We finally are focused on the ocean

I began my career path in limnology, and since then I’ve spent 45 years working on behalf of conservation – in everything from positions at the local level to the international level in the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. Marine issues have been close to my heart ever since I was involved in work on the Mediterranean in the late 1970s. When I was director general of the former Swedish Board of Fisheries up until 2011, sustainable fishing was the central issue. Now I’m chair of the board of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), one of the most exciting honorary assignments you can have.

When the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, it was a huge success. They replaced what were called the Millennium Development Goals, which applied from 2000 to 2015. The main difference was that this approach was now broader and concerned all countries, not just developing countries. The Sustainable Development Goals are in effect until 2030 and cover 17 main areas, ranging from poverty and health to the environment and natural resources. Within each area there are a number of intermediate objectives, a total of 169.

It’s interesting and encouraging that the goals have gain major attention internationally, not only within the sphere of the United Nations and governments of the member states. In the business world and civil society, groups often have incorporated the goals into their own efforts. One example is the WWF, where we have fully integrated the goals into our strategy.

Our marine areas have been singled out in particular and have an area of their own, goal 14, which is especially gratifying for all who work on marine issues in research and management. What’s even better is that Sweden, together with Fiji, has assumed leadership for goal 14 in particular. However, these must not be just empty words, as has happened so often in the past within the UN system. The initiative got off to a good start in June last year when Sweden, Fiji and the United Nations organised the Oceans Conference in New York.

This was also the first global conference for any of the global goals. To be honest, the resolution from the conference was not especially impressive, but what happened alongside was what was important. The University of Gothenburg was present with, among others, Lena Gipperth, director of the Centre for Sea and Society, and I was privileged to be included in the WWF delegation. Many contacts were made, which will be important in the future, and of course there was a lot of lobbying.

One example concerned the free ocean – that is, areas outside the exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles, which accounts for the vast majority of our maritime areas. There is no real regulation of biological diversity, even though for decades various environmental organisations have lobbied the UN to start a process to develop a convention on biodiversity in these areas. Now a decision in the UN General Assembly finally has been reached, and the process has begun. I was part of the extensive lobbying effort in New York and would like to think that our work was the last drop that wore away the stone. There’s still a long journey ahead where anything can happen before we have a convention.

Within the University of Gothenburg, development efforts focusing on the ocean are ongoing, and an important step forward was the formation of the Centre for Sea and Society as an interfaculty centre of expertise and research. The fact is that the sea is relevant for virtually every faculty. At the same time a marine department is being formed. The university’s marine infrastructure has struggled with financial challenges and needed developing to improve coordination and put into place measures to improve cost-effectiveness.

Since I led the efforts to develop the maritime cluster in the Västra Götaland region, I had many contacts and therefore was asked if I would help. From this was born the idea of creating something new at Kristineberg, and I invited IVL, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, the Royal Institute of Technology, Chalmers University of Technology and RISE to develop a unique collaboration along with the University of Gothenburg. After various discussions, I submitted my report in February 2017 in which I suggested the creation of the “Kristineberg Center for Marine Research and Innovation”, with these five organisations as the core group.The proposal was well received by both the vice-chancellor and the university board, and implementation work could start right away. It was led by Lena Gipperth, and at Christmas last year, there was a plan and a partnership agreement among the five stakeholders.

It’s worth mentioning that this is something quite unique in Sweden and probably also in Europe. Eeverything from basic marine research to operation of the test beds are represented. Today there already is collaboration among these research organisations, but the potential is great. What makes it particularly interesting is that, behind the marine research in the respective organisation, there is extensive research in other and closely related areas. This can include information technology or other areas of technology, and the possibilities are limited only by our imagination. At the same time, it’s important to move forward slowly to ensure the collaboration is stable and sustainable.

I have concluded my assignment now, but I’m extremely happy that we have come so far, and there is every reason to believe that this will succeed. Strengthening the marine cluster in western Sweden is also an important contribution. My dream is that this will become a European counterpart to Woods Hole in the United States, which is considered by many to be the world’s leading marine research station.


/Axel Wenblad


Axel WenbladAxel Wenblad i Chairman of WWF and Honorary Doctor at University of Gothenburg