How REV Ocean Is Working to Tackle the Ocean's Toughest Problems With Data

While governments, universities, and private companies around the world all have their part to play in working toward ocean sustainability, philanthropy is also vital. Organizations with big ideas can help tackle some of the thorniest problems in the ocean by supporting research and the development of solutions that may not yet be advanced enough for businesses or governments to invest in.

REV Ocean has been building out a framework to do just that. The organization is creating an open data platform and a “World Ocean Headquarters” in Oslo; and is in the process of building the world’s largest ocean research vessel. SeaAhead recently caught up with REV Ocean CEO Nina Jensen to talk about the how the group plans to bring together varied stakeholders from across the ocean ecosystem.

Where did the idea for REV Ocean come from, and how did you get started?

It started with our owner, Kjell Inge Røkke, who is one of the wealthiest men in Norway and who has made his fortune from the ocean. Increasingly, over the years, he has become deeply concerned about what’s happening to life in the ocean. And he thought it was time for someone to really make a difference.

He wanted to dedicate a large portion of his fortune and the rest of his life to really make a difference for the ocean — so he became part of the Bill Gates Giving Pledge, where you’re committed to pledge more than 50 percent of your fortune to good causes, and the major cause for Mr. Røkke is the ocean. So that’s where it all was started and he reached out to me in my capacity in WWF where I was the CEO at the time, we developed this initiative together.

Tell me a little bit about the research vessel, and how that works with the other parts of what you’re working on,

That was Mr. Røkke’s initial idea. He knew that there were huge gaps in our knowledge about the ocean, and decided that he wanted to build the world’s largest and most advanced research and expedition vessel, and offer this as a free platform to scientists from all over the world to come onboard and focus primarily on solutions-based science. It’s “How can we fix everything that’s gone wrong in the oceans and make sure that it becomes more sustainable and of course that it can be of benefit to future generations?” The ship is currently under construction. It’s being built in Tulcea, Romania, and it’s scheduled to be ready in 2021.

We just recruited our science director, who started just before Christmas. Alex Rogers, from the University of Oxford, who is also a member of the Friends of Ocean action group. He is currently working on our scientific program, which will describe our key focus areas and how we will be working with scientists and scientific institutions all over the world. And then he will also, together with the Norwegian Research Council, set up the different criteria and the selection process for the different projects and scientists that will be allowed to come onboard the vessel. It’s important for us that this is fully independent, which is why we’re cooperating with the Norwegian Research Council, and we will also establish an independent scientific committee that will work together with our science director in selecting the projects

Is there a point of view on the kinds of projects you’re looking for?

We’ve set up a few criteria. They have to be solutions-focused — so it’s not just science for the sake of science. It’s focusing on how we can solve the complex problems, so that obviously means that sometimes you will need to get a better understanding of what the problem is. Ideally, for example, the key questions that they should be asking themselves are “How can we save the world’s coral reefs?” or “How can we restore mangroves or ocean acidification? How do we fix this problem”?

It’s decided on a few thematic areas that are our initial priority. These are climate change and ocean acidification, overfishing and bycatch, and plastics pollution. Obviously these are quite broad areas, and there are a number of issues related to the ocean that probably should also be covered — but this is where we’ve decided to start.

So, projects need to be solutions-focused, data has to be open and shared, and there has to be a willingness to cooperate with other international scientists and institutions in coming up with the best solutions.

The ship, as such, will be more of a think tank than a traditional research vessel. Meaning that alongside the scientists on their missions we’ll also bring innovators, tech experts, young entrepreneurs, artists and people that bring very different mindsets and thinking — but that when you put them together can become a pretty powerful set up or solution. Because different mindsets, different backgrounds, different people think differently and can, through that, hopefully solve more complex problems than if you were just using traditional mindsets to solve that same problem.  

It seems that while you’re not anti-business, you’re not particularly focused on business solutions to the ocean’s issues — is that correct?

We think that the magic is found somewhere between the NGO world and the commercial world, and the commercial world can obviously do a lot of good for environmental problems if the solutions are created in the right way. So, we don’t see a mismatch between the two rather than that they should be developed in synchrony.

But for this ship, the main focus is on the science and the knowledge. Then the data platform that we’ve launched and will continue to develop will make the most out of that data and combine it with other data sources to make the information more readily accessible to decision-makers, NGOs, and businesses. And then, the World Ocean Headquarters is more the solution center, in a way, where different business solutions or commercial aspects of this can be developed.

Who are some of the additional stakeholders you’re trying to bring together?

Ideally these efforts will inspire others so that we can expand philanthropy for the ocean. For example, there’s a huge gap between SDG 14 and the funding that is available. Making sure that we enable more funding towards the ocean is obviously critically important, but then also making sure that we’re funding the right things. Making sure that we get state-of-the-art knowledge and make that knowledge more readily available are some of our key priorities.

There will be a number of different stakeholders and groups that we will need to reach out to. We haven’t concluded what the final lists look like and there are so many different companies, businesses, people, organizations, and institutions working in or under the ocean and trying to reach out to all of them or cooperate with all of them, I think, will be virtually impossible.

So we will need to start with a few priority areas rather than expanding the scope too much, which is why initially we’ve said we want to focus on climate change and ocean acidification, plastics pollution and overfishing. And even in those three areas there will be a multitude of stakeholders to try and reach out to and collaborate with, but we think that it can be done.

There are also a lot of international organizations working across some of these thematic areas and bringing together a number of the different stakeholders already. And of course we don’t want to duplicate efforts that others are doing really well. We’d rather strengthen the work that these people or institutions are already doing and hopefully bring additional information and capacity to the table to fast-track some of the work that is already ongoing.

When you look at those sort of three big topic areas, how do you look forward five and 10 years to what the biggest impact that you could make could be for such big, broad issues?

The major solutions to climate change aren’t found in the oceans — they’re found on land, and that requires political will. It requires cutting fossil fuel emissions, doing something with the agriculture sector, so it’s very complex.

I think our main focus when it comes to climate change will be more on adaptation rather than mitigation when it comes to the oceans. For example, coming up with better management recommendations for different fish stocks that have moved as a result of climate change. Ideally, by combining relevant information on the impacts of climate change in the ocean, hopefully we can trigger decision-makers and businesses to do more when it comes to cutting their own emissions.

That will probably be our biggest way of impacting on that in particular. All of this is a major part of what our scientific director is now looking at — how should we be tackling some of these priority areas that we’ve selected. And some of them might be more about documenting the impacts rather than focusing on the solution, for which climate change is an obvious one. But then overfishing and bycatch, for example, there should be a number of different concrete solutions that we could develop — including more specialized fishing gear, for example.

Will there eventually be a policy component to what you’re doing as well, or is it more about producing the data to inform policy?

Primarily now we’re about increasing the availability of data, both through our research vessel and allowing scientists to do additional research, and then through the data platform making that data readily available. And thirdly, using that data to develop concrete solutions together with a multitude of actors like finance, legal experts or the business community. The policy work I think is probably currently best left to the NGOs and other individuals working on this that are doing it really, really well. At least that’s our thinking at this point in time. However, one of the things where we do think that we could play a role is by, for example, using the ship as a meeting place between decision-makers, NGOs and scientists.

Let me give you a concrete example. If we were able to bring the key decision-makers, scientists and NGOs working on tuna, and bring them out to the tuna spawning grounds and see them in the water, [they could] get a better understanding from the scientists back onboard the ship about what is happening. What’s the state of the stock? Why is it important to change the regulations? And so we can bring the problem closer to their hearts not just through a piece of paper on their desk, but by actually taking them down into the water to see what it’s all about. And then having good discussions onboard the vessel with NGOs, with others that could influence final decision-making. That maybe that could be a way of achieving additional policy changes, but then our role would be more a facilitator of making that happen rather than trying to influence what the policies should be.

The point I’m trying to make is that if we can be much better at cooperating, allowing those that do something really well to do that even better and helping them to succeed. If there’s an organization that specializes in coral restoration that’s the best in the world, that knows how to do it, but that is lacking technology or lacking funding, then we as an international ocean community should get together and make sure that they succeed. Because everyone else will benefit from it. This is also why it’s important to try to get the best possible partnerships and collaborations with organizations and people from all over the world, and get a much better understanding of who is actually working in the space and who does what, and who does it really well. 

David Hirschman is SeaAhead’s VP of content. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Hirschman