World Sea Day: How the marine world heritage is shaping the future of science and innovation

This year’s United Nations World Ocean Day, traditionally celebrated on June 8th, underscores the crucial importance of innovation for a sustainable ocean.

From tracking drone wildlife in Russia’s Wrangel Island Reserve System to deploying artificial intelligence on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are pioneers in scientific innovations that are rapidly changing the future of marine conservation.

While UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage Sites are best known for their outstanding ecosystems, unparalleled beauty, and iconic biodiversity, it is their ability to translate science and innovation into policy and decision making that is at the heart of their conservation leadership.

From March to April, polar bear cubs leave their birthing den in the nature reserve of Wrangel Island Reserve (Russian Federation) to take their first dive into the icy sea and learn to look for seals. For local rangers, this marks the highlight of the game viewing season when annual trends are recorded in the world’s densest polar bear population. Polar densities are extremely difficult to locate on the snow-capped Arctic island, but thermal cameras mounted on drones can now do the job more precisely than ever – with less fuel and safer working conditions for rangers.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are also used to monitor the vast ocean swaths of the World Heritage-listed Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the second largest coral reef system in the world. The vehicles capture high-resolution photography and 3D digital surface models that help scientists understand the changing conditions of this fragile coral reef.

On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, artificial intelligence, image recognition technology and deep learning are accelerating scientists’ understanding of the location of invasive species, which in turn helps advance control programs like the one for the devastating crown-of-thorns starfish.

Today, the UNESCO World Heritage List includes 50 famous marine sites in 37 countries. As flagship marine sanctuaries, they are uniquely positioned to bring about the spearhead shift and serve as beacons of hope in a changing ocean. The United Nations Decade of Marine Sciences for Sustainable Development, which will run from 2021 to 2030, is a unique opportunity for the world to invest more in marine sciences and to bring the latest scientific discoveries and innovations to mankind to protect our common marine world heritage mobilize future generations.

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