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Enhancing Oceans and Human Health Initiative

By Eddy Ball
February 2008

During a reception at POGO, Suk, center, posed with Anthony Knap, Ph.D., left, president and director of BIOS; and Anthony Haymet, Ph.D., director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. As Suk noted, "These partnerships are also a way of broadening our constituency." (Photo courtesy of POGO)
Bermuda resident - and American film star - Michael Douglas, right, was honored at the meeting for his support of ocean research. After receiving his award, Douglas shared his passion for the oceans with José Achache, Ph.D., director of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo courtesy of POGO)

Four years after launching the Centers for Oceans and Human Health (COHH) collaboration ( with the National Science Foundation, NIEHS continues to expand its strategic partnerships within the larger global oceans community. To further that effort, NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., attended the ninth annual Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) meeting held at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) in St. Georges, Bermuda January 9 - 11.

As Suk explained afterwards, his objective at the meeting was three-fold: to re-establish ties with the global oceans community with the development of new initiatives in mind; to enhance existing COHH programs through communication with scientists involved in deep-ocean observational research; and to share our analytical expertise with the global oceans community and raise its appreciation of the ocean's enormous public health impact. Attending the POGO Exit NIEHS Website( meeting were more than 35 directors of major oceans observational centers, including the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the United States, the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Russia and many others.

According to POGO, programs observing the oceans help researchers better understand the impacts that oceans have in terms of natural disasters, human health and well-being, energy sources, water resources, climate change, marine ecosystems and marine biodiversity. A Global Earth Observation system is being developed that will include satellites to investigate distant and inaccessible parts of the oceans, robotic probes to explore ocean depths, ingenious monitoring devices attached to marine mammals, fixed stations taking continuous measurements, and unmanned vehicles to record life in the most remote parts of the deep ocean and research vessels.

Echoing a recurring theme in the NIEHS Global Environmental Health Initiative, as well as issues surrounding global climatic change and human health, Suk pointed to the importance of collaboration and coordination in maximizing the impact of limited public funding in the area of oceans and human health. "The global oceans community is an established network of research worldwide," he observed. Maintaining close ties with that community can further the goals that COHH is pursuing, he continued. "In the future, we may accomplish as much by encouraging new directions in collaboration with the global oceans research community."

Increasing lines of communication with the global oceans community could lead to expansion of areas of research at the COHH sites, Suk observed. Current COHH programs focus primarily on coastal and continental shelf issues, particularly harmful algal blooms, or "red tide." Deep-ocean observational researchers are increasing their understanding of the role of deep-ocean temperature fluctuations in climate change and beginning to see a much clearer connection with human health and well-being globally - even far within a continent hundreds of miles from an ocean.

"We can all benefit if we can approach ocean issues as partners, rather than as individual programs working independently - uninformed about each other's work and running the risk of duplicating efforts or failing to see important connections." Underscoring the value of a systems approach in global environmental health, Suk observed that efforts to understand the network of causes, effects and influences in global environmental health should be accompanied by efforts to expand networks of partners and supporters.

Although the NIEHS entered the ocean arena in an interdisciplinary research mode in 1978 with the establishment of the Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences (MFBS) Center program, the initiative gained added momentum as the result of a 1998 Presidential National Ocean Conference. The following year, an international conference on "Oceans and Human Health" at BIOS in Bermuda featured Suk as organizer and session chair. Suk co-authored a paper in 2002, "Indicators of Ocean Health and Human Health: A Research Framework," Exit NIEHS Website( that outlined the current program design.

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