State of the Oceans Alarms World Leaders

reef sharks

LISBON, Portugal, July 1, 2022 (ENS) – Heads of state, world leaders, and government officials wrapping up their week-long meeting in Lisbon at the UN Ocean Conference admitted to being “deeply alarmed by the global emergency facing the ocean.” Across the planet, coastal erosion, rising sea levels, warmer and more acidic waters, marine pollution, overexploitation of fish populations and a steep decline in marine biodiversity are getting worse, mounting factual evidence shows.

They recognized the past “collective failure” to avert this crisis in the Conference’s final declaration, issued Friday.

Recognizing a “collective failure to achieve Ocean related targets” so far, the leaders renewed their commitments to take urgent action and to cooperate at all levels, to fully achieve targets as soon as possible.

Acknowledging climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our time,” and the stating the need to “act decisively and urgently to improve the health, productivity, sustainable use and resilience of the ocean and its ecosystems,” the politicians and diplomats gathered in Lisbon stressed that innovative actions based on science, along with international cooperation, are essential for finding solutions.

“We are committed to halting and reversing the decline in the health of the ocean’s ecosystems and biodiversity, and to protecting and restoring its resilience and ecological integrity,” they pledged in the Lisbon Declaration.

Lisbon is the last major political moment before the final Global Ocean Treaty negotiations in August 2022. Forty-nine governments, including the European Union and its 27 member states, have committed to finalizng an ambitious treaty in 2022.

Without a strong Global Ocean Treaty this year, it will be nearly impossible to protect at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. This is what scientists say is the absolute minimum required to give the oceans space to recover from centuries of human exploitation. Currently, less than three percent of the oceans are protected.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

In Lisbon, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, the President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, and the President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta convened the Ocean Decade Alliance. Established within the framework of the UNESCO-led Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), this forum enables increased international cooperation in ocean research, education and protection.

Thanks to this Alliance, they have already raised US$920 million, which is financing around 100 ocean initiatives.

“But most of the work remains to be done,” Azoulay said. “The ocean is still too often in the blind spot of public awareness and public policies. We do not understand it and we do not protect it sufficiently. It is urgent that we reverse this trend.”

Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, UN Legal Counsel, and Special Adviser to the Presidents of the Conference on Oceans said the conference “has given us the opportunity to unpack critical issues and generate new ideas. It also made clear work that remains, and the need to scale up that work for the recovery of our ocean.”

At the conference, more than 150 UN Member States made voluntary commitments to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of the global ocean within Marine Protected Areas, and other effective area-based conservation measures, by 2030.

Voluntary commitments include:

  • – The Protecting Our Planet Challenge will invest at least US$1 billion to support the creation, expansion, and management of marine protected areas by 2030.

The Protecting Our Planet Challenge is a $5 billion private funding commitment to support the protection of at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030. This commitment is aimed at tackling Earth’s “convergent climate, biodiversity, and human health crises,” the organization said in a statement.

The Protecting Our Planet Challenge founding partners are: Arcadia Fund, Bezos Earth Fund, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Nia Tero, Re:wild, Rainforest Trust, Rob and Melani Walton Foundation, and the Wyss Foundation.

  • – The European Investment Bank will extend an additional €150 million across the Caribbean Region as part of the Clean Oceans Initiative to improve climate resilience, water management and solid waste management.
  • – Portugal committed to ensure that 100 percent of the marine area under Portuguese sovereignty or jurisdiction is assessed as being in Good Environmental State, and to classify 30 percent of the national marine areas by 2030.
  • – Kenya is currently developing a national blue economy strategic plan, inclusive and multistakeholder-oriented. Kenya also committed to developing a national action plan to cope with sea-based marine plastic litter.
  • – India committed to a Coastal Clean Seas Campaign and will work toward a ban on single use plastics.
  • – The Alliance of Small Island Developing States (AOSIS) launch of the Declaration for the Enhancement of Marine Scientific Knowledge, Research Capacity and Transfer of Marine Technology to Small Island Developing States (SIDS);
  • – The Development Bank of Latin America’s commitment of USD 1.2 billion to support ocean projects in the region;
  • – Panama’s commitment to increase its protection of at least 40% of the marine surface area by 2030;
  • – China’s pledge to launch 31 marine ecological preservation and restoration projects in the next five years and provide assistance to developing countries, especially Small Island Developing States, through the One Belt One Road initiative.

Delegates announced over 300 voluntary commitments, with 50 high-level commitments and pledges.

Regal Angelfish in Fijian waters, September 24, 2019 (Photo by Doug Finney)

“I am impressed by the new commitments,” Serpa Soares said at the closing ceremony. “As the famous Tongan and Fijian writer Epeli Hau‘ofa said, we are the ocean. The ocean is in all of us, it is what sustains us, and it is the basis for our future survival on this planet Earth.”

Encouraged by a renewed sense of hope and urgency about our future ocean, Soares concluded, “As we leave, we must follow-up on our commitments.”

The UN Ocean Conference is not the sole focus for ocean action this year. “In the next several months, we will have several crucial events that hold many opportunities to demonstrate our commitments and ambition to turn the tide in favor of ocean sustainability,” Soares said.

The United States and its allies are taking actions to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, which were announced at the UN Ocean Conference.

  • The United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada launched an Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Action Alliance aimed at increasing ambition and momentum in the fight against IUU fishing, including a pledge to take urgent action to improve the monitoring, control, and surveillance of fisheries, increase transparency in fishing fleets and in the seafood market, and build new partnerships that will hold bad actors accountable.
  • The U.S. Interagency Working Group on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, comprising 21 Federal agencies, will release its National Five-Year Strategy for Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (2022-2026) by the end of July.  The strategy prioritizes the Working Group’s efforts to combat IUU fishing, curtail the global trade of IUU fish and fish products, and promote global maritime security, while working in partnership with other governments and authorities, the seafood industry, academia, and non-governmental stakeholders.  The United States will engage with priority partners, including Ecuador, Panama, Senegal, Taiwan, and Vietnam. 
  • NOAA will also issue a proposed rule to enhance and strengthen its ability to address IUU fishing activities and combat forced labor in the seafood supply chain.  

As part of the scientific focus of UN Ocean Week, UNESCO launched its key State of the Ocean Report on July 1.

Structured around the initial 10 challenges of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), the report was developed to provide new and revealing data on the current state of the ocean.

UNESCO’s Chief of the Ocean Science Section, Henrik Enevoldsen, told UN News that the report complements the scientific work of the conference, strengthening human capacity to manage the ocean.

UNESCO Director-General Azoulay told the conference that “better understanding will lead to better protection” and declared that the first priority is to “advance our state of knowledge.”

Oceanographic research accounts for an average of only two percent of national research budgets, while only 21 percent of the seabed is mapped. Yet this data is essential for understanding currents, and identifying fishery resources and geological hazards. Committed to international efforts in this field, UNESCO aims to map at least 80 percent of the seabed by 2030.

The second priority is to better protect the ocean. “This means rapidly increasing the surface area of marine environments benefiting from safeguarding measures,” advocated Azoulay.

Due to UNESCO’s World Heritage program, 20 percent of the world’s blue carbon reserves are already protected: coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds that help limit climate change by storing massive amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2.

In Lisbon, from left: Keriako Tobiko, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Kenya, and Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, President of Portugal, celebrate the closing of the UN Oceans Conference, July 1, 2022 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

UNESCO also has more than 210,000 km² of biosphere zones: a program devised in the 1970s, which, at the time, was a pioneering step towards sustainable development, and aims to achieve equilibrium between man and his environment.

In the same spirit, UNESCO safeguards indigenous traditions and know-how that must be passed on to the younger generations, particularly in the area of sustainable fishing.

“But for these efforts to succeed and for us to achieve tangible results,” Azoulay said, “we also need to bring the whole of society on board. This is the major role of education, the foundation of UNESCO’s mandate.”

UNESCO has set a target for its 193 Member States: that they should all include environmental education in school curricula by 2030. It is also developing global awareness campaigns, such as “Generation Ocean,” for which the Brazilian big wave surfer Maya Gabeira became the spokesperson when she was designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

On the conference’s opening day, UNESCO Director-General Azoulay announced the nomination of the Gabeira as a goodwill ambassador, appointing her to the position of “UNESCO Champion for the Ocean and Youth.”

Calls for the full implementation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dominated the last day of the Lisbon conference, with delegates describing the landmark treaty as a “beacon” of multilateralism and “starting point” for improving the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean through international law.

“The Convention guarantees a good balance between environmental preservation and economic exploitation,” said Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the discussion with Minister for Environment, Energy and Climate of Iceland Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson.

Declaring that the Conference proves the Blue Economy is now a huge part of the future security of humanity, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson of Fiji called for more financial resources for ocean protection.

Moving forward, Thomson called for young people to be at the table for all the discussions on the ocean’s future.

Laura Meller, campaigner from Greenpeace Nordic, demands a strong ocean treaty outside the UN Oceans Conference venue in Lisbon, Portugal, July 1, 2022 (Photo courtesy Greenpeace International)

During the conference, Greenpeace International activists attempted to place large placards outside the Altice Arena. The placards, which show sharks being killed by political inaction and read “Strong Ocean Treaty now,” were meant to send a message to the assembled leaders that while they pay lip service to meaningful protection in Lisbon, the ocean crisis deepens. However, the activists were stopped by police.

Laura Meller of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said, “Our leaders are failing to deliver on their promise to protect the oceans. While governments continue to say fine words about ocean protection, like they’re doing here in Lisbon, millions of sharks are killed every year by vessels from the European Union. The world must see through their hypocrisy.”

“Leaders like EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius have repeatedly promised to deliver an ambitious Global Ocean Treaty and protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. Even the UN Secretary General António Guterres said we are facing an ocean emergency,” Meller pointed out. “The treaty needs to be finalized in August, we don’t need more time to discuss how to protect the oceans, we need to get ocean protection done.”

 The next UN Ocean Conference will be held in 2025, co-hosted by France and Costa Rica. 

Featured image: Blacktipped reef sharks off the coast of the Philippines, May 22, 2021 (Photo by Ray in Manila)

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