20 January 2015
Focus on the Ocean at IUCN 2014 World Parks Congress: Report from Sydney, Australia
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The 2014 World Parks Congress (WPC) had a unique focus on marine conservation, putting forth a vibrant and comprehensive agenda boasting some 250 ocean-related sessions that embraced protection of the 70% of Earth that is ocean.

The 2014 World Parks Congress (WPC), an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) global forum on protected areas that is convened only once every ten years, was held in Sydney, Australia, from 12-19 November 2014. It was a landmark event attended by over 6000 of the world’s most prominent players in protected area management from 170 countries. They gathered to exchange ideas and best practices, and to set a global agenda for the next decade. While past WPC events focused mainly on the management, protection and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, 2014 WPC had a unique focus on marine conservation, putting forth a vibrant and comprehensive agenda boasting some 250 ocean-related sessions that embraced protection of the 70% of Earth that is ocean.

Marine Theme at 2014 WPC

At a time when the ocean is being readily affected by warming, acidification, lower oxygen levels, over-fishing, mining and pollution, the 2014 WPC strove to create innovative and dynamic solutions for the establishment and management of protected areas. Throughout the week, hundreds of ocean-related sessions were held, along with dozens of side events, live performances, panels, film debuts, lunchtime debates and special gatherings.

The Congress brought attention to current marine challenges and showcased best practices by global leaders implementing protected area solutions across an array of marine environments. Key topics included climate change, marine mapping and monitoring technologies, economic challenges, IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing, mining and pollution, and the need for protected areas around island nations, coastal areas and ABNJ (areas beyond national jurisdiction also referred to as High Seas).

Co-led by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Parks Australia, the World Commission on Protected Areas – Marine and IUCN’s Marine and Polar Program, the marine cross-cutting theme focused on how to design and manage effective marine protected areas (MPAs) and MPA networks through shared experiences, alliances, and new commitments. Marine issues were clustered around three sub-themes: Invest More, increasing the investment of funds, time, partners, and other resources in MPAs; Involve More, engaging a broader range of stakeholders, building new partnerships, and moving from awareness to action; and Protect More, expanding the use of MPAs and MPA networks to achieve conservation goals and targets and maximize their resilience and effectiveness. As a successful example of how to gain community support for protecting more marine areas, NOAA presented its new Sanctuary Nomination Process, which allows communities to nominate nationally significant ocean and Great Lakes areas for consideration as National Marine Sanctuaries.

New Technology and Media Outlets Illuminate Elusive Ocean Issues

In the WPC Ocean Pavilion, advanced technology displays drew huge crowds. Google Hangouts on the big screen with marine luminaries from around the world were broadcast worldwide, and covered by media outlets. An interactive and educational Ocean + tv targeted both marine-conservation professionals and the public. Innovative content platforms allowed experts and participants to keep a record of their exchanges and watch events they were not able to attend, raising awareness of the many life-giving services rendered by marine protected areas and oceans at large. Plenary sessions were broadcasted live and daily magazines were offered to summarize proceedings and provide context. They featured highlights, interviews with prominent speakers, and a recap of each day’s outcomes.

The Ocean Pavilion showcased the latest massive Google displays, interactive screens, games, films and photos, demonstrations of cutting-edge technologies, networking for exchange of knowledge, and new tools and imagery. These resources allowed people to dive deeper into the Earth’s blue spaces and gain greater access to information that can guide effective decisions and management of marine protected areas. Participants enjoyed footage from the underwater camera systems of Catlin Seaview Survey, a three-dimensional virtual dive experience that contributes the footage that creates the underwater world of Google Streetview. The launch of Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Google, Oceana and Skytruth was standing room only as satellite data were revealed that showed for the first time the global footprint of fishing in the world’s ocean. This startling imagery filled the big screen in the Ocean Pavilion at various times throughout the Congress, giving onlookers, which included Heads of State, hope that illegal fishing could be identified and stopped within the coming decades.

An Online Ocean Symposium partnered on Google+ Hangouts to open the discussion about ocean issues to the online WPC audience LIVE and on-the-ground in Sydney. Topics included innovative ocean survey technologies, large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs), high seas conservation, locally managed MPAs, and the Great Barrier Reef rezoning. The UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Brazil World Heritage ‘Digital Aquarium: Dive into the Brazilian, Atlantic Islands, a World Heritage site’ was displayed on a 55 inch TV-screen as a backdrop that provided a popular site for selfies.

World-renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle presented her documentary film Mission Blue at an exclusive Sydney viewing during WPC. Exploring the most important issues facing the world’s marine habitats, the film highlights the wonders and challenges of the Gulf of Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, Australia’s Coral Sea, and other marine sites, and the urgent issues threatening the ocean. Appearing live at the event, Dr. Earle shared the particular pertinence of the film to Australia where the world’s largest network of marine parks and sanctuaries is facing an uncertain future.

Planetfest! at 2014 WPC drew local Sydney crowds as well as Congress participants. The interactive, day-long Planetfest! held on Sunday, included displays and a live concert that promoted the importance of worldwide protected areas to the local community. Planetfest! concluded with the MacGillivray Freeman film Journey to the South Pacific narrated by Cate Blanchett, an underwater voyage to Indonesia and an encounter with its inhabitants such as giant rays and whale sharks. The film showcased efforts being made in the region for ocean conservation.

The High Seas at 2014 World Parks Congress

The 2014 WPC focus on high seas was led primarily by The High Seas Alliance. The organization hosted sessions and workshops on topics including the enhancing and diversifying governance of protected areas, including a Google Hangout on the big screen in the Ocean Pavilion titled ‘Championing the High Seas’, with Sir Richard Branson, Dr. Sylvia Earle (National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence), Professor Dan Laffoley (Marine Vice Chair, IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas), Ambassador Eden Charles (Trinidad & Tobago), John Weller (Photographer and Author) and Nainoa Thompson (Polynesian Voyaging Society).

The Promise of Sydney

Among the main goals for the 2014 World Parks Congress was to encourage bold thinking about the future of protected areas by governments, international organizations, communities, civil society leaders and indigenous peoples. The summary document that captures these ideas, entitled the ‘Promise of Sydney,’ includes a vision for the future, a set of innovative approaches to solving some of the world’s most elusive challenges, commitments to advance this change for people, protected areas and the planet, and solutions that provide evidence that this change is within reach.

The Promise of Sydney represents the collective outcomes from the Congress and provides a blueprint for a decade of change. The marine recommendations urgently call upon the global community to increase the protection of ocean areas through ecologically representative, well-connected systems of MPAs. Through effective and equitable conservation measures, the Promise of Sydney calls for a fully sustainably managed ocean, with at least 30% of the area of each habitat type protected from all extractive activities. It also calls for steps to protect and manage biodiversity in the high seas, including the seabed through the development and adoption of an international instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, with particular regional efforts in Antarctica, the Arctic, the Sargasso Sea and other key areas.

Acknowledgement of contributing editors: Dan Lafolley, Marine Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and Lauren Wenzel, Acting Director of NOAA National Marine Protected Areas Center.

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