OCEANS, OCEANS, OCEANS. Can anyone remember three weeks with as much progress in protecting the world’s oceans and marine biodiversity as the last three weeks? I can’t. First, President Obama created the largest protected area on EARTH when he expanded the marine monument known as Papahānaumokuākea in the NW Hawaiian Islands to be three and one half times the size of California. Then, the IUCN World Conservation Congress passed a motion co-sponsored by Marine Conservation Institute and others urging countries around the world to strongly protect 30% of the oceans by 2030 and another motion urging nations to create a way to protect the high seas — areas outside national jurisdictions. Both motions passed by large margins thanks, in part, to work done at the Congress by Lance Morgan and Vienna Saccomanno of Marine Conservation Institute, colleagues at our coalition partners, like the High Seas Alliance, other nonprofits and Avaaz, an international citizen organization that gathered 1 million signatures to encourage protecting 30% of the oceans. Last but not least, the U.S. State Department held the third Our Ocean conference organized by Secretary John Kerry, which collected international pledges from dozens of countries and private funders to create new or upgrade marine reserves covering 1.5 million square mile of ocean and spend over $5 billion on ocean conservation initiatives. This included a commitment from President Obama to create the first marine national monument in the Atlantic protecting about 5,000 square miles about 100-150 miles off Cape Cod to protect the unique marine life in several deep canyons and seamounts from trawling and heavy traps.
One of the most important achievements of the Our Ocean conference is the most difficult to measure: for two days, dozens of prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and other high level officials from over 90 countries came together to focus on the health of the world’s oceans and make commitments for restoring their health. Many were visibly excited when they announced their country’s own commitment or listened to President Obama and Secretary Kerry talk about the need for the world’s collective effort to protect the oceans from a number of threats. Creating this high level focus and excitement about oceans is perhaps the most important achievement of the first three Our Ocean conferences.
What were the more notable announcements and how did Marine Conservation Institute participate? The list of countries pledging to set aside areas of their own oceans in highly protected marine reserves is long and includes: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Ecuador, Cambodia, Palau, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Malta, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Norway, Lebanon, Kuwait and New Caledonia. All in all, the pledges added up to 1.5 million square miles of new and improved marine protected areas. For comparison, this is about 40% of the area of the US or 0.4% of the world’s oceans. At the conference, Marine Conservation Institute announced that it was advancing its Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) evaluation of sites around the world for the award of GLORES status. These awards will raise the visibility of marine protected areas for tourists, scientists and the public and incentivize government decision makers to do more in the future for economic and reputational reasons.
As I walked around the conference, I saw ocean science and policy luminaries from around the world. Dr. Sylvia Earle (aka ‘Her Deepness’) was there, Nainoa Thompson (modern father of traditional Pacific navigation), Dr. Enric Sala (National Geographic leader of Pristine Seas expeditions which have led to many large MPAs particularly in South America), Dr. Rashid Sumaila (fisheries expert from University of British Columbia), Senator Brian Schatz (supported the Papahānaumokuākea expansion), Mr. Peter Christian and Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Presidents of Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of Mauritius respectively who have set aside large MPAs), and Ségolène Royal (Minister of Energy and Environment of France and President of COP21). In the hallways and among small groups of officials you could see the excitement on their faces and hear the animated conversations about ocean affairs. It felt like a beehive of activity on behalf of 70% of the earth that makes up our oceans. A very welcome sea change.