By Courtney Mattison
On a warm summer afternoon in Australia last Wednesday, thousands of environmental researchers, advocates, policy makers and business leaders gathered in a great hall within the Sydney Olympic Park for the opening ceremonies of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Parks Congress. Delegates from around the globe watched as world-class acrobats flew through the air and dancers in vibrant costumes portrayed a story about inspiring future generations to protect the environment. Aboriginal performances and protocols highlighted the rich cultural context of the host country of this meeting, which only comes around once a decade and is held in a different country each time.
IUCN President Mr. Zhang Xinsheng, Australian federal and state environmental ministers and Nelson Mandela’s grandson addressed the congress. President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon took the stage and announced that he has outlawed commercial fishing in 23% (over 18,000 square miles) of his country’s coastal waters and exclusive economic zone. No other Central African leader has made this kind of bold restriction – one that may begin to cause real change along the West African coastline and lead to greater protection for whales, sharks, turtles and other marine life threatened by unregulated fishing.
With such a bold kickoff to the week’s events, who wouldn’t be optimistic about current ocean conservation efforts? The IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 features over 250 ocean-related sessions and a pavilion dedicated entirely to addressing ocean issues throughout the week, which ends on Wednesday November 19.
Mission Blue founder Dr. Sylvia Earle has had a significant role as a World Parks Congress Patron with three presentations and the Australian debut of the Mission Blue film. In the Opening Plenary on Thursday afternoon called “Parks, people, planet: Inspiring solutions,” Dr. Earle spoke alongside Erik Solheim of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Assistance Committee, Dr. Braulio Ferreira de Souza Diaz of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Peter Bakker of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz – UN Special Reporter on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Márcio Favilla of the World Tourism Organization. Their perspectives on the state of our environment and solutions to protect and restore it encouraged world leaders to establish more parks on land and in the sea.
On Saturday morning Dr. Earle participated in an exciting multimedia ocean-themed presentation alongside Mission Blue board member Jenifer Austin of Google and representatives from Catlin Seaview Survey, Oceana and SkyTruth, and leading young marine professionals Mariasole Bianco and Rebecca Koss. The ensuing discussion on how technology can help us discover and connect to the ocean revealed game-changing ideas and tools – namely the new complete visual and data record of the Great Barrier Reef that Catlin Seaview Survey presented during the conference and has made available through the Catlin Global Reef Record. Jenifer Austin of Google also presented Google Street View collects by Catlin Seaview Survey from around the globe this week, including newly-imaged parts of the Great Barrier Reef and a first look at global high seas fishing.
The High Seas have been a major topic during this IUCN World Parks Congress, with 15 panel discussions, workshops, Google Hangouts and other presentations on that theme. Dr. Earle and fellow Ocean Elders Sir Richard Branson and Nainoa Thompson participated in a Google Hangout with the Online Ocean Symposium called “Champions of the High Seas” to highlight the threats to parts of the ocean that lie outside of national jurisdiction and make up nearly half of our planet.
Watch the conversation and sign our Mission Blue + TakePart petition to the United Nations to protect the High Seas below.
Appropriately, the Great Barrier Reef has also been a major topic of discussion and debate this week. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has served as a beacon for effective marine conservation for decades until 2013, when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott took office and his government began stalling marine protection commitments. Environment Minister Greg Hunt told the World Parks Congress last weekend that 36% of Australia’s marine environment is protected, but neglected to mention that the Coalition government had blocked 40 new marine parks that were supposed to be created in July of this year.[i] In an interview with Mark Colvin of ABC News in Australia, Dr. Earle remarked that “Australia was on a course, as of 2012, in a continued position of leadership, but by stopping the process of implementing that brilliant plan, Australia is right on the brink.” She continued, “I think there is an opportunity as never before and maybe never again for Australia to really show the world that the caring for the ocean assets is a high priority.”[ii]
President Obama even joined the call for Australia to implement its marine conservation obligations over the weekend when he spoke at University of Queensland during the G20 Summit, saying, “I have not had time to go to the Great Barrier Reef and I want to come back and I want my daughters to be able to come back and I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit. And I want that there 50 years from now.”[iii]
Protecting and restoring the ocean requires a delicate balance of science, policy and economics that can take years of collaboration, innovation and compromise to achieve. That reality is plainly evident at this IUCN World Parks Congress, which is fostering vital discussions and will serve as a springboard for future conservation initiatives that we hope result in more protected areas around the globe. The dance to achieve greater regulation may be complex, but the stage is set for incredible progress.
Learn more about the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014.
Featured image (from left): Jenifer Austin (Google Ocean + Mission Blue), Richard Vevers (Catlin Seaview Survey), Martha Shaw (Earth Advertising), Sylvia Earle (“Her Deepness”) and Charlotte Vick (Google Ocean + Mission Blue). Photo courtesy Jenifer Austin.