Nature and Biodiversity

Our opportunity to halt the ocean’s decline

Peter Gash, owner and manager of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, snorkels with Oliver Lanyon and Lewis Marshall, Senior Rangers in the Great Barrier Reef region for the Queenlsand Parks and Wildlife Service, during an inspection of the reef's condition in an area called the 'Coral Gardens' located at Lady Elliot Island located north-east from the town of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia, June 10, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray/File photo - RTX2EFKW

'The ocean’s health is vital to humanity’s well-being' Image: REUTERS/David Gray

Peter Thomson
UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The ocean is in trouble. Its bill of health does not make for happy reading, and there is clear conclusion that human-based activities are the cause of the ocean’s decline.

Incredible levels of marine pollution and litter are cluttering the ocean. The old axiom of "dilution is the solution to pollution", no longer holds true: as evidenced in the density of beach litter; the immense gyres of garbage circulating out in the high seas; the growth in hypoxic dead zones along our coasts; and plastic entering the marine food chain with obvious deleterious effects for marine life and ultimately for us.

Human activity is continuing to cause rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As these levels rise, so too does the ocean’s temperature and acidity. If this trend continues, the consequences for calcium-based marine life, such as fish and shellfish, will be dire, as it will for the ocean’s ecosystem as a whole.

Even without these effects, human activity is putting the world’s fish stocks under threat. Destructive fishing practices, harmful fishery subsidies, overfishing, illegal and unregulated fishing are putting huge strain on the survival of many species. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported last year that nearly one third of all fish stocks are now at below sustainable levels.

This is alarming news for humanity when you consider that our place on this planet depends on a healthy ocean. More than 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean and more than 3 billion people rely on fish for protein. The ocean underpins trade, tourism, employment and food security. Therein lies the call to action; since the ocean’s health is vital to humanity’s well-being, and since it is human activity that is causing the decline of the ocean’s health, then it is our responsibility to correct our actions and set about reversing that decline.

Having been born and raised in Fiji, like all islanders I understand the ocean to be the ultimate source of life. As a youth, I knew first hand the sense of wonder that came with diving among pristine coral reefs, where in a matter of minutes you swam by thousands upon thousands of lifeforms in joyful and ever-changing array.

While the ocean’s wonder endures, by the middle of my life, swimming in those same waters, I began to witness widespread bleaching of coral, degradation of marine life and the proliferation of marine pollution. Like many of my generation, I began questioning what we were doing to the ocean and what we should be doing to correct our behavior.

As fate would have it, in time this enquiry led me to the UN and the opportunity to participate in measures to safeguard the ocean. As the permanent representative of Fiji to the UN and in such roles as the president of the board of the UN Development Programme, president of the International Seabed Authority, and my current role as president of the General Assembly, I have had the privilege of working with many who are dedicated to reversing the cycle of the ocean’s decline.

Central to our work was the inclusion of a strong ocean element in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda that was universally adopted by world leaders at the UN in September 2015. It should be appreciated by all that, together with the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the implementation of the 2030 Agenda will steer humanity away from the precipice of unsustainability towards which it is currently heading.

At the heart of the 2030 Agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with the 14th goal (SDG14) setting out to conserve and sustainably use the ocean’s resources. SDG14 targets action on: marine pollution, marine and coastal ecosystems, restoration of fish stocks, elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies, marine conservation, ocean acidification, implementing relevant international law, increasing scientific knowledge and cooperation, increasing benefits for small island developing countries and least developed countries, and providing resources and market access for small-scale artisanal fishers.

Having brought SDG14 into existence, our attention then turned to a means of ensuring its implementation. The outcome of long discussions among member states of the UN was the mandating of The Ocean Conference, which will be co-hosted by the governments of Sweden and Fiji and take place on 5 to 9 June 2017 at the UN in New York.

The Ocean Conference’s official name - the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 - spells its purpose. It is designed to galvanize concerted and cooperative action, through partnerships among all stakeholders, to address the many targets of SDG14.

“All stakeholders” means what it says: governments, the UN system, civil society, philanthropies, non-governmental organisations, the scientific community, academia and technical experts, the private sector and local communities. We see The Ocean Conference as humanity’s best opportunity for collective endeavour to halt the ocean’s decline and put us on a course towards full recovery.

One of the outcomes of the conference will be a Call for Action declaration that will provide the political commitment needed to drive action to effectively implement SDG14. A preparatory meeting for The Ocean Conference will be held in New York on 15 and 16 February to work on the elements of the Call for Action, along with the themes for the conference’s seven partnership dialogues.

Each of these partnership dialogues will focus on a particular aspect of SDG 14, such as marine pollution, sustainable fisheries or ocean acidification. Key to these dialogues will be the voluntary commitments made by the many partnerships that will be sharing the platforms of the seven dialogues, with work underway for some months now in the preparation of such partnerships and commitments.

Key to the authority of The Ocean Conference will be its firm foundation in the best scientific information available on the subjects at hand. The UN system has been hard at work preparing these foundations with the full involvement and support of such agencies and organizations as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN's Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), among many others.

We aim to come out of The Ocean Conference in June armed with a broad portfolio of partnerships, commitments and measures to be put into action. But of course the campaign to support the successful attainment of SDG14’s targets will not end there. The reversal we seek will not be an overnight phenomenon, so we will battle on until success has been fully achieved by the year 2030.

Have you read?

Having been closely involved in bringing both SDG14 and The Ocean Conference into existence, I’m determined to see that SDG14 meets its targets. It cannot be allowed to go down in history as just a well-intentioned collection of words; such an outcome would be a tragedy.

As a grandfather, I say we must do whatever we can to reverse the cycle of decline in which the ocean has become caught. I want my grandchildren to experience the marine wonder I did as a youth.

To give SDG14 its best shot at successfully achieving its high aim of conserving and sustainably using the ocean’s resources, we must ensure that The Ocean Conference excels at what it has been designed to do. I’m very confident it will. To help us make that a reality, please join me at the conference in the first week of June in New York and be a positive part of this historic event.

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