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Safeguarding the world’s oceans through maritime communications

Mario Maniewicz, Director, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau

By Mario Maniewicz, Director, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau

Oceans cover over 70 per cent of the surface of our planet. Clean, healthy oceans are crucial to maintaining the ecological balance and regulating the climate. They also support biodiversity and sustain human livelihoods.

Protecting and preserving the world’s oceans is a shared responsibility for all of us. It requires international cooperation to promote sustainable practices that will safeguard our oceans now and in the future. A key aspect of this is ensuring and improving maritime safety.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies, supports safe and secure activities at sea through the allocation and protection of radio frequency spectrum for maritime communications. In addition, ITU continually develops and updates the essential global standards for maritime radio systems.

The entire global shipping industry relies on key maritime publications published and regularly updated by ITU. Together, the Maritime Manual (Manual for Use by the Maritime Mobile and Maritime Mobile-Satellite Services), List IV (List of Coast Stations and Special Service Stations), and List V (List of Ship Stations and Maritime Mobile Service Identity Assignments) provide the vital information on transmission stations for maritime communications around the world.

ITU’s Maritime Mobile Access and Retrieval System (MARS), updated daily with details on more than 900,000 vessels and over 2,000 coast stations, is a mainstay for search and rescue authorities worldwide to resolve distress and safety alerts at sea.

By constantly working to improve maritime communications, ITU helps to uphold environmental, operational, and safety requirements aboard ships. This includes facilitating incident reports under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the key treaty maintained by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

On World Maritime Day, I would like to reiterate ITU’s joint commitment with IMO to enhance safety at sea and protect the marine environment. ITU standards and regulations for maritime communications are indispensable to ensure the health and sustainability of our oceans.

New systems to enhance maritime safety

A sustainable maritime transport sector depends on protecting the marine environment while also ensuring safe passage for goods and people across the world’s vast oceans. Satellite and terrestrial-based radiocommunication systems play a pivotal role in this.

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) jointly developed by IMO and ITU enables ships to send distress signals in emergencies, ensuring prompt search and rescue operations that reduce loss of life and environmental damage.

The maritime industry has turned increasingly to emerging and innovative digital technologies to further enhance the safety and security of ships, crews, and seaports worldwide.

ITU Member States will look closely at maritime communication and navigation questions during the upcoming 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 20 November to 15 December. Key topics include possible GMDSS modernization with NAVDAT – a digital system for broadcasting navigational data.

The emerging NAVDAT system could give navigators comprehensive data for informed decision-making to improve vessel efficiency. Such innovations will be important to cut greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize future shipping.

Accurate navigation, of course, also prevents collisions at sea and minimizes the risk of oil spills and other hazardous material releases. The Automatic Identification System (AIS), combined with radar, provides real-time information on the positions and movements of vessels in proximity to one another, helping ship crews avoid accidents that could harm the marine environment.

Monitoring the seas from orbit

Earth-observation satellites provide critical data and tools for monitoring, managing, and protecting the marine environment, enhancing our ability to respond to environmental threats and promote sustainable practices in ocean conservation.

Along with real-time data on vessel movements, satellite-based radiocommunication systems provide increasingly rich data on climate-related changes, helping governments and the shipping industry focus on sustainable ocean management.

The Earth Exploration Satellite Service (EESS) supports long-term climate modelling with global data on the factors behind dangerous hurricanes and typhoons, both of which heavily affect shipping and can cause accidents that result in environmental pollution.

Oceanographic research vessels and buoys can transmit data on water temperature, pollution levels, and marine life observations – invaluable for studying the shipping industry’s impact on marine ecosystems and pollution trends.

Radiocommunication systems are similarly indispensable in the event of oil spills, chemical leaks, or other environmental disasters at sea, as coordinated response efforts can often achieve swift containment and mitigate environmental damage.

Monitoring ocean health through space-based and terrestrial technology will be crucial to attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly for industry, innovation, and infrastructure (Goal 9); climate action (Goal 13); and life underwater (Goal 14). It also goes hand in hand with strengthening global partnerships for sustainable development (Goal 17).

Our responsibility – as a global industry and as the international community – is to continue advancing and using the latest digital communication technologies to protect and preserve the marine environment for future generations.

Header image credit: Adobe Stock
Photo: ITU/D. Woldu

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