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Director's Letter: Are We Ready To Dream Big Again?

Fall 2021

Tuck Hines in a navy suit, with white hair, mustache and glasses
Anson "Tuck" Hines, SERC director

On planet Earth, over 90% of the area that can support life is underwater. Most life on land—including humans—wouldn’t survive without the ocean. Yet we know surprisingly little about it. Despite decades of exploration, scientists estimate we’ve discovered less than half of the species that dwell beneath the waves.

This year, the world is beginning to dream big again. And for many, those dreams are of the ocean. 

The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, or “Ocean Decade” for short. The Ocean Decade calls on the the world to imagine a healthier, more bountiful ocean for everyone by the year 2030, and to support the science we need to get there.

It hasn’t been easy to dream over the last year and half. For some of us, it may feel like our dreams have shrunk: Make it to the next day, the end of the school year, the next family member to get a vaccine. When we dared to look beyond that, we dreamed that perhaps, life might feel more normal next year.

But the Smithsonian has always been called to dream big. So I was overjoyed to learn that on World Oceans Day June 8, not one but two Smithsonian projects received recognition from the United Nations as official “Ocean Decade Actions.”

A young man in shorts and a T-shirt spearfishing underwater
A spearfisher in Indonesia. One of Marine Life 2030’s primary goals is to help local fishers better access info that can impact their livelihoods. (Credit: Erik Lukas, Ocean Image Bank)

One of those projects, Marine Life 2030, is headed by SERC’s own Dr. Emmett Duffy, director of the Smithsonian’s Marine Global Earth Observatory. Marine GEO tracks changes in crucial nearshore marine ecosystems – saltmarshes, mangroves, seagrasses, oyster and coral reefs - that capture carbon, support high biodiversity and sustain nurseries for fisheries. Marine Life 2030 envisions a vast global network that anyone, anywhere, can tap into for information about their local sea life. Over the next 10 years, they’ll work to uncover and connect knowledge of marine life from all over the world, including traditional knowledge from indigenous communities.

The second project, Coral Reef Sentinels, will deploy autonomous robots to keep tabs on coral health. Our Panama colleagues at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are taking the lead on that one, with an assist from SERC. 

You’ll find more stories of life underwater in the latest issue of our newsletter, On The Edge. Our Fisheries Conservation Lab captured video proof of oyster restoration’s success in the Chesapeake, using underwater cameras. Our Marine Invasions Lab made a shocking discovery that cannibalism can sabotage efforts to eradicate invasive crabs in San Francisco.

Dozens of orange fish swarm around a multicolored coral reef
Coral reef in Egypt's Ras Mohammed Marine Park (Credit: Alex Mustard, Ocean Image Bank)

The ocean has sustained humanity for millennia. After over a century of pollution and abuse, a decade may seem like a short time to restore it. But much can change in a decade. We know that marine protected areas—when they’re truly protected—work, yielding dividends for the environment and local fishers. President Biden’s “30 by 30” conservation plan echoes similar calls from around the world. If we can protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, the unprotected waters around them will reap the benefits.

So what will the ocean of 2030 look like? I dream of an ocean teeming with life. An ocean where once-endangered fisheries have bounced back, and communities have the power to learn whatever they need to about the health of their local marine life. An ocean without ever-spreading invasive species. And an ocean where nearshore “blue carbon” ecosystems are thriving to reduce climate change.

At the Smithsonian, we never stopped dreaming big. We hope you also find the inspiration to dream big this year.

-Anson “Tuck” Hines, director