- The sixth annual Our Ocean conference took place in Oslo, Norway, on Oct. 23 and 24.
- Governments, businesses, organizations and research institutions made 370 commitments toward improving marine health and productivity that were worth more than $63 billion.
- The commitments, a considerable boost from the $10 billion committed last year, reflect a new level of urgency around ocean protection as its role in mitigating climate change becomes ever clearer.
- Focus areas of the conference included building the sustainability of the global fishing industry and reducing plastic pollution.
Governments, businesses, organizations and research institutions made commitments toward improving marine health and productivity worth more than $63 billion at the Our Ocean 2019 conference in Oslo on Oct. 23 and 24.
A total of 370 commitments were made at the conference, which was initiated by former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in 2014 and has run annually ever since. Our Oceans brings together international leaders to share knowledge and experiences, and to commit to action for healthier oceans. This year, 500 people from more than 100 countries attended, as well as 100 youth delegates.
“These commitments are not just empty promises,” said Norway’s minister of foreign affairs, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, in her opening address. The conference emphasizes public accountability, and recent research by Oregon State University shows that past Our Oceans commitments have resulted, among other things, in more than one-third of the ocean area now under protected status.
This year’s high-figure commitments, which are a considerable boost from the $10 billion committed last year, reflect a new level of focus and urgency around ocean protection, as its role in mitigating the advance and impacts of climate change becomes ever clearer. “For decades, the ocean has acted as a buffer against the impacts of global warming; but it has come at a price,” said Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in a plenary speech discussing the ways that climate change is impacting marine biodiversity. “The ocean is the prime victim of climate change,” said Karmenu Vella, the European Union commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, in a panel discussion. “But it’s the prime solution as well.”
Several speakers noted the importance of oceans for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by U.N. member states in 2015 and feeding a growing world population. “As someone who grew up by the ocean and lives in a country that derives two-thirds of its revenue from the ocean, I know that we cannot choose between ocean protection and ocean productivity,” Solberg said. “We need to achieve both. We have to recognize the connection between ocean health and ocean wealth: we need ocean resources, but the oceans can only be productive if they are healthy.”
While high-level statements like this can seem easy to get behind, the devil is often in the details, marine scientist Elisabeth Slooten of the University of Otago in New Zealand told Mongabay. Many governments and companies continue to make economically focused decisions that contradict their apparent environmental aims, said Slooten, who did not attend the conference but followed it from afar.
In the speech immediately following Solberg’s, 15-year-old climate activist and UNICEF ambassador Penelope Lea pointed out that the Norwegian government’s continued oil and gas explorations were misaligned with its professed dedication to climate-change mitigation. “My country is responsible for huge emissions,” she said. “Still we search for oil further north than ever before. I beg you, please step up and take responsibility as leaders.” Meanwhile, protestors picketed the entrance to the conference, criticizing the Norwegian government for promoting ocean health internationally while allowing mining operations to dump millions of tons of toxic waste into some of the country’s fjords.
As in previous years, building the sustainability of the global fishing industry was a key focus at the conference. “We are taking the fish of future generations,” said University of British Columbia researcher Ussif Rashid Sumaila as he presented a paper on how fishing less could improve ocean health in the face of climate change. “We have to end overfishing.”
Lea pressed home the urgency of ending countries’ practice of subsidizing their fishing fleets, which encourages people to keep fishing even when stocks are severely depleted and favors large industrial operators over small-scale fishers. The call was echoed by many speakers at the conference, as the deadline looms for target six of SDG 14, which aims to end damaging fishing subsidies by 2020.
Alexandra Cousteau, a senior adviser for international marine environmental NGO Oceana and a granddaughter of pioneering ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, questioned the paradigm of “sustainability” with regard to ocean resources. “We have already lost so much,” she said in a speech. “We need to rebuild ocean abundance — simply conserving what’s left isn’t enough. We need a new solutions pathway.”
However, Manuel Barange, director of fisheries and aquaculture policy and resources for the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), pointed out the importance of considering and supporting the 10 percent of the world’s population that relies on fishing for their livelihoods. “Check your privileges — it’s easy to dismiss food systems when your life and livelihood does not depend on them,” he said in a panel discussion. “Most of the people in this room are not part of that 10 percent.”
Sebastian Mathew, director of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, suggested countries should establish no-trawling zones around their coasts where artisanal fishing takes place. Aupito William Sio, New Zealand’s minister for Pacific peoples, highlighted the role of indigenous knowledge and local communities in decision-making about ocean management.
Finding ways to reduce the prevalence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which the FAO estimates entraps up to 26 million tons of fish annually, was another hot topic in Oslo. A number of speakers identified transnational organized crime in the fisheries sector as a major threat to a healthy ocean economy. Panama announced the release of its vessel-tracking data on Global Fishing Watch’s (GFW) public map; its distant water fishing and transshipment fleet can now be observed by anyone, free of charge, in near-real-time. Indonesia and Peru have already made their vessel-tracking data available on the map, and Chile, Costa Rica and Namibia have committed to sharing theirs. GFW leaders hope to get 20 countries on the map by 2022, to increase transparency in the fishing industry and enable better management.
Another long-standing focus of Our Oceans is encouraging countries to increase the expanse of ocean set aside as marine protected areas (MPAs). This year, a number of new MPAs were announced, and several countries and organizations lent their support to the Oceans Unite 30×30 initiative to place 30 percent of the world’s ocean in highly protected marine reserves by 2030. (The initiative puts the current figure at 2 percent.)
That phrase “highly protected” is important, said Slooten. Policymakers often water down MPA legislation to placate interest groups: “We’re making these massive social compromises,” she said, even though decades of research have shown that “you really need those strict no-take areas for marine conservation to be effective.”
That’s why Slooten was pleased to hear about the six MPAs that received the prestigious Blue Park Award at the conference. The Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute gives the award to MPAs that meet stringent criteria for their effectiveness in safeguarding life in the sea. The award-winning MPAs are located in the Seychelles, the Solomon Islands, Italy, Costa Rica, the U.S. and Ecuador, and span a total of 146,565 square kilometers (56,590 square miles) — an area the size of Nepal or Arizona.
Reducing plastic pollution was also in the conference spotlight. “More than 8 million tons of plastic goes into the ocean every year,” Søreide said in her speech. “Unless we have more efficient waste-management systems on land, the problem will grow.” To that end, Norway, Sweden and Grenada committed to establishing and supporting a global, legally binding treaty to combat marine plastic pollution by 2023. Other countries and companies made individual commitments: Peru announced a ban on polystyrene, and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, comprised of 42 largely multinational companies, committed to investing $1.5 billion over the next five years to research toward reducing plastic production and developing better recycling techniques and cleanup efforts. The group has been criticized for focusing more on recycling than eliminating plastic, and a number of its founding members remain some of the world’s biggest investors in new plastic production plants.
Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group II, tasked with assessing the vulnerability of human and natural systems to climate change, reminded the audience of the need to take each element of the environmental crisis seriously: “Every bit of warming matters,” he said during a panel discussion. “Each degree matters. Each choice matters. And political and social will will determine that.”
“We know that what we do or what we don’t do right now will make the difference between life and death for so many species,” Lea said, “us humans being one of them.”
Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand who specializes in environmental and community development issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at monicaevans.org.