logoDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

3rd New Space Atlantic Summit “Clean Oceans with Clean Space”

Keynote Address by Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean. “The Role of Space in the Ocean’s Health”


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

All courtesies observed and greetings to everyone joining this virtual forum today. Wherever you are situated, I hope that you and your families are safe and well in these troubling times.

My warm thanks to the organisers for inviting me to speak to you all and for giving me this platform to repeat my customary mantra of “No healthy planet, without a healthy Ocean”, with the knock-on from that being that the health of the Ocean is currently caught in a cycle of decline. That is basically why, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Member States of the United Nations, in their joint wisdom, decided by consensus in 2015 to include SDG14 in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

SDG14 is the Ocean goal that sets out to conserve and sustainably use the Ocean’s resources, without which we would in all probability never have rallied around the world, at the amazing levels now in evidence, in order to reverse that cycle of decline in which the Ocean has been caught. In 2017 at the United Nations in New York, the first UN Ocean Conference was held to support the faithful implementation of SDG14. Such was the success of that global gathering in mobilising action, that the UN Member States have mandated the holding of a second UN Ocean Conference to be held next year in beautiful city of Lisbon.

I say again, we can’t have a healthy planet without a healthy Ocean, thus in any international discussion on health and sustainability, on the planet’s biodiversity’s plight, or indeed what we are doing in Space, the health of the Ocean must be front and centre. Why is that? Well, I ask you to think about the fact that every second breath we take comes from the Ocean, but even more significantly, it is because the Ocean hosts the great majority of biodiversity, in other words Life, on this planet.

I’ve mentioned the cycle of decline in the health of the Ocean. Its ailments of acidification, deoxygenation and warming are principally due to our burgeoning levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Consider acidification and deoxygenation and think about deteriorating life conditions for underwater life. Consider ocean warming and think death of coral, changing Ocean ecosystems, and sea level rise.

But these ailments, with our greenhouse gases at their core, are not all that humanity is putting upon the Ocean. Our long-standing harmful fisheries practices and policies are catching up with us; our wanton destruction of natural habitats, like mangrove forests and seagrass meadows, is depleting our ability to mitigate the Climate Crisis and maintain healthy coastal ecosystems; and our unconscionable levels of marine pollution runs from the detritus of our cities, to the effluence of untreated sewage, industrial and agricultural effluence, to what we dump from our seagoing vessels, particularly fishing nets, through to the plague of plastic pollution that we have unleashed in our lifetimes.

It’s a daunting list, but I am pragmatically confident we have the ability to set things right. We can reverse that cycle of decline in the Ocean’s health, if we exercise the necessary will-power and maintain our fidelity to SDG14’s principles of conservation and sustainability. In this existential exercise, the role of Space is, and will increasingly become, a key element of progress. And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, over the next ten minutes I’ll set out some of the ways I see Space being used to better conserve and sustainably use the Ocean’s resources.

When it comes to fisheries management, the use of space-based technologies has accelerated rapidly in the past few years.  Previously the remit of the military, we are now seeing civil use of radar detections from satellites to detect the presence of vessels anywhere in the world. Such detection is possible at night and through cloud, and with coverage expanding rapidly with new smallsat constellations, we expect costs to decline significantly. This is an important development, because the latest FAO statistics demonstrate that a third of global fish-stocks are being over-fished, in other words are being caught at rates beyond their biologically sustainable limits. Also, it is estimated that one in every five fish taken is illegally caught, and that the annual market value of illegal, unregulated and unreported fish is worth somewhere between ten and twenty-four billion dollars per annum.

We have some emerging Space-based advantages over these illegal nautical activities, such as the fact that using Space-based sensors, we are able to detect the emission of light from vessels at sea. It is relatively easy for example to spot squid-fishing vessels, since they use huge lights to attract the squid to the surface. Also we can obtain optical images, as good as your camera in some cases, showing vessels in the act of fishing or transferring fish at sea to mother vessels, so-called transhipment, thereby aiding enforcement authorities to investigate unauthorized activities.

The tracking system that vessels use to avoid a collision, Automatic Information System, or AIS, is now transmitted through satellites and has emerged as a powerful tool to provide insight into where fishing vessels are operating on the Ocean. In that regard, Vulcan Skylight project are using AIS to aid enforcement and the not-for-profit organisations such Global Fishing Watch and OceanMind are applying AI and other data layers to detect vessel activities at sea, and in the case of OceanMind, to track greenhouse gas emissions. I should also mention direct detection of radio frequency transmissions from a variety of onboard sources including x-band and s-band radars, satellite communication equipment, and traditional VHF radio, as very promising emerging technology in the pursuit of illegal fishing.

All of these technological advances are of course equally relevant to the monitoring of vessels in relation to monitoring the integrity of officially declared Marine Protected Areas. To those wanting to learn more about these developments, I suggest taking a look at the Global Fishing Watch website. Global Fishing Watch is putting Space-based data collection to great use and is providing it to us all for free. I also recommend a visit to the website of the Global Tuna Alliance to see the way in which the responsible supply chain is moving to use of these technological measures for traceability of seafood in order to satisfy consumer demand as to the legality and sustainability of their products.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are of course many elements to Blue Crime and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) deals with many of them. UNODC makes good use of satellite imagery to assist national authorities tackle a range of maritime crime including drugs trafficking, the interception of terrorist shipments, and crime in the fisheries sector. 

UNODC regards use of satellite-based technologies as an essential component of building maritime domain awareness. When coupled with AIS, VMS and machine-learning, they allow countries to target their often very limited patrolling capability onto the right bit of sea at the right time, thus hugely increasing the efficiency of maritime law enforcement operations.

UNODC views the next generation of maritime law enforcement as including the broad use of satellite technology for surveillance and detection of illicit activity at sea. I’m informed that Sat-AIS is already being used extensively for MDA data fusion and developing predictive algorithms using machine-learning technology; and that their next phase of satellite technology utilisation will be applying Radio Frequency detection for surveillance and analysis. I’m advised that Radio Frequency detection technology, using triangulation with three orbiting satellites to detect any radio signal over Ocean space, offers great possibilities in the fight against Blue Crime.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The UNESCO-based Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the IOC, to which most of our countries belong, regards remote sensing through satellite observation as an essential tool of Ocean management. The UN Decade of Ocean Science gets underway next year, and we expect it to produce the science we need for the Ocean we want, and of course the Ocean we want is essentially a healthy one.

Through collaboration with the GEO Blue Planet, using openly available and shared Earth observations data, the Decade will utilize satellite observation to achieve a clean Ocean. It aims to do so by implementing an operational integrated marine debris observing system, monitoring and identifying sources of land-based pollution, and implementing a virtual marine pollution tracking system that will include quantification of the type of pollutants.

The IOC affirms that satellite observation will be central to the Decade’s activities, delivering a safe and predictable Ocean by implementing global-coverage operational forecasting systems to inform marine and coastal hazards. It will be central to understanding and predicting impacts of global biodiversity changes in marine and coastal environments; and the monitoring of hazards of a biological nature, such as harmful algal blooms and harmful bacterial blooms that are related to human activities, land-ocean interactions, or are generated by changing environmental conditions.

It will also reinforce operational monitoring and forecasting systems for climatic changes and corresponding oceanic key risks, along with identification and elaboration of Earth observation products to support adaptation policy processes such as the UNFCCC National Adaptation Plans for least developed countries. And it will strengthen regional observing networks to ensure timely delivery of information on Ocean health, including thresholds for major Ocean challenges such as ocean acidification and marine pollution, in order to support policy development and foment positive action.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In relation to the measurement of the extent and health of coastal ecosystems, access to coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and salt marshes for field surveys can be very expensive, difficult, and sometimes hazardous. In such cases, remote sensing is the best option available, including both airborne data collection and satellite observation. One of the key advantages of remote sensors is that they can monitor and assess long-term trends and short-term changes of vegetation and hydrology faster, more completely and at lower cost per unit area than field or ship surveys alone.

We therefore see remote sensing as an important tool for monitoring ecosystem change and a key component in adequately monitoring and researching the vital study of chlorophyll and algal blooms. Once in service, satellites are usually a continuous source of information for many years, allowing decade-long and large-scale monitoring of natural and man-made changes in ecosystems. They are thus hugely helpful to us in creating habitat maps and providing essential information for the establishment of coastal management and marine spatial plans.

One of the great challenges facing the Space-Ocean nexus, is how we can mend the wounds we have brought upon the planet through our at-times wanton use of fossil fuels. I give credit to organisations like the not-for-profit Skytruth that has been tracking oil spills and more for several years.

Protecting biodiverse marine regions like coral reefs is an obvious area for attention, and it was good to hear that satellite imagery from Planet Labs was used to assist responders working on the recent environmental tragedy in Mauritius, after an oil tanker ran aground on a coral reef. Imagery from Planet Labs is also helping with the compilation of the Allen Coral Atlas which is mapping and classifying the world’s coral reefs, and such work could naturally be extended to mangroves, coastal wetlands and other biodiverse regions.

I also acknowledge the R & D work of KSAT and Plymouth Marine Labs in developing a satellite-based Ocean plastic detection service and wish them every success as they evaluate which satellite sensors are useful and which applications are a good fit.

Exponentially during our life-times, we have unleashed a plastic plague upon the Ocean, and I put it to Space-based enterprise to find the innovative solutions that will allow us to beat the scourge of “ghost” fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned at sea, and to identify the locations of the great rafts of plastic detritus that are floating out there in the Ocean or washing up on our coastlines.

I’ve touched on some of the uses of Space in the stewardship of a healthy Ocean. It’s a fascinating subject, and there are of course many more contributions I could have mentioned - I think for example of monitoring sea level rise, and changing Ocean surface temperatures and Ocean currents, but time waits for no man and I’ve used up my allotted fifteen minutes, so let me bring my remarks to a swift conclusion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When we gather in Lisbon next year for the UN Ocean Conference, we will be focussed on the conference’s themed topics of science, innovation, solutions and partnerships. It is evident from those four thematic topics, for the reasons I’ve outlined in my remarks today and many more besides, that Space will have a special role to play in the innovative solutions and partnerships that will undoubtably emerge from the conference.

I therefore urge you all to think ahead now as to how your interest in the development and utilisation of Space technologies can be productively applied to safeguard the health of the Ocean. By doing so you will be a positive force in what is, thanks to the Climate Crisis and habitat destruction, the great calling of the 21st Century, namely the defence of Life on this planet. I wish you every success in usefully developing the Space-Ocean nexus that we may in future be true to SDG14’s goal of conserving and sustainably using the Ocean’s resources.

Thank you for your attention to my words today.

I look forward to seeing you in Lisbon next year!