Mission Starfish 2030 – Towards healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters
Horizon Europe adopts five mission areas as part of its commitment to solving some of the largest challenges facing our world. Under these areas, five missions are proposed that will further the goals of the European Green Deal, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, and the Sustainable Development Goals. Under the Healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters mission area, the proposed mission is called ‘Mission Starfish 2030: Restore our Ocean and Waters’. In this post we lay-out the background and aims of this mission.
The ocean, seas, and coastal and inland waters form the Earth’s water cycle, on which all forms of life heavily depend. These waters provide us with drinking water and animal protein, but are also responsible for producing 50% of the oxygen on Earth. Moreover, the ocean plays a significant role in regulating the climate, by acting as a buffer for 93% of excess solar heat and 26% of anthropogenic CO2. Not only do we rely on the water cycle for all our fundamental needs, the ocean and waters are also a place of recreation and are intertwined with our history and cultures, connecting humans from all over Europe.
While the Earth’s water cycle provides us with many valuable elements, humanity is putting enormous pressures on the system by constantly depleting ocean and freshwater resources. Climate change and ocean acidification jeopardize the ocean’s ability to manage the climate and today, one million animal species are on the brink of extinction, significantly decreasing biodiversity. Humanity’s current relationship with the Earth’s waters is unsustainable and if we wish to enjoy their resources in the future, we must take responsibility in protecting and restoring them.
With Mission Starfish 2030, the European Commission (EC) aims to do just that, by targeting the most imminent threats: an unsustainable human footprint; climate change; lack of understanding, connection, and investment; and inadequate governance. Five objectives are defined, each with their own concrete and measurable targets set for 2030, and associated checkpoints for 2025.
1. Filling knowledge & emotional gap
Aquatic systems are mostly regarded ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and many people do not acknowledge the indispensability of water for their existence. In addition, a great knowledge gap exists regarding the ocean’s health. For example, there exists no global monitoring system of marine litter, so we cannot make any accurate conclusions about the quantity of plastic that is in the ocean. To make the large changes that are required to reach the objectives of Mission Starfish 2030, there needs to be an emotional connection and understanding between the ocean and European citizens.
The goal is to build a Digital Twin of the ocean: an open-source, user-friendly platform representing the ocean. On this platform, data, existing forecasts, and modelling tools will be combined to enable citizens, companies, scientists, and policy makers to be informed, connect with one another, and communicate initiatives and solutions. In addition, the Digital Twin can help track pollution and climate change, while monitoring the way human activity affects them. Ultimately, information gaps will be filled in and communities will be empowered to share responsibility for the preservation of the Earth’s water cycle.
2. Regenerating marine & freshwater ecosystems
Because of climate change, aquatic ecosystems are under strain. Warming and acidification of water creates unbearable living conditions for plankton and corals, with the deterioration of the great barrier reef the most infamous example. Such imbalance of the ecosystem impacts the entire food chain, all the way up to global food production. Besides being a source of food, aquatic biodiversity has great potential in the discovery of novel medicine, raw materials and other scientific innovations. It is, therefore, of great importance to regenerate our aquatic ecosystems.
To achieve this, the EC aims to increase the number of marine protected areas and invest in local communities to manage and protect them. In addition, there will be a support for ecological engineering activities like rewilding and reforestation through the EU Blue Parks Program. By launching the campaign across all of Europe, the EC hopes to end destructive human practices within the ocean, as well as regenerate European rivers and freshwater areas.
3. Zero Pollution
Water pollution exists in various forms and has detrimental effects on the entire planet. Wastewater from households, manufacturing plants and agriculture all finds ways to freshwater reservoirs or the ocean, not to mention plastic waste ending up on the seabed, surface and our beaches. The result is water contaminated with an alarming array of toxins and microplastics that accumulate in fish and seafood, and through consumption end up in humans, significantly affecting our health. In addition, water enrichment with hormones and other agricultural products stimulates algae production causing so-called dead zones: large areas within bodies of water that are depleted of sunlight and oxygen and therefore allow little room for other organisms.
To fight pollution, Mission Starfish 2030 aims to support a circular economy to reduce plastic waste, transform agricultural practices, and improve the treatment and recycling of wastewater. In addition, underwater noise emitted by transport activities, maritime construction and seismic exploration influences health and reproduction of aquatic animals. It is therefore aimed to be reduced to 50%, by compulsory regulation of acoustic emissions.
4. Decarbonizing our ocean and water
As the Earth’s largest carbon sink, the ocean has been mitigating the direct effects of the rapid increase in CO2 emissions seen since the industrial revolution. Consequently, ocean and freshwater areas acidify with previously mentioned effects on global food production. To improve the health of our waters, the EU will design a novel shipping and port policy focusing on decarbonization, the recycling of old vessels, and the boosting of ocean renewable energy, like wind and ocean energy. In addition, aquaculture needs to focus on low trophic species and low-energy production for the manufacturing of feed. Lastly, coastal communities will be supported in creating decarbonizing infrastructure and the development of eco-touristic destinations.
5. Revamping governance
Currently, the water cycle is not regulated across borders, every country has its own set of policies, legislations and plans. There is no single European framework, and as a result information is not being shared effectively, plans are not brought to their full potential and international tensions arise. To steer the water cycle towards better health, the objective of the EC is to combine all external instruments into a European Council-steered system: the European Ocean and Water Agency. By involving the coastguards, organizing joint operations and pooling expertise, technology and funds for ocean and water preservation, it is aimed to create one integrated and participatory pan-European water governance system.
Restoring the health of our ocean, seas, and coastal and inland waters is crucial for the future of humanity and the future of the Earth. Mission Starfish 2030 offers five interdependent objects for European citizens, scientists, companies and policy makers to strive towards the regeneration and protection of the Earth’s water cycle, by setting clear targets for 2030.