March 22, 2014

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In late February, representatives from government, business, academia, think tanks, and NGOs converged on a cliffside hotel overlooking Half Moon Bay outside of San Francisco. The location was appropriate as it looked out on a picturesque corner of what they’d come to discuss: the vast oceans that wrap over 70% of the planet. This was The Economist’s annual World Ocean Summit, hosted in association with National Geographic. With 250 attendees and backed by a strong call to action in The Economist’s February issue, the event sought to gather the most influential marine thinkers and policymakers in the world and discuss what can be done to begin healing and sustaining Earth’s most crucial ecosystem. As John Kerry neatly stated in his opening remarks, the challenge is no longer diagnosis, but action.

“The oceans are in trouble,” said the U.S. Secretary of State. “The good news is we know exactly what is happening in our ocean and we have a good understanding of what we need to do in order to deal with these threats. We don’t yet have the political consensus or the urgency translated into political action. We’re going to have to build a very significant political effort around this issue. We have to summon global cooperation so that we can take the steps necessary to protect our oceans for generations to come.”

President Silva of Portugal. Photo: Jenifer Austin

President Silva of Portugal. Photo: Jenifer Austin

Kerry’s statement grasps the two central principles of World Ocean Summit 2014 – those of governance and sustainability. For the ocean to heal and thrive in the future, there needs to be a sea change in both how governments claim custody over the ocean environment and how government, industry and academics work together to make sure government and commercial activities don’t take more from the ocean than it can recover. The cost of an ocean ecosystem collapse would by definition be an economic one: ocean fisheries provide protein for 2.6 billion people worldwide. About one billion people rely on the ocean for their jobs globally, generating $500 billion on an annual basis. The sea also absorbs our carbon emissions and produces around 50% of the oxygen we breathe through phytoplankton. Therefore preserving the ocean is both an economic issue in the short term and a survival imperative in the long term.

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Sylvia Earle at the World Economist Summit. Photo: Laura Cassiani

There was strong representation on the governance side. In addition to Secretary Kerry, representatives from the United Kingdom, China, Colombia, Portugal, Monaco, Belize, Costa Rica, Chile, Indonesia, Gabon, and Sweden were in attendance – all countries with a strong relationship to the ocean. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón talked about banning commercial shark fishing and finning in his country’s waters. HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco gave input on expanding Marine Protected Areas. High-ranking diplomat Jia Guide represented the People’s Republic of China – a country with over 9,000 miles of coastline that must be part of any holistic discussion of international efforts.

The challenge on the governance front generally stemmed from existing issues related to jurisdiction and enforcement. Current treaties and international organizations related to the ocean sometimes overlap, do not always address current concerns and are not universally recognized. The result is that much of earth’s watery surface is virtually lawless and open to commercial exploitation, particularly overfishing. Geopolitics plays a role as well, as certain nations interpret outside proposals affecting their territorial waters as infringing on their sovereignty. However, despite these hurdles the summit saw a growing consensus among attendees that now is the time for concrete action.

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At the summit, President Calderón announced that Columbia would ban the import and export of sharks and shark parts. Meanwhile, Chile created a new 300-mile Marine Protected Area along its coast to safeguard blue whales and 12 species of dolphin. During his opening keynote, John Kerry announced that the United States would hold an international ocean conference this summer. Though there were no official commitments, the also summit saw elevated interest in forming a global ocean organization within the United Nations.

By contrast, efforts on the sustainability side concentrated on how the ocean could continue to be a resource for economic growth while minimizing, and ultimately reversing, the damage commercial interests have caused. Representatives on one hand from NOAA, Conservation International, and The Pew Charitable Trusts met with business stakeholders like Royal Dutch Shell, Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Verlasso with an eye on making maritime business more sustainable. One panel suggested that cleaner, more efficient aquaculture could be a step toward reducing pressure on fish stocks – though companies need to stop using wild-caught sardines as feed. The overfishing panel stressed the importance of scientifically measuring stocks to enable accurate quotas, as well as expanding public outreach and education regarding sustainable fish. To this end, Google Earth and Mission Blue – in partnership with Catlin Seaview Survey – unveiled several new locations in Google Ocean’s Underwater Street View to bring people closer to the ocean ecosystem at the click of a browser. This access to living sea creatures does more than merely educate and entertain the public – giving people a glimpse of living sea creatures can remind us that they’re more than food. While we treat them like commodities, they are, in fact, living creatures.

“A fish swimming in the ocean has no price, [or] value,” says Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue. “When you take it out, where’s the change in the balance sheet? The most valuable thing we extract from our ocean is our existence.”

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Mission Blue Board Directors Jenifer Austin and Gigi Brisson. Photo: Laura Cassiani

This contrast between the importance of a living fish that keeps the ocean healthy, and a dead one that you can sell reveals much about humanity’s strained relationship with our seas. The ocean gives us our air and regulates our climate, but it also serves as our transportation network, refuse dump and food source. What has become increasingly clear is that as all these different interests pull in opposite directions, the center cannot hold. Unless we wish to risk a global crash of the ocean ecosystem, government, business, academia and nonprofits need to coordinate and pull in the same direction.

The World Ocean Summit succeeded in starting the conversation about how to do that, and we hope the relationships formed and ideas discussed there spread with the attendees and form a global network that can take action on the shared interests of government, scientists, business, and those of us that depend on the ocean – which is all of us.

By Robert Rath

Feature Photo: HSH Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco. Photo: Laura Cassiani

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