• The eighth annual Our Ocean Conference took place in Panama March 2-3.
  • Participants made 341 commitments worth nearly $20 billion, including funding for expanding and improving marine protected areas and biodiversity corridors.
  • One key announcement came from Panama, which said it would protect more than 54% of its marine region.

International delegates attending the eighth annual Our Ocean Conference in Panama March 2-3 have pledged billions to protect the world’s oceans. Participants made 341 commitments worth nearly $20 billion, including funding for expanding and improving marine protected areas and biodiversity corridors.

Previous Our Ocean conferences have generated more than 1,800 commitments worth approximately $108 billion.

The president of Panama, Laurentino Cortizo Cohen, who inaugurated the event, said the conference was an opportunity for “countries of the world to hold frank conversations with the purpose of committing ourselves to actions for the preservation and strengthening of life in the ocean.

“As Panamanians we inhabit a narrow strip surrounded by blue,” Cohen said in a statement. “To protect it, we should all think of the ocean as a source of life and recognize it as a great ally in our fight against the climate and biodiversity crises.”

Panama, the first Latin American country to host an Our Ocean conference, announced at the event that it was adding 36,058 square miles to its existing Banco Volcán Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Caribbean Sea, an area characterized by deep-sea mountain ranges and high biodiversity. The Banco Volcán MPA was established in 2015 ​​with the protection of 5,487 square miles. Its expansion would bring the total amount of ocean protection within Panama’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to more than 54%.

Clownfish at Komodo.
Panama was the first Latin American country to host an Our Ocean conference. Image by Gregory Piper / Ocean Image Bank.

“With the protection of more than half of its seas, including extensive ocean reserves on both sides of the isthmus, Panama is not only ensuring the conservation of its marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of the people who depend on these ecosystems in the long-term, but is also positioned to lead a much more ambitious regional effort,” Héctor Guzmán, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and co-founder of the marine conservation network MigraMar, who contributed to the scientific research behind the MPA’s expansion, said in a statement.

Panama’s Ministry of Environment also stated at the conference that the country intended to stop more than 160,000 tons of plastic from being imported and consumed in the country by eliminating single-use plastics like cups and utensils, plastic packaging and virgin plastic.

Another commitment came from charitable organizations Bloomberg Philanthropies and Arcadia, which established a fund worth $51 million to help support Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), NGOs and governments to improve and expand marine protection and to help nations protect 30% of oceans by 2030, a goal of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

An alliance of organizations, foundations and private donors also committed to a donation of $5 million to help developing countries join the high seas treaty that was being negotiated — and eventually agreed upon — in New York at the same time as the Our Ocean Conference.

A coalition of groups, known as the Connect to Protect Eastern Tropical Pacific Coalition, also announced a recent commitment of $118.5 million in private and public funds to strengthen marine protections for the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR), an area encompassing more than 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) of highly productive and biodiverse waters of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica.

The U.S. and the European Union also pledged large sums — about $6 billion and $865 million, respectively — to help protect marine biodiversity.

Dan Crockett, the oceans and climate director at the NGO Blue Marine Foundation, who attended the conference, said the amount and worth of the commitments made were “impressive.”

Participants made 341 commitments worth nearly $20 billion at the Our Ocean Conference in Panama. Image by Gregory Piper / Ocean Image Bank.

“There was a strength to the amount of money being put on the table,” Crockett told Mongabay over a call. “And that’s one of the biggest challenges that we face in this space. SDG [sustainable development goal] 14 Life below Water is critically underfunded. And there were 341 commitments worth very close to $20 billion.”

Crockett said he also felt encouraged to see countries working collaboratively to create marine protected areas across political boundaries, such as the development of CMAR, which can help protect migratory species that “do not know about or respect” country boundaries.

“That really was and continues to be incredibly inspiring and encouraging,” Crockett said. “If environment ministers can set down their differences and come together around ambitious ocean conservation, it provides a lot of hope for the potential for 30 by 30.”

Tony Long, chief executive officer of the platform Global Fishing Watch, who also attended Our Ocean, told Mongabay in a voice message that conference attendees showed a “clear commitment to providing ocean sustainability” and motivation to enact those changes.

He added that pushing these commitments into action would be the crucial next step.

“There have been some fantastic commitments here, but we still need those actions to take place,” Long said. “The more we see the community come together to drive those actions forward, the quicker the health of our ocean will be maintained.”

Banner image caption: Sea lion with a starfish, La Paz. Image byHannes Klostermann / Ocean Image Bank.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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