The ocean covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface, yet it is often missing from discussions about tackling climate change, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental threats facing the planet.
Thousands of scientists and activists hope to shift the conversation at this week’s United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, where leaders from more than 20 nations are set to issue a declaration on protecting the high seas against exploitation and restoring ocean health.
“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told delegates at the opening of the conference. “We must turn the tide. A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future.”
Already, the gathering has featured some splashy commitments from governments and the private sector, drawing measured praise from conservationists, who warn that leaders must still do more to protect the ocean for humanity and marine life.
Several American officials are attending the talks, including U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry. And President Biden on Monday signed a memorandum to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing — a leading cause of global overfishing that often involves forced labor, human trafficking and other human rights abuses.
The United States, Britain and Canada will launch an alliance to improve monitoring of fisheries and “hold bad actors accountable,” according to a White House fact sheet. A working group comprising 21 federal agencies will release a five-year strategy on curtailing illegal fishing, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday issued a proposed rule to combat forced labor in the seafood supply chain.
“We must continue to work together to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing around the world, which jeopardizes maritime security and livelihoods for law-abiding fishers and communities,” Kerry said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, outgoing Colombian President Iván Duque announced Monday that his country had conserved 30 percent of the ocean off its coasts, becoming the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to meet this goal by 2030. (Duque is set to be replaced by President-elect Gustavo Petro, a leftist who won a historic election on June 19 and has pledged to ban new contracts for oil exploration in Latin America’s third-largest country.)
President of the Republic of Colombia Ivan Duque Márquez announcing that Colombia has achieved 30% protection of its ocean – 30 BEFORE 30 – the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to achieve #30×30. Enthusiastic applause from #UNOceanConference plenary audience. Congrats! 🌊 pic.twitter.com/XXAs2m3RP8
— Jane Lubchenco (@JaneLubchenco46) June 27, 2022
Jean Flemma, co-founder of the think tank Urban Ocean Lab, who is attending the talks in Lisbon, said the mood on the ground there is punctuated by both optimism and a sense of urgency to combat climate change before it’s too late.
“There are some big announcements and commitments that have been made, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “But people also feel an urgency, and some of us are worried that we’re not acting fast enough.”
In addition to governments, the private sector has poured money into protecting 30 percent of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 — an initiative commonly shortened to 30 x 30. The Bezos Earth Fund, the environmental philanthropy launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on Monday announced its first grants for marine protection, totaling $50 million. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Grants totaling $30 million will support organizations working to create a network of marine protected areas spanning more than 193,000 square miles off the coasts of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama. A $20 million grant will fund the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project, which will conduct research over the next five years in the central and western Pacific Ocean, which contains the highest marine biodiversity on the planet.
“The ocean is our planet’s life support system and a major carbon sink,” Andrew Steer, president and chief executive of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a statement. “Investing in the ocean can be a powerful solution to many major challenges. It can protect vital marine ecosystems, provide jobs, help local communities, improve food security, and address climate change.”
On Tuesday, Bloomberg Philanthropies and eight philanthropic partners committed a collective $1 billion to support the creation, expansion and management of marine protected areas. The commitment is roughly equal to all philanthropic giving for marine protected areas and habitat protection over the past decade.
The conference is set to culminate Friday in a declaration to facilitate the conservation of the ocean and its resources, according to the United Nations. However, the declaration will not be binding on its signatories.
Still beyond reach, meanwhile, is an international treaty to establish the first-ever legal framework for protecting the high seas. After 10 years of talks, a deal has failed to materialize, although a fifth round of negotiations is scheduled for August in New York.
“I love what the U.N. says, but, unfortunately, they can’t really act,” said Clive Russell, a member of Ocean Rebellion, an activist group that staged a protest before the conference to highlight perceived inaction on overfishing. “So the commitments they make don’t really amount to much.”
Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, apologized to young people on Sunday “on behalf of my generation, to your generation” for the state of the planet.
“In my generation, those that were politically responsible … we were slow or sometimes unwilling to recognize that things were getting worse and worse in these three dimensions: ocean, climate and biodiversity,” he said. “And that even today, we are moving too slowly in relation to the need to reverse the threat, of rehabilitating the oceans, rescuing biodiversity and stopping climate change. We are still moving in the wrong direction.”
Since humanity started burning fossil fuels and releasing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere. The consequences have been devastating for coral reefs, which have been wiped out by mass bleaching events.
Yet the ocean also has the power to help humanity stave off the worst effects of global warming. By some estimates, the ocean can provide one-fifth of the emissions cuts needed to meet the more ambitious goal of the Paris agreement: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
Offshore wind farms can generate clean electricity to power millions of homes in coastal communities. And “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, coral reefs and kelp forests can store more carbon dioxide per unit than forests on land.
“There has been an incredible recognition of the role the ocean has to play in solving the climate crisis,” said Anna-Marie Laura, director of climate policy for the Ocean Conservancy, who is attending the conference. “Countries are backing that up with specific actions. And there’s even more to be done.”