GESAMP Celebrates Fifty Years of Ocean Science


Published Sep 14, 2019 8:28 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), the independent body of experts that advises the United Nations on marine sciences is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

GESAMP, administered by the IMO, was conceived in 1969 when the United Nations began planning for what would become the era-defining environmental conference, held in Stockholm in 1972. In the run-up to that conference, the need emerged for an international body to undertake independent assessments and research to feed a growing requirement for accurate scientific knowledge on ocean issues. 

GESAMP’s first major task was to provide the main input on the marine environment to the Stockholm Conference. In many ways, this really put the marine environment on the international radar. Until then, it was generally felt that the ocean was so vast that human activities would not affect it on a global scale, even though local effects were observed and understood. GESAMP’s input to the 1972 conference changed all that.

GESAMP’s 1982 finding that the main sources of most marine pollution are land-based had a major impact. It was widely quoted for decades afterwards to demonstrate the impact of land-based activities on the marine environment. When the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (widely known as the GPA) was adopted by 108 Governments and the European Commission in 1995, it drew heavily on the scientific knowledge that GESAMP pioneered. 

GESAMP’s 2001 assessments (reports 70 & 71) on A Sea of Troubles and Protecting the Oceans from Land-based Activities were commissioned as a major scientific contribution to support the first intergovernmental meeting to review how the GPA was being implemented. Report 71 reconfirmed that broad-scale issues such as sediments, nutrients, fisheries and habitats, remained the highest threats. The stark statement in report 70 that “most of the problems identified decades ago have not been resolved, and many are worsening” was widely quoted in many different scientific forums and had a major role in focusing thinking and galvanizing action.

Since then, GESAMP has been providing input and support to agencies, governments and industries on a wide range of subjects. The Scientific basis for disposal of waste into the sea, Marine pollution implications of ocean energy development, Comprehensive framework for the assessment and regulation of waste disposal in the marine environment and Environmental impacts of coastal aquaculture are some of the many reports that GESAMP has produced.

Today, GESAMP is jointly sponsored by 10 UN bodies that each have responsibilities relating to the marine environment. The IMO provides the secretariat function from its headquarters in London. GESAMP has around 15 individual members and draws on a wider global roster of experts from a wide range of relevant disciplines who all act in an independent and individual capacity. Studies and assessments are usually carried out by dedicated working groups, comprising largely of scientists from the broader GESAMP network.

GESAMP has often been at the forefront of the global discussions on emerging issues. For example, GESAMP’s working group on Sources, fate and distribution of plastics and microplastics in the marine environment was established in 2012 to support the ongoing discussions in major environmental fora on plastics in the oceans and has since then produced three reports.

GESAMP’s four working groups on the air/sea exchange of chemicals have produced nine reports and 26 scientific papers - showing clearly that the atmosphere is a critical transport path for many substances entering the ocean.

In addition to providing the UN system and wider public with a better understanding of issues related to the marine environment, some of GESAMP’s working groups provide direct input to major intergovernmental regulatory processes. For example, WG 1 provides an evaluation of any harmful substances that are to be carried in bulk by ship, and WG 34 evaluates active substances used in ballast water management systems onboard ships. The advice from both these groups feeds directly into the decision-making process and regulations adopted at the IMO.

GESAMP’s trademark is to synthesize extremely complex global processes into readable (non-political) overviews. GESAMP has also started to provide management guidelines and proposals for its users. Over the last half century, the issues, problems and threats to the marine environment have changed and so has the knowledge of causes and potential solutions. GESAMP remains at the forefront of the global system that identifies these changes and concerns and endeavors to provide front-line advice and guidance based on the best available scientific evidence.