The Ocean Conference: a Game-Changer

 

By Peter Thomson

The Ocean is in dire need of our help. If the cycle of decline, in which it is currently caught, is allowed to continue, the deleterious impacts on the life-forms dwelling in, above and next to the Ocean may well become irreversible.

All life on this planet ultimately depends on a healthy Ocean, thus stopping its deterioration is one of the most important challenges of our era. If we are to ensure a bountiful planet for ourselves and for future generations, the time for action is upon us.

An islander is defined by the Ocean. Having been born and raised in Fiji, from my earliest childhood I observed the Ocean's status as the ultimate life-giver. In the Fiji of my childhood, the bounty of life-forms surrounded you every time you swam in its waters. Spawned by the Ocean, puffy cumulus clouds propelled by the trade winds brought us the fresh afternoon rain that filled our water tanks. Fishermen replenished the market with their catch beside fisherwomen selling coconut-leaf bags of shellfish and edible seaweed. We lived in the bosom of the Ocean.

In a previous contribution to this magazine (UN Chronicle Vol. L, No.1, April 2013), I provided a contemporary perspective from Fiji, a small island developing State (SIDS), highlighting the environmental and climatic challenges to ensuring the sustainable management of the Ocean's resources. In writing about those challenges, I underlined the fact that they were not unique to my country, but common to all SIDS.

This article expands on that SIDS perspective, presenting a universal picture of the state of the Ocean and demonstrating that its current woes ultimately affect us all, from the island nations to landlocked countries and continental States. This perspective leads me to the Ocean Conference, to be held at the United Nations in New York from 5 to 9 June 2017. The Conference is quite possibly the best and last real opportunity for the world to come together to take the comprehensive measures required to reverse the decline in the Ocean's health.

THE OCEAN AS THE LIFEBLOOD OF OUR PLANET

The Ocean unites us. With the bounty of its resources, limitless energy and indispensable trade routes, it is the lifeblood of our planet. Its health is crucial to humanity's well­ being; thus the time has come for us all to recognize that increasing human activity has placed the Ocean in jeopardy.

Covering three quarters of the Earth's surface and containing 97 per cent of the planet's water, the Ocean drives global weather patterns, absorbs around 30 per cent of human-produced carbon dioxide and serves as a critical buffer to the ever-worsening impacts of global warming. More than 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the Ocean. Home to nearly 200,000 identified species, with actual numbers estimated to lie in the millions, the Ocean is a massive reservoir of biodiversity. Billions of people rely on it for their livelihoods, food security and cultural identity. Do we really want to give all that away?

Since the integrity of the Ocean's precious ecosystem is essential for humanity's survival, logic would dictate that we should steward its welfare with utmost diligence. Sadly, the opposite has become the case. To accept the veracity of this statement, one need only consider the fact that we dump the equivalent of a large garbage truck of plastic waste into the Ocean every minute of every day. If current trends continue, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the Ocean than fish. This is but one of many shameful human activities that have pushed the Ocean into its cycle of decline. The existential challenges of reversing that cycle have now become one of humanity's greatest imperatives.

The scientific evidence of decline is solid. Whether it is habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, overfishing and collapsing fish stocks, marine pollution, or the effects of climate change manifested in ocean acidification and warming, the challenges before us are both complex and daunting.

Consider the intolerable levels of marine pollution and litter cluttering the Ocean and piling up on our beaches. Enormous gyres of garbage are circulating out in the high seas. Tragically, plastic is now entering the marine food chain with obvious toxic effects for marine life and ultimately for us. Hypoxic dead zones expand along our coasts, while life-supporting reefs of multitudinous coral forms are turning into white cemeteries devoid of life.

Meanwhile, human activity continues to cause rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn increase the Ocean's acidity. If this trend continues, the outlook for calcium-based marine life is dire. Those greenhouse gases are also warming the Ocean, a process that will further exacerbate rising sea levels, while driving fish from hot equatorial zones. What this will do to the planet's ecosystem remains to be seen, but the consequences for humanity cannot be good.

As these woes befall the Ocean, reckless human behaviour continues to put enormous strain on the survival of many marine species through destructive fishing practices, harmful fisheries subsidies, illegal and unregulated fishing, and illogical patterns of overfishing. Official sources indicate that nearly one third of all fish stocks are now below sustainable levels.

All these problems emanate from human activity. Therefore, it is human activity that must produce the solutions, and the time for concerted action has come.

THE 2030 AGENDA AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 14

World leaders acknowledged the fundamental importance of the Ocean to humanity and to the planet in September 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development-humanity's master plan for a sustainable future on this planet.

At the heart of the 2030 Agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with SDG 14 setting out specific targets to be met in order to conserve and sustainably use the Ocean, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. SDG 14 action targets deal with marine pollution; marine and coastal ecosystems; restoration of fish stocks; elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies; marine conservation; ocean acidification; implementing relevant international law; strengthening scientific knowledge and cooperation; increasing benefits for SIDS and least developed countries; and providing resources and market access for small-scale artisanal fishers.

SDG 14 is the only universally agreed road map for conserving and sustainably managing marine resources. Its faithful implementation is therefore our best hope for remedying the Ocean's woes.

THE OCEAN CONFERENCE

With the inclusion of a strong Ocean goal in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the stage was set for the next phase of remedial action. A system for staying true to the implementation of SDG 14 was required. After lengthy negotiations in 2016, United Nations Member States unanimously agreed to hold an SDG 14 conference in 2017, designed to galvanize concerted and cooperative action, through partnerships among all stakeholders, to support the targets of SDG 14.

Thus the idea of the Ocean Conference came into being. The meeting, to be co-hosted by the Governments of Sweden and Fiji, is officially known as the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14, and this is exactly what it will be doing.

The Conference will mobilize urgent collective action by all stakeholders in the Ocean's well-being, including Governments, the United Nations system, civil society, philanthropic institutions, non-governmental organizations, the scientific community, academia and technical experts, the private sector and local communities. Together we will chart a course for the Ocean's recovery.

One of the outcomes of the Conference will be a "Call for Action" declaration, currently being put together by Member States, that will provide the consensual political commitment needed to drive action to effectively implement SDG 14. Another outcome will be raising global consciousness on the state of the Ocean and the need for humanity to take remedial action.

A further, key outcome will be the proposed solutions arising from the seven partnership dialogues to be held during the Conference. These dialogues will focus on particular aspects of SDG 14, such as marine pollution, ocean acidification and management of fish stocks. Through the partnership dialogues, with a view towards concerted action, we will be gathering all the voluntary commitments that are being put in place to meet the SDG 14 targets.

REGISTER FOR VOLUNTARY COMMITMENTS

In order to make the efforts to support SDG 14 implementation open to all who have contributions to make, a Registry of Voluntary Commitments has been created by the conference organizers. Any voluntary commitment made within the framework of the 2030 Agenda targeting SDG 14 can be registered at https://oceanconference.un.org/commitments/register/.

With partnerships and commitments for actions now being registered on the website, this is the tangible opportunity for Governments, agencies, the private sector and civil society—in fact, anyone who cares about the Ocean's health—to make meaningful contributions to the cause. The commitments will be captured in the Conference outcome document and will serve as a central reference tool as we go about our work plan in the years ahead. I therefore urge all who are ready to commit to action to save life in the Ocean to register their voluntary commitments now.

FINAL WORDS

The Ocean Conference will be humanity's first universal moment of accountability to remedy the woes we have put upon the Ocean. We will come out of the Conference armed with a broad set of partnerships, commitments and measures to be put into action.

We will begin work immediately on these comprehensive solutions, but of course the process of implementing SDG 14 will not end there. We are mandated by all 193 United Nations Member States to achieve the targets of SDG 14 by 2030. Thus, we must engage in regular moments of universal reflection on progress and the renewal of our commitments in the intervening years.

For those of us who had the vision to bring SDG 14 and the Ocean Conference into being, the moral duty to ensure its success does not end until its targets are achieved. All those who share that vision and are willing to work to solve the Ocean's problems are welcome to join us.

The central messages of this article are: register your voluntary commitments, join us in communal resolve at the Ocean Conference and be a positive part of this historic event. This is the opportunity to do your part in passing onto succeeding generations an Ocean full of life, one that they can sustainably steward into the future.