We just wrapped up the United Nations’ second Ocean Conference, the latest in a series of environmental meetings this year focused on the blue of our blue planet. The ocean makes up 70 percent of the Earth, not to mention feeds billions of people, is the home of wonders we have not yet discovered, moderates our temperature, and provides the very air we breathe. But it is in trouble – the ocean faces threats from unsustainable fishing practices, plastic pollution, the climate crisis, and more. As the world-renowned ocean ecologist, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, said repeatedly this week, the ocean is not too big to fix, but it is too big to fail – and it is definitely too big to ignore.
This week showed, more than anything, that the ocean is no longer being ignored – least of all by us, the United States. Back in April, we co-hosted with Palau the seventh Our Ocean Conference in which countries from all over the world descended on Palau – a big ocean country – and made over 400 commitments with a value of more than $16 billion USD. France hosted a conference earlier this year focused on ocean conservation. We met in Nairobi in March, where the United States was a leader in launching the negotiation of a global agreement to end plastic pollution. At the World Trade Organization in June, we reached a global agreement to end harmful fishing subsidies which had been stalled – literally – for decades. And soon, we will meet in New York to try to conclude (and we must) a global agreement on how to bring greater protection and sustainable development to all the living resources found in the parts of the ocean that lie beyond all our borders – the high seas – whose bounty is increasingly important and at risk.
I know the impression of large meetings is that they are full of speeches and receptions and photo ops, without real meaning. But increasingly, we and other countries are using these meetings to force progress by creating new collaborations between governments and with civil society that do not require treaties or laws – but rather cooperation and coordination – and multilateralism is flourishing. For example, this week, the United States launched the IUU Fishing Action Alliance with the United Kingdom and Canada to create a coalition of governments and other stakeholders to improve the global monitoring and surveillance of the world’s fishing fleets, and to increase the transparency and traceability of both fishing vessels and the fish they catch as they make their way through the long supply chain to markets all over the world. Several countries, like Iceland, joined on the spot! More about that later in another blog.
But we also joined in with other coalitions like the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People to work to convince more countries to protect or conserve more than 30 percent of their domestic ocean territory by 2030. The U.S. is close (26 percent protected) on this – and President Biden has already pledged that the U.S. will meet this challenge. It was great to see a group of native Hawaiians at the Conference promoting the expansion and renaming of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – a collection of five islands in the central Pacific – that if protected to the full extent of the U.S. territory would reach that goal. These uninhabited islands and their surrounding waters host some of the last fully functioning ocean habitats, with huge undersea mountain ranges, and an explosion of biodiversity that are rare for their relatively minimal impact by humans. But just over the border from these marine “parks,” the threats to their pristine condition are real – deep sea mining claims are being actively explored. We also announced our collaboration with the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia and Ecuador on their joint marine protected area known as “CMAR” — the first co-managed and the largest marine Bioreserve in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. They need our help – illegal narcotic trafficking and fishing are a threat and the biodiversity of these areas and the wildlife corridors between them are only just beginning to be understood.
Finally, we highlighted the role that innovation and young people are playing in finding solutions to these ocean challenges by hosting our own “shark tank” — a pitch competition featuring seven entrepreneurs from around the world (six of them women) with budding businesses that are just getting off the ground. We found these young business leaders through the OES Global Innovation for Science and Technology or “GIST” initiative . Rituparna Das from India pitched her business of providing clean drinking water in huge storage filtering containers that are centrally located in communities without clean drinking water, thereby eliminating the need for water in single use plastic bottles in hundreds of towns in India. And Marta Uetela of Mozambique told us about her company in which she and others take plastic pollution from beaches and turn it into prosthetics and wheelchairs (that are expensive and hard to get in Mozambique) using 3-D printers. The seven entrepreneurs and their new companies were so compelling that our panel of judges decided to fund them all with cash prizes.
It’s at meetings like this that we can tap into the full potential we need to overcome the daunting challenges facing our global ocean. It’s where we see the future — we plan, prod, and propel ourselves forward. Like a wave, the energy inside this global movement is growing. And our U.S. team was so proud to be a part of it. The United States is leading the charge to protect our ocean through the creation of more marine protected areas, efforts to combat plastic pollution, and the implementation of ocean-based climate solutions. Join us in this noble goal by working to build a better, healthier future for our ocean, our planet, and ourselves — this is the year to turn the tide on oceans.