The International Ocean Institute is dedicated to the peaceful, equitable, and sustainable use of the oceans

EM5 2020 VassalloSharing knowledge to benefit oceans and their users

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 5 / 2020.

The International Ocean Institute strives for the conservation of marine resources within the broader goal of promoting peace in the oceans. Through education, training, and capacity building the institute supports the creation of a cadre of enlightened professionals in particular in developing countries who share its beliefs and contribute to fulfilling its mission. Antonella Vassallo, the managing director, speaks here about the institute, its purpose, and the role it plays in ocean governance. More information is available at the institute’s website,

The International Ocean Institute (IOI) was established close to 50 years ago and is currently one of several international and regional organisations that are committed to bringing about the sustainable management of the world’s oceans. What are the main goals of the IOI, and where do you, as executive managing director, see the main challenges and opportunities in achieving these goals? How does the IOI prevent overlap and allow itself to be distinguished from other institutions with the same or similar ambitions?

In 1972, the International Ocean Institute (IOI) was founded by Professor Elisabeth Mann Borgese and its establishment was a milestone in the struggle to promote the concept of Pacem in Maribus (peace in the oceans) and the conservation of the ocean and its resources so that future generations can share in their benefits. The IOI works to uphold and expand the principle of the common heritage as defined in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. The IOI is a world leading independent, non-governmental non-profit organisation conducting training and capacity building in Ocean Governance with the aim of creating knowledgeable future leaders. IOI trains young and mid-career practitioners in contemporary approaches to coastal and ocean management, with an emphasis on the moral, ethical and legal values in Ocean Governance (equity and peaceful uses of the ocean). Although much progress has been made in the decades since the first deliberations on UNCLOS and so many other related conventions and agreements concerning the ocean - also including the SDGs, I think we can agree that much remains to be addressed or improved upon. We realise intuitively that the goal of achieving a sustainably managed ocean under the ethos of UNCLOS and the common heritage of humankind must be supported through education and the development of capacity among decision and policy makers in ocean and related disciplines. The IOI seeks to address that gap, focusing especially on the training needs of developing countries and countries in transition, resulting in the creation of effective ocean decision makers and leaders. This provides both a challenge and an opportunity for the IOI to reach out to and to work with young people the world over, united over a common passion for the ocean through different disciplines and approaches and willing to work together to seek the best way forward to achieve sustainable ocean governance. The greatest distinguishing mark of IOI activities and programmes, since the very beginning, has been the ability to recognise and bring together many disciplines, skills, talents and people to advance and advocate for the protection and sustainable use of our oceans, for current and future benefit, equitably and justly.

The IOI is part of a network of institutions and organisations involved in the sustainable use of marine resources. However, in terms of capture fishery resources alone, although a good share of fish stocks has recovered in recent years, there are several stocks whose levels are still declining. How can IOI contribute to reversing this trend?

In many ways this trend can and must be also addressed by increasing access to sound science-based knowledge and information – and the IOI does this not only by the training programmes offered but also through offering and supporting a number of Ocean Literacy and Citizen Science projects held at local level all over the IOI network worldwide. These appeal to different age groups, but all promote the central concept of love for the ocean, and its ecosystems, the fragility of ocean life, including commercial stocks, and the urgent need to protect it and them for the benefit of current and future generations. We also emphasise the inter-linkages between our human actions and the consequences on climate and ocean and livelihood. The IOI is a partner in the World Ocean Review Series aimed at the interested lay person, and one publication deals specifically with the issue of fisheries “The Future of Fish – The Fisheries of the Future”1. (1 “The Future of Fish – The Fisheries of the Future” focuses on the future of fish and their exploitation. Fish have always been a vital source of life for mankind – not only as a food. Fish continue to be essential to the daily diet of people in most regions of the world. At the same time fisheries provide a livelihood to entire coastal regions and still have great economic clout. All this, however, is in jeopardy and is coming under close scrutiny. Fish stocks are declining worldwide, entire marine regions are overfished and some species are already red-listed.) The whole series can be downloaded free of charge from

Recommendations from a debate on fisheries sustainability hosted by the FAO at the end of last year included strengthening the political will and capacity to implement existing policy frameworks. Do you foresee a role for the IOI in this context? How does the organisation exert influence at the political level to achieve greater sustainability?

The formation of lasting and effective partnerships through the fostering of international relations form one of the three pillars of IOI’s institutional architecture and underpins the delivery of training and capacity development. IOI is engaged in collaboration, cooperation and partnership with the international ocean community at several levels: through the international UN systems, regional groupings such as the European Union and other regional bodies, NGOs, IGOs, international organisations and many others across a broad spectrum of activities relating to ocean governance. The IOI is a member of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC); IOI benefits from strong collaboration with the UN and the European Commission, especially DG Mare, and other bodies, particularly through the provision of expert faculty for training programmes and special seminars. Likewise with the Commonwealth Secretariat through its Oceans and Natural Resources Advisory Division. The IOI maintains a number of MOUs with key partners of interest in the field of ocean issues, and capacity building and education in this thematic area.

How does the IOI contribute to the work of United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in areas related to ocean affairs and sustainable development?

The IOI is a member of UN ECOSOC and works through the UN General Assembly as an ECOSOC accredited observer and advisor to the membership and organisations, as well as through relevant UN Conferences. Since 2007, IOI’s special consultative status gives the Institute an opportunity to participate and contribute to all ECOSOC and subsidiary meetings and to continue its pursuit of international ocean governance. The IOI participates annually at the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea and closely follows developments at UN level concerning the Law of the Sea and recent negotiations concerning the area with the intention to also bring these topics into the international training course syllabi for teaching, discussion and debate. Apart from this, IOI partners with the UN entities such as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and with UN specialized agencies such as UNEP, WMO, FAO, UNDP, enjoying consultative status with UNESCO-IOC, IMO and UNCTAD.

IOI carries out several activities in support of its goals including training, capacity building, production of publications, networking, organising events etc. What would you say are your core activities and how are they funded?

The three pillars supporting the IOI mission are Training and Capacity Building, International Relations, and Publications.

Training and Capacity Building: Since 1980, IOI has trained more than 2,000 persons - particularly from developing countries and countries in transition and contributed to a growing global network of trained and empowered leaders fully conversant with the latest developments in ocean governance, with the knowledge, skills and essential attitude required for effective ocean governance of the planet´s precious resources. The family of IOI alumni grows in size and skill year on year to be able to make positive contributions to the ocean community in many ways. Publications and International Relations: The IOI promotes its training and capacity building activities by accessing and producing publications which contribute intellectual input, and by partnering with international, regional, national and local institutions and governments, and public and private institutions working in the field of ocean governance. IOI publications range from the e-newsletter the IOInforma, to flagship publications— the World Ocean Review ( series and the Ocean Yearbook ( and other ad hoc publications. The major financial support to the IOI and its global programmes principally comes from external funding and in addition to financial contributions from project and training partners. IOI also benefits from in-kind support from the IOI network, their host institutes, and many local and regional entities. These contributions are substantial in terms of quality and quantity and complement the financial resources for IOI to deliver its programmes and fulfil its mission.

The IOI has operational centres and focal points around the world. What determines where a regional centre or focal point is placed, and how do they interact with each other and with the parent body in Malta to increase the impact of their activities?

In order to achieve its stated mission and goals internationally, the IOI works through a global network of centres and focal points which is administered through the headquarters based in Malta and which acts as the secretariat for the IOI governing board. The IOI board sets out the broad activities and programmes of the IOI based on a strategy for action. The IOI network also benefits from close support and collaboration from its training partners and the alumni of IOI training programmes over the years. IOI training centres are responsible to organise and provide the hallmark ocean governance training programmes of the IOI. These are offered to meet regional needs in capacity building and training and the location of the training programmes is thus a geo-strategic one. The training centres closely co-operate with a dedicated IOI centre in the geographical vicinity so as to have further access to outreach, dissemination of information as well as substantive support in the performance of specific tasks and core activities, primarily that of training, and of supporting the growing network of IOI alumni worldwide. The secretariat at IOI HQ, under the direction of the governing board, oversees and ensures the implementation of the annual training programmes globally through the IOI training centres, IOI centres and strategic partnerships. As of date of publication, the IOI benefited from the support of 38 IOI centres and focal points in 34 countries as well as through collaboration with strategic training partners.

Training programmes and capacity development activities are important instruments that the IOI uses to achieve its goals. How is the content of these courses developed? What factors influence the choice of topics that students learn about and how do you attract participants? Can you describe how the courses have evolved over the years?

Originally initiated under Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s direction and reflecting her political acumen and engagement, the IOI training courses today still convey her legacy with regards to a vision of equitable and sustainable global development with sound foundations in the social, economic and environmental spheres. The respect for common goods, the peaceful and sustainable use of ocean services and resources, the common heritage of the high seas as enshrined in UNCLOS and the need to support and empower people and countries in managing their relations with the ocean in a sustainable manner remain the ethical and moral foundation of the IOI and the training it provides. The suite of annual IOI training programmes (Annual IOI training programmes are held in Canada, Malta, China, South Africa, Latin America, Thailand, and  Turkmenistan plus an MA Degree programme on Ocean Governance in partnership with University of Malta, and other ad hoc thematic courses.) has been specially designed to contribute towards a growing global network of trained and empowered leaders. The courses have evolved over the years and are constantly adapted to new challenges, with a special focus on the needs of developing countries and countries in transition. Based on ethical values such as equity, common heritage, common but differentiated responsibilities, and policy space, the programmes of the courses are defined around major elements (accountability, transparency, inclusiveness, effectiveness, participatory practices) and principles (rule of law, regulations, protocols, agreement and guidelines) of good governance. Good governance, committed institutional support, and stakeholder involvement are seen to be foundations of sustainable development of developing countries and countries in transition and are the focus of IOI training courses. Target audiences are mid-career practitioners in ocean governance: scientists, policy makers, educators, and decision makers. They are in a position to successfully transmit and apply the acquired knowledge on return to their institutions, serving as educators and ocean advocates in their homeland. The IOI enjoys strong links with a growing alumni network world-wide.