By Julia Vera
Partner & Managing Director

The beginning of a beautiful (OHH) friendship

The “Seas Ocean & Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE)” Project is coming to an end, as it arrives to the port it signaled as its destination when it hoisted its sails in 2017: the publication of a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) for Oceans & Health in Europe. As it often happens in life, the journey towards the SRA has been just as inspiring and rewarding as arriving to our destination, leaving a trail of treasures that are worth recapturing and sharing.

On board SOPHIE, a consortium of eight partners and interdisciplinary experts from across Europe have brought together their teams and their minds to support a broader understanding of our relationship with the Ocean. The goal: to find means and ways to maximize the benefits of our interaction with the big blue, while reducing the risks for people as well as for marine ecosystems, habitats and species.  

The milestones called along the route towards the SRA have signaled hints to frame the “foreign” (born in the USA) discipline of Ocean & Human Health in the context of our European society, better understanding its concerns and expectations. They have also helped to identify some of the challenges that we face from both a research and a policy perspective, and to confirm the unrealized potential of engaging citizens in our agenda for Ocean & Human Health research.

A few examples:

An extensive, systematic review of available research on Ocean and human health interactions undertaken by researchers of the University of Exeter has shown that most European academic research to date has focused on the risks of interacting with the sea, leaving the benefits largely unattended and unknown. As evidence of such benefits begins to unfold, a shift in attention is required to build knowledge and guide more comprehensive science-based policies, which we might currently be lacking.

Figure: Cumulative number of unique articles on OHH topics 

A review of existing policies and legislative instruments undertaken by Seascape indicates that, while a substantial component of marine and maritime policy and regulation is set at EU level, health policies are typically defined by Member States (with few European-level policies). These differing mandates and competencies means that, at present, there is no explicit policy at European or national level that specifically addresses and links both marine environmental health and human health considerations. As a Policy Brief from the European Maritime Board explains, this does not necessarily mean that new, dedicated OHH policies need to be developed. But that existing policies need to be adapted within the current framework to include OHH considerations.

Image: Results of Policy Review (Seascape Belgium)

Fine-tuning European policies to address linkages between environmental and human health would probably find broad societal support. The SOPHIE survey conducted amongst 10,000 people across 10 European nations identified marine plastic pollution, chemical pollution and the loss of marine species as top concerns for EU citizens, when asked about threats on health risks connected to the Ocean. Respondents also showed a preference for stricter regulations for offshore oil and gas mining activities, coastal protection and environmental conservation, while less policy intervention was demanded for recreational and tourism activities.

When trying to envision future scenarios, our limited understanding of the potential impact of global challenges and trends such as climate change, economic development or plastic pollution on human health, also hampers an integrated approach to managing Ocean and human interactions. A series of stakeholder workshops organized by RIVM suggested the need for new and more systemic approaches when tackling emerging contaminants, addressing them “from source to sea” in terms of their effects on the Ocean and human health. These workshops also emphasized the need to bring in the local context into the policy making processes, highlighting the need for broader stakeholder consultation. 

Happily enough, stakeholder engagement and consultation has been at the heart of the SOPHIE since the outset of the Project. Over 800 expert stakeholders from marine and public health sectors around the world were invited by the National University of Ireland Galway to online conversations and asked to identify their top priorities for OHH. 673 priorities were identified, falling into 26 key priority areas. This started the first multi-actor, cross-country dialogue to discuss, debate and map the dynamics at work in relation to OHH. Following online conversations, 32 experts were brought together at a series of workshops in Dublin in February 2019 to map the dynamics between these priorities. Calls to action were identified, on topics such as ‘health benefits from the ocean’, ‘OHH governance’, ‘OHH awareness’, ‘preventing pollution’, and ‘mitigating climate change.’ The full report of the consultation can be found here

Image: Workshop discussions (NUIG)

Another way in which stakeholder engagement has been brought into the SOPHIE Project has been through a Citizen Science Program jointly undertaken by Travelecoology and Submon, targeted both at tourism operators and tourists and visitors of coastal destinations. The Program sought to activate tourism operators and their clients as “citizen sensors” that contribute to build knowledge on Ocean & Human Health (OHH) interactions. The results of the Program suggest that innovative approaches towards OHH might contribute to successfully complement “classic” regulatory, management and research frameworks. 

Image: SOPHIE Meeting with diving centre in Galicia (Spain)

Mapping innovative solutions that can further guide the development of such approaches has also been part of the SOPHIE effort. Deltares has produced a comprehensive map of initiatives around Europe that seek to enhance the interactions between oceans and human health. The map allows users to select initiatives based on the environmental issues and ecosystem services they address, and is the first step in forming a platform to connect and inspire people interested in creating their own interventions. By creating a collection of case studies and their impacts, SOPHIE has sought to offer perspective on what can be gained by enhancing ocean and human health interactions in the coming decades. 

As Project SOPHIE comes to an end, we are more confident than ever that this is just the beginning of a much longer journey. The project has contributed to gather a broad body of evidence and inputs, successfully turning them into meaningful resources to guide future research on Ocean and Human Health. But above all, it has started to web a growing community of experts across Europe that will provide the brains, the motivation and the drive to move the OHH agenda forward. And that is a great start.

Figure: SOPHIE Project's Legacy


The above described activities were developed in the framework of project SOPHIE (Seas, Oceans and Public Health in Europe), funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 774567. 

Useful links:

SOPHIE website: sophie2020.eu

SOPHIE SRA: sophie2020.eu/SRA

SOPHIE resources: sophie2020.eu/resources

SOPHIE projects and publications: sophie2020.eu/activities

SOPHIE people: sophie2020.eu/people