investment in the maritime provinces of the Atlantic that are fully aligned with Galway, and are being mobilised now.

So the ambition levels for the next decade are very substantial. Among the key priority areas being focused on will be large-scale targeted mapping of the Atlantic Ocean undertaken and mobilised by the Alliance, inspired by Ireland’s seabed mapping drive over the last decade and more.

Ireland is held up as the exemplar on two levels: that the survey has been committed to and is executed in a managed long-term process; that it survived the worst of our economic crisis and was persisted with by the Irish government during that time, and that it kept the open data policy.

I can certainly see the drive in the next phase to have the entire Atlantic Ocean comprehensively mapped with technologies and approaches very similar to the Irish seabed mapping endeavor managed by Geologic Survey Ireland and ourselves.

Have politicians and government finally grasped the potential of the ‘blue economy’?
It’s a qualitative judgement but I think we’re just about there. Nevertheless, much more effort is required to drive that momentum but it is remarkably better. Look at the international scene; there’s tremendous opportunity in the next decade through alignment of political interest and powers.

The oceans is now on the G7 Agenda; you’ve got a UN section on the oceans, you’ve got a proposed plastics-free ocean mission for research in the next framework programmes of the European programmes.

I also think there’s a real opportunity for the private sector, researchers, governments and for the public to be engaged in what is possibly the last great exploration on earth which is mapping our world oceans for the first time comprehensively and to put in place a forecasting system for the ocean that is similar to terrestrial weather forecasting.

We take it for granted for terrestrial issues; we now need a similar momentum for the 70% of the planet which is ocean.

What is it about SeaFest that has made it so popular among the public in only five years?
I think three aspects have helped achieve its success to date: the huge voluntary effort by all of the partners across the State SeaFest is unique; it’s family-friendly; it’s a festival for all and it delivers wonderful variety. One of the things that inspires me most is the volunteers of all ages, backgrounds and interests who give freely of their time to help it be successful, especially last year.

And Galway has been just outstanding; I don’t know if any other city could have facilitated SeaFest’s growth in such a short time – 100,000 visitors in the first two years! We’re leaving a permanent legacy in Galway – the Wild Atlantic Sea Science Gallery developed in partnership with the City Council at the Museum at Spanish Arch. It’s something we look forward to replicating wherever SeaFest finds its home in future.