With the world's population estimated to swell to nine billion people in the next 40 years, countries should look to the oceans to provide the means to feed and improve our standards of living.
That was the main point made by Professor Carlos Duarte at his Professorial Oration - Ocean: Opportunities in Exploring the Planet's Last Frontier - hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies at the UWA Club.
The oration gave him an opportunity to elaborate on his vision for the Oceans Institute, that not enough is known about the world's oceans yet they provide unique opportunities to address humanity's grand challenges.
He said the planet's growing population was already putting pressure on resources such as food supplies, fresh water, energy, biodiversity and climate.
And that instead of looking to outer space for other planets to help solve some of these problems, we should instead look to the oceans which are still largely unknown. More than 400 planets had been discovered, but none of them provided the water that would make them inhabitable, he said.
"But we are largely ignoring the exploration of our oceans which we can refer to as the ‘inner space' of planet Earth," said Professor Duarte.
Although oceans cover 70 per cent of the world's surface, he said only 10 per cent of all named species are marine species. The naming of marine species is growing at only one per cent a year but there's a long way to go.
"At this rate of growth, with conservative estimates of the number of species in the ocean, it will be 200 to 1,000 years before we have a complete inventory of the number of species in the ocean," he said.
"We actually know more of the topography of the Moon, or even that of Mars, than we know about the topography of our oceans."
He said examples of ocean solutions could involve re-thinking the way we grow our food and develop aquaculture even further.
"Marine food production is critical and will be more important in the future because it is the only sector of food production that is not dependent on freshwater," he said.
One simple solution might be using the to meet our protein needs, and using dry land mostly for our agriculture.
"If, instead of growing cattle, we produce fish and crustaceans in the oceans, then the water resources that would be freed production to be doubled with the same amount of water used today," he said.
Likewise, there are enormous biotechnology benefits to be gained not only from natural products derived from the oceans, but also from patenting and developing new uses for genes discovered in the seas.
The oceans could also provide more tidal and wave energy systems and help with mitigating climate change. For instance, Professor Duarte cited the seagrass meadows off Western Australia and other parts of the world that are strong natural carbon sinks.
"There are opportunities to use these ecosystems to mitigate climate change," he said.
Professor Duarte said the oceans have the potential to supply the resources to meet the food, water and energy needs of more than nine billion people - and we need to do much more than simply denounce the current problems we face.
"We need to do both, alert society to the problems - and drive and guide society through to the solutions," he said.
Janine MacDonald (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 5563 / (+61 4) 32 637 716