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Why the U.N. Ocean Conference Is a Turning Point in Saving Marine Life

Hailing from Fiji, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, Peter Thomson, is intimately aware of threats to ocean health. He says talk will turn to action this week to fight climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution, and to protect the high seas.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The ocean conference
Peter Thomson, president of the United Nations General Assembly, during the announcement of the World Ocean Festival at the U.N. Headquarters in New York.Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire | Verwendung weltweit

The United Nations Ocean Conference underway this week in New York City was originally set to convene in Fiji, a South Pacific island nation that faces rising seas, dying coral reefs, declining fish stocks and beaches awash in plastic. Then, in February 2016, a Category 5 cyclone, the strongest ever recorded in the region, struck the archipelago, killing dozens, leaving tens of thousands of Fijians homeless and causing more than a half a billion dollars’ worth of property damage.

The event relocated to New York, but Fiji and other island nations will play a prominent role at the first U.N. conference devoted to ocean health. Fiji is cochairing the conference and the current president of the U.N. General Assembly, Peter Thomson, is a Fijian. Thomson previously served as his nation’s permanent representative to the U.N. and as the president of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority, which was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to regulate deep-sea mining.

The Ocean Conference is designed to galvanize action to implement Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14), adopted in 2015 by the U.N.’s 193 members to, among other things, significantly reduce ocean pollution by 2025, sustainably manage fisheries and coastal and marine ecosystems, minimize the impact of ocean acidification from climate change and protect 10 percent of the ocean in reserves by 2020.

Oceans Deeply talked to Thomson about why the Ocean Conference is a watershed moment in efforts to protect the high seas and the passion he brings to ocean health as a Fijian.

Oceans Deeply: In recent remarks, you said the Ocean Conference ‘may prove to be the most important gathering ever held in support of ocean’s well-being.’ Why is the conference such a pivotal event?

Peter Thomson: I don’t think I need to go through with you the list of woes that humanity has put upon the ocean, but it’s well known to most people that marine pollution is at plague levels now. That in itself is such a wakeup call. But we’re pushing fish stocks to the tipping points of unsustainability all around the globe. Coastal degradation is widespread. Hypoxic [dead] zones are spreading along coastlines where no life exists. You look at things like ocean acidification and it’s obvious that the ocean is in serious trouble, so this conference represents the best chance we have of reversing that cycle of decline we’ve put the ocean into. We’ve invited civil society and NGOs and the business sector and all the agencies and organizations and, of course, member states to participate in what I think is humanity’s first real accounting of what we’ve done to the ocean.

Oceans Deeply: You also said that the burden is ‘to ensure that SDG 14 was not just a beautiful collection of words.’ How will the conference contribute to such an outcome?

Thomson: SDG 14 is something that everybody who knows and cares about the ocean’s problems, life in the ocean, should be conversant with. It is the only universally agreed measure that humanity has taken to save life in the ocean. The only one. The leaders of all 193 member states of the United Nations in September 2015 adopted SDG 14. That’s where the Ocean Conference comes in, that’s where we have our moment of accountability, where we get together and work out what we’re going to do to support SDG 14 in achieving all of its targets by the year 2030, which is when its mandates run through to.

Oceans Deeply: What are the most concrete actions toward achieving the SDG 14 goals you hope will come out of the Ocean Conference?

Thomson: There’s a few things that will come out that will basically constitute a work plan for humanity going forward. I keep saying humanity because I don’t see this as something that governments or certain organizations are going to solve. I think it’s for all human beings that care to get together and make the changes that are required. It’s individuals as well as communities.

I’m confident that what will come out of the conference is, first of all, a call for action, which is a strong statement by all the participants. It basically binds us all going ahead with a strong program of action. But secondly, the conference is divided into seven partnership dialogues. Each one addresses a specific area, such as marine pollution or protecting coastal ecosystems or addressing ocean acidification or making fish stocks sustainable. What we’re going to hear in each of these partner dialogues is the truth of the situation out there and the solutions.

Then, thirdly, and the one I have to admit I’m most passionate about, is this register of voluntary commitments. The registry is open to anyone who wants to make a voluntary commitment to SDG 14. We’re not talking about money here. We’re talking about action. In other words, a government, an organization or a group of individuals can get together and say, “This is what we’re doing to support SDG 14 and this is what we plan to do in the future to help it succeed.” If you like, we’re crowdsourcing the world on this.

Oceans Deeply: You come from a South Pacific island nation that already is experiencing the impacts of sea level rise and other consequences of climate change and degradation of the ocean. How has that informed your perspective on ocean issues and commitment to ocean health?

Thomson: Look, I’m a fifth-generation Fijian. I grew up on beaches. I learned to swim almost as soon as I learned to walk. I’ve been a diver all my life. During that time I’ve seen with great disappointment not just in Fiji but around the world, what’s happening to the ocean. The fact that you swam with plastic where previously there was just pristine H2O. Where you went on to your favorite coral reefs and found that instead of millions of life forms that dazzled you, you’re looking at white desert with a few lone fish flitting through. I’ve seen that in the Mediterranean, I’ve seen that all around the world.

That was something as a grandfather I just found unacceptable and the more I’ve been involved in ocean rehabilitation, the more I’ve realized that these are all human-induced problems and there are human solutions to all of them. That’s what this whole movement around SDG 14 is about. It’s about putting into place solutions, because they are available, but we just have to change our habits as a species on this planet for them to succeed. That’s why the global consciousness aspect of this is so important to what we’re doing.

Oceans Deeply: Deep-sea mining has received relatively little attention. How significant an issue to ocean health do you think deep-sea mining will be in the coming years and should we be paying more attention to it?

Thomson: I think this is an obvious point of anxiety for a lot of people because it’s new technology and it is in the ocean. But a couple of points, and this comes from the past several years going down to Jamaica to the International Seabed Authority. First, the international seabed, what is called “the Area” under the International Law of the Sea, is probably the best-governed part of this planet. Nobody can go into that area and conduct exploration or exploitation activities without a license from the International Seabed Authority.

A country like Fiji, we’ve been involved from the word go on this. Why? It’s not because we’re there to get seabed mining licenses or anything like that. It’s to make sure that good governance of the area is what prevails, and secondly, to make sure the environmental standards that are being applied to all regulations are the highest that can possibly be. We recognize that this is the common heritage of mankind.

There’s no cause for early anxiety because we have not yet had regulations for exploiting seabed minerals. That’s still law in production. Where the attention should be given is to make sure those laws that are being proclaimed as regulations, the so-called Mining Code, have the highest environmental standards because a country like Fiji depends on the ocean for everything, for our fish, for our tourism, for just the enjoyment of having a clean ocean around us.

Oceans Deeply: How do you see the Ocean Conference as distinct from or similar to the long negotiating process that led to the Paris climate change agreement?

Thomson: The climate process has a big secretariat based in Bonn and an annual process. The ocean doesn’t have that. And one reason we had to pull together this Ocean Conference is that there’s a plethora of organizations around the world that have a finger in the pie of ocean governance. The Ocean Conference focuses our minds on how we’re going to coordinate and better govern our actions in support of SDG 14.

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