Ocean back in spotlight after Covid disruption

UN hosts high-level events on ocean conservation and IUU fishing, with a global deal to end harmful fishing subsidies expected soon

A Fishing trawler near Mauritania

A Lithuanian super-trawler near Mauritania (Image: © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace)

The world cannot afford to further delay action to protect the ocean, governments and conservationists agreed this month at a series of UN conferences. They called for “transformative” and actionable solutions following delays and cancellations caused by the pandemic last year.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) lists targets to reduce pollution, protect marine ecosystems, tackle illegal fishing and overfishing, and oversee sustainable resource use. But progress so far has been limited.

Only 8% of the ocean is currently protected, a third of fish stocks are overexploited, and climate change is increasing ocean acidification and deoxygenation. This not only threatens marine biodiversity, but also the livelihoods of millions of people who rely on ocean resources.

“Clear transformative actions to address the ocean crisis must be found and must be scaled up. Our relationship with our planet’s ocean must change,” Volkan Bozkir, president of the UN General Assembly, said at a high-level debate on the ocean and SDG 14 in New York on 1 June.

The event sought to maintain momentum ahead of the 2nd Ocean conference, which was postponed due to the pandemic and is now expected to take place next year in Lisbon, Portugal. Bozkir said the pandemic revealed an “appetite for change” as people do not want to live in a world of “one crisis after the next.”

Assessing progress

Speaking in four sessions, the panellists reflected on the progress made on SDG 14, six years after its introduction. Peter Thomson, UN secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean, said progress has been more tangible compared to the “indifferent waters we sailed before SDG 14”. Still, he said, there is much more to be done.

Thomson called for a global plastic pollution treaty and a further expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs), with a goal of making at least 30% of the oceans protected by 2030. The target is set to be included in the new global biodiversity framework that countries are expected to agree on at the UN biodiversity conference in Kunming, China, in October this year.

Meeting it won’t be possible without new MPAs being designated in Antarctica, Thomson added. Countries grouped under the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR), which regulates the use of resources in the region, will meet in October this year to try and agree on three MPA proposals currently on the table.

Humpback whales swim in the waters off Half Mood Island, Antarctica.
A humpback whale off Half Mood Island, Antarctica (Image: © Abbie Trayler-Smith / Greenpeace)

Carlos Rodriguez, chief executive officer at the Global Environment Facility (GEF), said humans have a “social contract” for activities on land, with mandates for proper use, but that doesn’t exist in the ocean. “We have to bring new ways of marine governance based on science,” said Rodríguez.

For Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), people “don’t appreciate” the significance of the ocean, despite it producing “a lot of value” for the world. He called for a large investment in regeneration and restoration of the ocean, pursuing a marine blue economy with a balance between production (fishing) and protection.

Action on fisheries

The summit also triggered discussions on the upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in July, which will seek to finally meet another key UN goal to eliminate harmful fishing subsidies. Subsidies paid to the global fishing industry that contribute to overcapacity or illegal fishing amount to around US$35 billion every year. Countries have been negotiating an agreement for more than two decades without success.

Meanwhile, the world’s fish populations have continued to fall below sustainable levels. Around 60% of the assessed stocks are fully exploited and 30% are overexploited, according to the latest figures from the UN. The incoming director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, has made the issue one of her top priorities.

For Yuvan Beejadhur, adviser to Okonjo-Iweala, an agreement is very close.

“Countries are working hard to have an agreement in July. We don’t have more time,” Beejadhur said. “The agreement will provide capacity support for developing countries and introduce a dispute settlement body so countries can challenge decisions by other countries. There’s no blue economy without sustainable development of fishing stocks.”

What is IUU fishing?

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) includes all fishing that breaks fisheries laws and regulations or occurs outside their reach. Read the Explainer.

Fisheries were also discussed at the Third Meeting of the Parties of the 2009 FAO Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA). This is the first binding international agreement designed to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing by stopping foreign vessels engaged in it from using ports and landing their catches.

So far, 69 parties, representing 56% of port states globally, have ratified the agreement. The director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Qu Dongyu, said global action is making a difference in combating IUU fishing but more has to be done as consumer demand and catches continue to rise.

“Global fish production reached the highest levels ever, providing almost half the world’s population with nearly 20% of their average animal protein. With this comes great responsibility to manage all aquatic foods sustainably and protect our oceans, rivers and lakes. Demand should be met by more sustainable supply from aquaculture,” he said.