Sustaining the long tradition of ocean stewardship in Samoa

by Erin O'Reilly

While located in the middle of the Pacific far from the world’s large population centers, Samoa’s oceans are not immune to the impacts of global issues such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, and overfishing. With a strong connection to the ocean deeply ingrained in the way of life in Samoa, sustainable ocean management remains a necessity to preserve culture and livelihoods.

At the monumental UN Ocean Conference in June 2017, Samoa took a strong stance on ocean conservation by pledging twelve voluntary commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life below water. To make these commitments a reality, the Samoan government announced the Ocean Health Index (OHI) as the tool to inform their ocean policy to meet their commitments.

Last week, we hosted a workshop to further enhance sustainable ocean management in Samoa. Built on two years of consultation and stakeholder engagement, this workshop explored OHI for Samoa. For the first time, the focus was from a data perspective to identify opportunities to localize the assessment.

The week began with a seminar for the Samoan Ocean Health Network describing progress of OHI globally and locally. The seminar was attended by lead ministers and government heads, showing strong support for this effort and setting the tone for the successful workshop that followed.

Samoa Ocean Health Network © Rachel Oh

Led by Dr. Julie Lowndes, our OHI science program lead, the workshop focused on the opportunities – both conceptually and technically – to make OHI more representative of Samoa. The two main questions guiding the workshop were: (1) is each OHI goal identified for global assessments important for healthy oceans in Samoa and (2) is the data included in global assessments for Samoa the best available locally?

This workshop was structured in the way we approach all OHI assessments: first thinking conceptually about the goals and their relevance to a region, next exploring possible data sources within OHI’s deliberately structured framework, and finally working hands-on with the OHI Toolbox.

“Exploring the data together was really powerful,” says Dr. Lowndes. “Through discussions about data, the participants saw for themselves that OHI could be localized with our open data science software and be a useful tool for ocean management in Samoa.”

Dr. Julie Lowndes © Rachel Oh

Once it was determined all of the goals were indeed relevant to Samoa, it was time to explore the seven years of data used to calculate Samoa’s global OHI score. Diving into the data can often provide a far more revealing portrait than the single OHI score because it provides more background into why a goal has a certain score.

Through data exploration, workshop participants were able to identify two areas where local data would be more representative of Samoa: mangrove presence and marine protected area coverage. While there were more in-depth discussions about tailoring the assessment, these could be the first priorities for any further work improving Samoa’s representation within OHI.

“Integrating the perspectives of local data officers and our own experts into the discussion on OHI is extremely important and testament to collaborative nature of OHI,” said Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, OHI Lead for Samoa.

Samoa OHI workshop participants © Rachel Oh

In addition to the data-centric workshop, Dr. Lowndes had the honor of giving a seminar for the Faculties of Science at the National University of Samoa about the importance of open data science. In a talk titled “The power of open science: Experience from the Ocean Health Index,” Dr. Lowndes shared examples of how the adoption of open data science tools enabled reusable and reproducible OHI scores year after year.

This presentation sparked further conversations about forming coding clubs at the University and specifically starting a Samoa RLadies chapter, which is a global effort to increase gender diversity in the data science community.

“I love empowering others with open data science because it has been so game-changing for me,” says Dr. Lowndes. “It was wonderful to see so much interest for starting coding clubs and joining welcoming online communities like RLadies!”

This was the first of our Country Opportunities workshops, which are designed to introduce countries to the possibilities that exist directly from global assessments and what steps to take to make OHI more representative of their country.

As a highly influential country amongst the South Pacific island nations, Samoa can pave the way for more engagement with other Pacific countries, leading to greater sustainability of our ocean resources.