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US-led summit on ocean exceeds expectations – and may deliver more

02 July 2014

The Our Ocean conference, organised by the US State Department, finally took place on 16-17 June in Washington DC after being postponed, due to the US government shut-down last October, and despite the latest developments in Iraq.

This was seen as an indication of how strongly US Secretary of State John Kerry feels about ocean issues. Indeed, while you might expect someone with Kerry’s busy agenda to turn up to make a few brief introductory remarks and then not be seen again, Kerry dominated the conference – giving four speeches, asOcean acidification discussion at the Our Ocean conference well as remarks at lunchtime and at an evening reception.

The conviction of Kerry’s speeches, exhorting the world’s decision-makers not just to hear the science but to act on it – gives rise to optimism.

Three of the most serious problems that threaten the ocean: over-fishing, pollution and acidification, formed the focus of discussions. None is an intractable problem, but overcoming these challenges will require considerable national and international political will ‒ to improve fishery regulation and traceability; keep rubbish out of the seas; and at least make a start on changing energy policy to reduce, and eventually halt the ecological impact of ocean uptake of CO2.

So was it a science conference at all? Not in the usual sense of researchers presenting information for discussion by fellow experts, with few others understanding more than the first couple of slides. It was made clear to those scientists invited to speak that communication was crucial: don’t assume any knowledge of the field, and construct a coherent and persuasive narrative in no more than five minutes. Only a few slides that included graphs were allowed, and they had to be explained in less than ten words.

Three UK experts were invited to speak. Dr Carol Turley (UKOA Knowledge Exchange Coordinator and Senior Scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory) explained the chemistry, scale and unprecedented speed of ocean acidification, Professor Richard Thompson (Plymouth University) discussed the problems of marine plastic litter and Dr Phil Williamson (UKOA Science Coordinator, Natural Environment Research Council and the University East Anglia) argued the need for more ocean acidification data, on a worldwide basis, to improve understanding, short-term forecasting and long-term projections: what you don’t measure, you can’t manage. The audience was made up of a very wide spectrum of decision-makers, including heads of state, ministers and other government representatives from around 80 countries, and 400 delegates from industry, charitable foundations, NGOs and UN bodies including Prince Albert II of Monaco, Kiribati President Anote Tong, the EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki and World Bank Managing Director, Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

US President Barack Obama made his contribution to the conference on video, announcing by executive decree new regulations to counteract illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, and also the establishment of what is likely to be the world’s largest Marine Protected Area in the Pacific.

A flurry of announcements and commitments followed. Hollywood A-lister, Leonardo DiCaprio told the conference how he has always been inspired by the ocean, and pledged an extra US $7m for marine conservation projects. The President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, announced that 80% of his country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, around 500,000km2 would become a marine sanctuary, phasing out commercial fishing. The Norwegian Foreign Minister, Børge Brende, said it was time to "stop re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic", and committed US $1 billion for climate change mitigation.

Proportional to population, the US equivalent spend to Norway’s would be US $68 billion. Kerry didn’t go that far, but did commit around US $10 million of new funding over the next three years for projects tackling ocean acidification, through NOAA and the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre in Monaco. Particular emphasis would be given to helping the development the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network, in partnership with other national governments, intergovernmental bodies and The Ocean Foundation. Such support comes at a crucial time for the network, established just a year ago at an international workshop in St Andrews, UK.

Although no new UK marine initiatives were announced, Sir David King, the UK government’s representative at the meeting, reminded the conference that four years ago the UK established the world’s largest no-take marine protected area in the waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as well as a major reserve in the Southern Ocean, and pointed out the challenges in enforcing fishing bans.

The main media reporting on the conference was, not surprisingly, on the attendance and pledges of the VIPs, with coverage by, amongst others, the BBC and the Guardian. Nevertheless, there was also interest by UK media in the science, both locally (Plymouth Herald and Plymouth Radio) and nationally. The animation The Other CO2 Problem made by children from Ridgeway School and PML was available as an on-line resource on the Our Ocean website and shown in the exhibition area just outside the main auditorium. PML’s summary for policy makers Hot, Sour and Breathless: Ocean Under Stress was available next to the NOAA giant globe which showed projections of the trajectory of ocean acidification from pre-industrial conditions to the end of this century. A particularly nice touch was the invitation of 150 school students to live-view the speeches by President Obama, Leonardo di Caprio and John Kerry, as well as the ocean acidification session at the US Embassy, London. In another room invited NGOs, government departments and other VIPs also heard the speeches and the subsequent commitments from the conference participants.

So was it a breakthrough meeting, or just another opportunity for fine words? Recognition by the US of the importance of environmental security and ocean stewardship is no trivial matter, nor are environmental pledges totalling US $1.8 billion with the commitments for additional protection for around 3 million km2 of ocean (an area slightly larger than India). In a follow-up statement, Ambassador David Balton (US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries) considered that "this event exceeded even our greatest expectations". Yet there was also recognition that the true test would be translating the initiatives developed at the conference into a unified global ocean policy, recognizing that "our ocean" belongs to everyone on the planet and that all nations have responsibility for its safeguarding. To address ocean acidification, such resolve must encompass CO2 emissions to the atmosphere – with actions by the US and very many others through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This text is based on a commentary published online in ‘The Conversation’.