Over 228,000 known living species reside in our oceans, with possibly 2 million more remaining undiscovered – and so far, we’ve only explored around 20 percent of the total oceanic area. As more knowledge bubbles to the surface about our biosphere’s saltwater stretches, so too are their imperative roles in oxygen provision, carbon capture, biodiversity preservation, food and livelihoods.
But without adequate protection, seascapes can quickly transform into ‘blue deserts’, bereft of life and unable to perform the critical ecosystem functions upon which all of our lives depend. Climate change, unsustainable development, pollution and overfishing all pose significant challenges. Meanwhile, recent global agreements and negotiations on managing the high seas, protecting biodiversity, and evaluating the risks and rewards of seabed mining have so far fallen short of their stated ambitions.
With that urgent backdrop, delegates from across the globe gathered on 13–14 April for the seventh Our Ocean conference. The in-person element of the event took place in Palau, marking the first time for it to be hosted by a small island developing state. At the conference, 410 commitments were made to scale up ocean protection in a range of areas, at an estimated value of USD 16.35 billion.
Will that be enough to set the global community on a sustainable trajectory as it gears up for the UN Ocean Conference in June, and the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) later this year? Via email, Landscape News spoke with attendee and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pacific Director Mark Drew to hear his perspective on the what the conference means for our oceans.
What were your main hopes for the Our Ocean conference? To what extent were these hopes realized?
The seventh Our Ocean was a global stage for Pacific leadership on ocean protection and building a sustainable blue economy. It’s also the first in the Our Ocean series to be held in a small island developing state. Pacific nations are at the epicenter of the fight for healthy and prosperous oceans, and that was on display in Palau last week. They are demonstrating exceptional leadership, and it’s incumbent on the world to redouble efforts and investment in ecosystem health, sustainable blue foods, and healthy oceans that work for people and the planet.
Our Ocean successfully brought together representatives from over 80 countries to step up, commit and advance an oceans agenda and sustainable future with important recognition of small island developing states. We need to build on the momentum and continue to change the relationship that humanity has with nature and to respect the limits the oceans have supporting communities, economies and the well-being of our planet.
What key challenges remain?
Our Ocean saw new commitments and momentum in the right direction; now it’s time to accelerate investment and implementation. Time is not on our side, and incremental changes are not going to deliver the results people and the planet need. We need to urgently:
1) Invest in marine nature-based solutions. Ecosystems such as mangroves, kelp forests and seagrass meadows are incredibly effective carbon sinks, as are marine species like whales, sharks and tunas. Protecting and restoring ecosystems and wildlife is a triple-bottom-line win for the ocean, climate and people.
2) Protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. A global treaty for the high seas is an essential prerequisite for achieving this target, which has broad global support.
3) Invest in institutions and capacity building within small island developing states (SIDS).
4) Advocate for a blue foods agenda whereby foods produced and sourced by the ocean are recognized as being integral to Pacific Islanders’ food security.
5) Realize a moratorium on deep sea mining.
6) Improve seafood tracing and law enforcement to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). IUU fishing is associated with human rights abuses and other criminal networks. It should have no place in our markets.
8) Responsibly scale-up offshore renewable energy. The ocean and climate crises cannot be separated. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is a must-do.
How should the conference outcomes feed into the upcoming UN Ocean conference and COP27?
Our Ocean demonstrated that there is global agreement about the centrality of the ocean to human well-being and climate mitigation and adaptation. The UN Ocean Conference must build on this momentum to deliver on its theme of scaling up ocean action. While additional commitments are needed, particularly in terms of financing and effective, inclusive protected areas, we must move to implementing programmes that bring tangible improvements in ocean health.
Each successive UNFCCC COP has shown greater integration of the ocean in the climate discussion – a hopeful sign, as we know we cannot solve one crisis without effectively addressing the other. An annual ocean-climate dialogue is now integrated into the UNFCCC process, which further supports integration of ocean and climate targets and solutions. We must seize the opportunity to further oceans as being central to addressing the impacts of climate change.
Any final comments?
We have an opportunity and we have an imperative. The science is clear. Let’s advance collective action and take responsibility for the future of our oceans.