Karen Sack
Nathalie Rey

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23 March 2017
2017: A Year for Ocean Conservation Decisions, Action and Accountability – Because the Ocean is Everybody’s Business
UN Photo/Mark Garten
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If we are keen to ensure a future for our planet and to give the ocean any chance of recovery, then we need to seize the key political opportunities happening in 2017, and make sure that bold action is taken.

Many hope 2017 will see a breakthrough at the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding a ban on perverse fisheries subsidies that lead to overfishing.

We need to secure strong protection for East Antarctica this year, and then add the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) protection portfolio by 2020.

It is essential that governments take a historic step and recommend that the UN General Assembly convene a formal treaty negotiating conference in 2018, which will result, hopefully, in a strong final high seas biodiversity treaty before 2020.

For the Ocean, 2016 was a remarkable year. There was: record marine protection in the Pacific, the Antarctic and the Atlantic; new international trade protection for several shark and ray species; and there were new treaties entering into force to fight illegal fishing and climate change. Negotiations started towards a new UN treaty to protect high seas marine life; and marine protected area (MPA) commitments exceeded more than 6% of ocean real estate, globally. Many NGOs and governments upped their ambition by supporting the strong protection of at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, and philanthropic investments in ocean conservation were boosted by over US$5 billion.

Despite these successes, the reality for 2017 is that we and the ocean are in a state of emergency – owing to climate change, reckless consumption, and most damaging of all – apathy.

There is no uncertainty that, today, climate change is having a far-reaching and profound impact on the ocean. Last year was the hottest year on record, with the poles experiencing record sea-ice loss and coral reefs in meltdown. The pervasive impacts of warming and acidifying water extend down kilometers into the deep sea. Illegal fishing activities are further stressing marine life, and we are choking the ocean with tons of plastic and other pollution. Threats from other extractive activities, like oil and gas drilling and emerging deep-sea mining, compound the ocean crisis.

But perhaps, the greatest single danger to the ocean is indifference. A lack of political will, ambition and public engagement are enabling this disaster to unfold in front of our eyes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

This year could see significant achievements for conserving the underwater world. If we are keen to ensure a future for our planet and to give the ocean any chance of recovery, then we need to seize the key political opportunities happening in 2017, and make sure that bold action is taken. The ocean has an incredible ability to regenerate itself and we can help it, if we realize that the ocean is everybody’s business and take charge now.

If we are keen to ensure a future for our planet and to give the ocean any chance of recovery, then we need to seize the key political opportunities happening in 2017, and make sure that bold action is taken.

Implementing Agreed Goals

There are frameworks in place now that can support the requisite steps for protecting the ocean and our planet. Implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change will be an essential contribution that countries can make to ocean regeneration. On land, we must curb carbon emissions as quickly as possible and move to a renewable energy future. On water, we need to harness the ocean’s super carbon-absorbing powers and increase its resilience to change by strongly protecting at least 30% as marine reserves by 2030. These highly protected areas are one of the best tools we have to help the ocean regenerate and to build planetary resilience to change. We need the swift and effective implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we need to make sure that the protected area target in SDG 14 – the Ocean Goal – that only goes to 2020 is built upon so we can achieve a science-based target by 2030.

On SDG implementation, the UN will finally earn its blue stripes when it convenes the high-level ‘Ocean Conference’ from 5 – 9 June 2017. The Conference is meant to generate action on SDG 14, spur partnerships and progress toward ocean conservation, as well as issue a ‘Call for Action.’

The word “action” is the key. The ocean is everybody’s business and all of us (Jo(e) public, governments and businesses) need to act by investing in its future health. Real commitments are needed from governments, businesses and citizens to provide the financing and resources to deliver on the SDG 14 targets. These must be matched with accountability and monitoring to secure sustainable fisheries, ensure pollution-free seas, agree a strong high seas biodiversity agreement and designate and implement a global network of MPAs and marine reserves.

The Importance of New Agreements

With regard to protected areas, last year saw the announcement of the world’s largest marine reserve, the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean. After so many years of discussion, this designation of a truly remarkable marine area showed what is possible through global cooperation focused on high seas protection. We need to quickly build on this momentum by securing strong protection for East Antarctica this year, and then add the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) protection portfolio by 2020.

While there’s been progress on high seas protection within the Southern Ocean, most international waters are still not governed by clear rules. For too long, protection of marine life in these areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) has been placed on the “too difficult pile.” But, that is all about to change. The next few months will see the final two preparatory meetings to develop the outline of a new international agreement under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This agreement will help protect marine life in the high seas by establishing MPAs and fully protected reserves, governing the use and sharing of marine genetic resources, and requiring prior environmental impact assessments.

By July, it is essential that governments take this historic step and recommend that the UN General Assembly convene a formal treaty negotiating conference in 2018, which will result, hopefully, in a strong final high seas biodiversity treaty before 2020. We cannot let this opportunity slip through our fingers. With two-thirds of the ocean at stake, this will be the Paris Agreement for the ocean.

But there is even more at stake this year. Many hope 2017 will see a breakthrough at the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding a ban on perverse fisheries subsidies that lead to overfishing. For the past 15 years, multilateral talks have been on a road to nowhere. But with the SDG target 14.6’s deadline to prohibit harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020 looming, this issue is finally gaining momentum. At a time when conservation resources are tight, it is staggering that billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money are still spent on fisheries subsidies that directly encourage unsustainable, destructive, and even illegal practices. Governments must seize this opportunity to reverse this ludicrous situation.

In 2017, we stand at a crossroads for our planet and our ocean. This year we could see momentous decisions on ocean protection, from the Arctic to the Antarctic – and everywhere in between. This is the year that could be the force multiplier delivering big change on the water and for our future.

At Ocean Unite, we believe that securing the vitality of the ocean is Everybody’s Business and we hope you will make it yours.


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