RESEARCH PROFILES

Getting to an equitable ocean future

Susa Niiranen is one of the theme leaders of the centre's focus on ocean science.

With our oceans changing rapidly, centre theme leader Susa Niiranen warns researchers struggle to keep up. In a race against the clock, is it possible to win?

Story highlights

  • In 2020, the centre introduced new research themes to reflect a shift in the centre’s research focus
  • One of the new theme leaders are Susa Niiranen who will co-lead the new Oceans theme
  • Her research focuses on understanding marine food webs - the way organisms in our oceans, including humans, are linked to each other and interact

No matter where in the world we live, our lives are directly or indirectly affected by the health of our oceans. But many oceans are sick, and have been for a while.

We need to understand what exactly is happening so appropriate action can be taken. And with the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development there’s no time like the present.

With the centre’s increasing focus on the ocean, we chat with newly appointed theme leader Susa Niiranen about the biggest challenges facing marine research, the importance of the Arctic, and her passion for putting equity at the heart of the centre’s oceans research.

Susa, as a marine ecologist working on marine food webs, what kind of questions do you ask?

Understanding marine food webs - the way organisms in our oceans, including humans, are linked to each other and interact by feeding interactions or competition - is vital. What happens to the rest of an ecosystem when a top predator disappears due to overfishing, or when a species moves towards cooler waters due to climate change?

These are important questions because these kinds of changes can have drastic knock-on effects to the rest of the ecosystem, jeopardising all the services the oceans provide us with.

And perhaps particularly important in the Arctic?

Indeed. Conditions there are changing extremely fast. There are areas with ice cover now which will be ocean in 50 years. It’s also one of these tipping point areas where a relatively small change can cause quite a large and potentially widespread impact.

Less ice cover and new technology means both the region and its resources are opening up for economic exploitation. That is why we need to ensure a sustainable future for the Arctic Ocean. It’s a new frontier.

Scarce data makes it difficult to set management targets and plans - it’s a race against the clock to understand Arctic ecosystems and provide science-based guidelines for how we can sustainably manage the resources of this important area.

What kind of expertise does SRC bring to Arctic research?

There are several ongoing projects, but as an example we’re providing scientific advice for future fisheries management of the central Arctic Ocean, as part of the European Fisheries Inventory in the Central Arctic ocean (EFICA) consortium led by Stockholm University’s Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences.

At the SRC we mainly focus on mapping the potential future human-ecosystem interactions, including different actors, in the Arctic Ocean.

January 2021 saw the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. What will be the major challenges of studying global change in the oceans in the coming years?

Things are changing so fast now that as researchers we have a hard time keeping up! And then there’s the complexity. Humans impact the oceans in many different ways, and everything influences everything.

This also links to globalisation. If you look at the impacts of fishing on a local scale, the main drivers may come from somewhere else, for example through trade or economic activity on the other side of the world.

Water is also quite different to land, where effects are often local. Water transports pollutants, and fish stocks move quite freely. If something happens in one part of the ocean the effects may spread to far off places, which makes accounting for what’s happening much harder.

You’re taking the helm as one of two new leaders of the centre’s oceans theme. Congratulations! What do you have in store?

I’m really excited about leading SRC’s oceans research together with Robert Blasiak. Robert has a strong background in the more social aspects of marine research, including business actors, while I bring ecological knowledge. The aim is to bring these two closely together to push the scientific boundaries in oceans research.

We have so many excellent ocean studies and people working hands-on in the regions. Combined with the exciting theoretical developments happening at SRC, we have a good basis to push the theme forward to new levels, not just at SRC but science in general.

One of the priorities of SRC oceans research is equity. Why is this so important?

SRC’s work on oceans has three main priorities: ocean equity, ocean risks and ocean futures. Although a priority in its own right, from my perspective ocean equity holds everything together and should be considered in all oceans research.

The ocean’s resources are scarce, and access to these precious resources is rarely equitably distributed. Many of their benefits are enjoyed by a few, while most harms from development are experienced by the most vulnerable.

Going forward into a future with climate change and increasing human activity in the ocean, we need to make sure these resources are fairly distributed, with less well off countries able to get their nutrition from the sea, protected from the negative effects of development.

How will the theme ensure SRC’s oceans research is societally relevant?

One of the main aims of the oceans theme is to bring science together with a stakeholder dialogue. It’s really important that the many people who are dependent on the ocean have a say in the kinds of solutions being developed.

Some of us collaborate closely with local stakeholders like fishers and traders. Other colleagues work with big business and industry through initiatives like the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship or are involved in high level policy making like the High level Forum on a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

Published: 2021-02-05