For centuries the ocean has been considered to be an infinite source of food and natural resources and able to absorb anything dumped into it. It was never true, of course, but the lie is only becoming obvious now. And we are starting to realize that nothing could be more essential to our survival than healthy oceans.
Covering more than 70 percent of the planet, the ocean gives us food, oxygen, it regulates and stabilise our climate and provides many essential “services”, as the scientists call it, that are vital to sustain life on Earth. The United Nation’s First Ocean Assessment tells us that many areas of the ocean have been seriously degraded due to - us - due to human activities: from overfishing, to oil and gas extraction, coastal development and plastic pollution, all of these work to destroy our oceans and decrease their ability to nurture life. This is not only true of areas close to our shores, but also of those out on the High Seas - in called areas beyond national jurisdiction.
The world is finally waking up to the need to take urgent action. This week, the ocean is in the global spotlight as the UN hosts a first high-level meeting which gets together governments, businesses, citizens and ocean lovers to advance global action and solutions against marine pollution and debris, to protect marine ecosystems, end overfishing and destructive fishing practices and minimise the effects of ocean acidification.
In the Call For Action that governments will formally adopt at the conference, a particular focus is given to the importance of cutting carbon pollution and implementing the Paris Climate Agreement (despite the Trump administration’s disgraceful attempts to prevent this important link being made). This is due to the alarming impacts our use of oil, coal and gas and destruction of forests and other carbon stocks are already having on the ocean, causing it to become more warm, more acidic and less rich in oxygen.
The speed, depth and scale of these changes is difficult to grasp. For example, our ocean is currently becoming more acidic at a rate unprecedented within the last 65 million years, if not the last 300 million years, threatening to fundamentally change marine life within the span of a single human lifetime. For this reason alone, getting rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible and accelerating the transition to renewable energy, in the spirit of the Paris Agreement, will be crucial. Here the official conferences hosts, Sweden, who has pledged to lead in becoming fossil free and Fiji, who together with other Pacific Islands has called for an international moratorium on new fossil fuel developments, are showing the way.
But getting rid of fossil fuels is not sufficient to stop the impact of climate change and protect the ocean’s precious functions. The science is clear that a global network of marine protected areas, especially ocean sanctuaries - areas off limits to human activities - is necessary to reverse the ocean crisis, ensure food security and mitigate and build resilience against, climate change. That is one key reason why, back in 2010, the international community agreed to protect 10% of the ocean by 2020, a commitment that has been endorsed once again in 2015 when the world agreed the “to do list” for people and planet known as the Sustainable Development Goals. More recently, following scientific advice, States have gone further and committed to protect at least 30% by 2030.
These numbers are as vital as they are daunting. Right now less than 3% of the ocean is under some form of protection, and only little over 1% is strongly protected in no-take areas. Numbers are even more alarming when it comes to the High Seas, which cover two-thirds of the ocean. Less than 1% of these are protected. It is quite clear that if we want to achieve the targets needed to ensure our future, areas must be protected, both in national and international waters. Sadly, for the High Seas, including the central Arctic, there is currently no global process to create and manage protected areas. To fill this gap the international community has been discussing the need to develop a new Treaty under the framework of the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to protect marine life in waters beyond national jurisdiction. The process toward this Treaty is now coming to a crucial stage. In only a few weeks from now, the UN will decide on whether to convene a formal negotiation process to address outstanding issues and adopt the Treaty.
In the run-up to the Conference, governments and all relevant stakeholders, including the industry, have been busy registering their voluntary commitments to protect the ocean. While of course, this is a good thing, the record of implementation of voluntary commitments has been traditionally appalling. The ocean doesn’t need more expressions of goodwill, it needs concrete action. My hope is that beyond collecting voluntary commitments, this Conference will catalyse real action for the ocean, for the people, for our Planet and prosperity of humankind.