Last week I attended the ‘Our Ocean’ conference on the shores of the Mediterranean in the coastal town of Saint Julian’s, Malta. Set under an unbelievably elaborate display of screens covering the entire ceiling and showing animations of ocean life, this was an opportunity for governments, NGOs and the private sector to come together to make ‘commitments’ around ocean conservation.
Held annually since 2014, these conferences have generated billions of dollars in commitments, although there is currently no system in place to track whether commitments are really taking place.
‘Her Deepness’, as she is fondly known, Dr Sylvia Earle, set the scene early on by reminding us that it is incredibly presumptuous to speak of our ocean, and that the ocean is the common heritage of all life on earth, not just of mankind. She also brought the room’s attention to the deep sea and how little we know about it, which was sadly one of just a few mentions of the deep sea across the two days. After several more introductory speeches, the proceedings moved on to allow presentations of commitments across the themes of marine pollution, marine protected areas, maritime security, sustainable blue economy, sustainable fisheries, and climate change.
The Our Ocean Conference, Malta
The commitments certainly ranged in their magnitude and power. While some felt like cheap get-outs (bluewash?), and several other companies committed to making their products 100% recyclable by 2025 (far too little, far too late, in my opinion), others did represent impressive movements towards significant ocean conservation, such as Palau designating 80% of its waters as a no-take marine reserve. Plastics were being paid the lion’s share of attention when it came to addressing marine pollution, which, while it is excellent to see strong action on this important issue, leaves other significant sources of marine pollution at risk of being overlooked. Alongside Palau, numerous commitments were made by governments designating proportions of national waters as marine protected areas, all of which specifically mentioned how they were meeting and exceeding the UN Sustainable Development Goal of protecting ten per cent of our ocean by 2020.
While it is encouraging to see governments protecting their own waters, the truth is that we will never reach ten per cent (let alone the 30 per cent recommended by scientists) if we ignore the vast majority of the ocean which lies beyond national boundaries in the high seas. Thankfully, Kristina Gjerde, the Senior High Seas Advisor to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), gave a powerful speech in the final session highlighting the urgent need for a High Seas Biodiversity Treaty to protect all life in the ocean, and on our planet.
Aside from the official commitments that were made, the conference was a very rare and exciting opportunity to meet with people from all over the world working on ocean conservation. We took advantage of this by co-hosting a ‘Funders’ Breakfast’ on the second morning with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, an opportunity for representatives of foundations from across Europe and the United States to meet and discuss our areas of focus. One of the key objectives of the event for Synchronicity Earth was to start a conversation among the funding community as to how we can work together to support gaps in marine conservation (which were so notable by their absence from the commitments made at the conference).
In the final session of the conference, John Kerry, former US Secretary of State and originator of ‘Our Ocean’, gave a rousing talk, which emphasized the need to act, not just make commitments, and to spread the conversation far beyond those seated in the room. He also specifically called for an end to destructive fisheries on the high seas, and for the protection of 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030, which was excellent to hear. His points were echoed by Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, when he took the stage to close the conference. He claimed that the EU would be willing to fund a tracking mechanism for next year’s conference, in order to “separate the walkers from the talkers”.
Despite the political jargon and inevitable false promises which emerged throughout the two days, I left the conference with a distinct sense of hope. The simple fact that it is now seen as an important political or commercial act to make a commitment to protect the ocean is definitely encouraging. It was also immensely inspiring, as it always is, to meet with our partners, and hear about the true successes which have been achieved and those which can be achieved with committed action. Although there is still a very long way to go, if the conference could move from a platform for commitments, to one for demonstrating action, it could prove to be an import mechanism for protecting our ocean.