14 Jun 2017 - The first ever UN Ocean Conference came to a close on June 9 with a "Call For Action", over 1,300 voluntary commitments made to support ocean health, and aspirations for a new convention to protect biodiversity in the roughly half of our planet which lies beyond national jurisdictions.
The commitments range from vague policy intentions to declarations of marine protected areas extending for millions of square kilometres. Many of these conservation zones are being set up by small island developing states whose fate in a world being altered by climate change was the subject of much attention at the conference.
Efforts to staunch the massive flow of plastic pollution into the seas, one of the most visible signs of the oceans' decline, were another major point of emphasis. The threat of micro-plastics to human health, as small beads used in cosmetics and other industries end up being ingested by marine life and passed up the food chain, received particular attention.
Considered to be the largest such gathering for the oceans ever convened, the Ocean Conference that took place at the UN headquarters in New York was designed to boost support for Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14), which lays out ambitious targets to conserve and sustainably use marine resources.
"SDG14 is arguably the most ambitious of the goals, with targets not just for the year 2030, but also 2020 and 2025," explained Andrew Hudson, head of Ocean and Water Governance for the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
"We're supposed to go from 30 per cent of global fish stocks being overfished down to zero per cent by 2020. That's a six per cent decrease every year from 2015. Has that been happening?"
The answer is almost certainly no, and underlying the conference was a general concern that progress on this sustainable development goal has been lagging.
The commitments made at the conference will help, but they're non-binding. The treaty negotiations over rules that will govern the oceans in the future instead are taking place outside the conference. Notably, global delegates are due to gather in New York next month to decide whether to pursue an international agreement on managing the high seas: Roughly 70 per cent of the oceans -- nearly half the world's surface area -- lie beyond national jurisdiction.
Heralded by Sir Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio -- two of the many celebrities who participated in the week's ocean-related festivities -- as a potential "Paris Agreement for the Ocean", formal negotiations on this Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions (BBNJ) agreement would take place under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according to Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"We began talking about a high seas convention about 10 years ago," said Speer.
A convention would try to coordinate and sustainably manage all kinds of activities on the high seas -- not just fishing, but mining, energy development, even carbon sequestration efforts -- to try and maintain the immense biodiversity found in the oceans.