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U.N. Meets in Bid to Reverse the Decline of the World’s Oceans

With the ocean in crisis, national leaders, scientists, policymakers and activists are gathering in New York to hash out strategies to protect a crucial ecosystem.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Douniamag new caledonia overseas environment climate
A scientist assesses bleaching of coral reefs off New Caledonia in the South Pacific.AFP/PALA DALIK/Sandrine JOB

New York is in a blue state of mind this week.

The United Nations on Monday kicks off the week-long Ocean Conference, the first U.N. event devoted to the health of a crucial global ecosystem, one facing an existential threat from climate change, overfishing, pollution and the extirpation of marine life, from top predators down to microscopic plankton.

More than 4,000 national leaders, diplomats, advocates, scientists and business executives are convening at United Nations headquarters for an event the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Peter Thomson, said “may prove to be the most important gathering ever held in support of ocean’s well-being.”

That may not be hyperbole.

In September 2015, the U.N.’s 193 member states adopted Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14), which set out seven targets related to ocean health to be achieved by 2030. Among them: significantly reducing ocean pollution by 2025, sustainably managing fisheries and coastal and marine ecosystems by 2020, minimizing the impact of ocean acidification from climate change and protecting 10 percent of the ocean in reserves by 2020.

“This is where we have our moment of accountability, where we get together and work out what we’re going to do to support SDG 14 achieving all of its targets,” Thomson told Oceans Deeply. “This will be, I think, humanity’s first real accounting of what we’ve done to the ocean. You look at things like ocean acidification and it’s obvious that the ocean is in serious decline, so this conference represents the best chance we have of reversing that cycle of decline we’ve put the ocean into.”

Unlike the years-long climate change negotiation that resulted in the 2015 Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Ocean Conference will not produce a global accord to preserve the ocean.

Rather, member states will sign a detailed “call for action” that commits them to “halting and reversing the decline in the health and productivity of our ocean and its ecosystems and to protecting and restoring its resilience and ecological integrity.”

“We recognize that our ocean covers three quarters of our planet, connects our populations and markets, and forms an important part of our natural and cultural heritage,” the final draft of the call for action states. “It supplies half the oxygen we breathe, absorbs a third of the carbon dioxide we produce, plays a vital role in the water cycle and the climate system, and is an important source of our planet’s biodiversity. It contributes to sustainable development and sustainable ocean-based economies, as well as to poverty eradication, food security and nutrition, maritime trade and transportation, decent work and livelihoods.”

The statement calls for nations to coordinate among themselves and with regional and local institutions to implement the SDG 14 targets. Strategies for achieving those goals will be hashed out at seven “partnership dialogues” during the conference.

Lastly, nations, U.N. agencies, environmental advocates, scientists and businesses have registered more than 600 “voluntary commitments” to take action on the SDG 14 targets.

Indonesia, for instance, has pledged to enlarge its protected marine conservation areas to 49 million acres (20 million hectares) by 2020, while a nonprofit organization in Mauritius will rear coral species in nurseries that will be transplanted to rehabilitate 100 coral colonies by 2019. The Caribbean island nation of Grenada is working with the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans and sports apparel giant Adidas to reduce pollution by recycling discarded plastic. For its part, Adidas has committed to work with Parley to produce 1 million pairs of athletic shoes made from recycled ocean plastic by the end of 2017, develop a supply chain to transform discarded plastic from coastal areas into products and phase out the company’s use of virgin plastic.

Vulcan, a company owned by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, pledged to roll out technology in 2018 to fight illegal fishing. It will “automatically analyze vessel tracking information, vessel records and data streams from advanced resources including satellite imagery to let human experts more quickly and specifically identify suspected bad actors and potentially illicit activities.”

Climate change negotiators have long faced the challenge of spurring international action on a threat that in years past seemed far in the future and one whose solution carried a high economic price. The perilous state of the ocean, on the other hand, is all too apparent. Rising sea levels are inundating island nations, and coastlines and seas are awash in plastic trash. Nearly 90 percent of commercial fish stock are fully exploited or overexploited. Coral reefs – which are home to 25 percent of the world’s fish species, feed tens of millions of people and generate $30 billion annually – are dying as water temperatures rise. Back-to-back bleaching events in 2016–17 affected 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, killing a third of its shallow-water corals.

Scientists believe warming oceans are also contributing to more severe tropical cyclones. The U.N. Ocean Conference was originally to be held in Fiji. But as if Mother Nature was sending a message to world leaders, the event had to be relocated to New York after a Category 5 cyclone, the strongest on record in the South Pacific, hit Fiji in February 2016, killing dozens, leaving tens of thousands homeless and resulting in more than half a billion dollars’ worth of property damage.

Such dire conditions have galvanized nations to come together at the U.N. Ocean Conference, but the issue of how progress toward meeting the SDG 14 targets will be measured remains unresolved.

“This is the big question and the big concern,” said Karen Sack, managing director of Ocean Unite, a nonprofit that is working to involve business leaders in solving ocean challenges. “In order to hold governments and others to those targets there has to be some kind of system in place where they’re reporting in on what they have done. Nothing like that exists currently.”

Sack, a veteran oceans activist who formerly served as the senior director for international ocean programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said voluntary commitments, which require measurable targets, are important but also lack a mechanism to hold parties accountable.

And while there is universal agreement on SDG 14 goals, reaching them will require tough international negotiations. For instance, by 2020 nations are to end subsidies that encourage overfishing and contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Such subsidies are the subject of ongoing negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

“If we look at the ocean, about 64 percent is international waters, which requires countries to collaborate to achieve some of the goals,” Sack said. “If we want to establish a high seas agreement to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions, governments have to work together.”

Also not addressed is how to transfer technology and funding to developing nations and those island states most at risk from the degradation of the ocean.

Island states such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Fiji – the latter is cochairing the Ocean Conference – are playing prominent roles in New York this week. Big ocean powers are less visible. The United States, which last Thursday announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, has not made any voluntary commitments to achieving the SDG 14 targets (though the state of California has registered eight). China is also keeping a relatively low profile at the conference.

“It’s the small island states that are stepping up, but we’ve got to get the big ocean users to step up as well,” Sack said.

If the climate talks seemed remote from the lives of ordinary citizens, the U.N. is making a concerted effort to recruit the public to help meet SDG 14 targets. “I don’t see this as something that government or certain organizations are going to solve,” said Thomson, who is Fijian. “I think it’s for all human beings that care to get together and make the changes that are required.”

On Sunday, Thomson spoke at “World Ocean Festival,” an event on Governors Island cosponsored by the U.N., that featured exhibits, panels, a youth rally and speakers such as oceanographer Sylvia Earle. “There’s been a disconnect between what the U.N. is trying to accomplish and the people, civil society,” said Natalia Vega-Berry, founder of Global Brain, a Colorado-based firm that organized the festival. “We’re trying to create a bridge between high-level policy and the peoples of the world on ocean issues.”

Or, as Sack put it, “The U.N. is earning its blue stripes stripes, finally.”

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