The rhetoric is right, now we need action

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It’s been a big month for the ocean and people who depend on it.

We have new FAO guidelines that aim to protect the rights of small-scale fishers and ensure their contributions are included in management plans. This is an important step in safeguarding the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities.

Actor and conservation activist Leonardo DiCaprio loaned his star power to US Secretary of State John Kerry last week, as he hosted representatives from more than 80 countries at the Our Ocean Conference. This is the third such conference this year alone. I am very excited by the increased transparency and attention being paid to ocean health from the highest echelons of power.

And now, more than a year in the making, we have a report from the Global Ocean Commission ‚Äď a group charged with formulating ‚Äúpolitically and technically feasible‚ÄĚ recommendations to address some of the biggest threats to ocean health.

Fishermen pulling nets Phang Nga Bay Thailand  © Peter Denton / WWF-CanonFishermen pulling nets Phang Nga Bay Thailand                                                                 © Peter Denton / WWF-Canon

The commission has succeeded from the point of technical feasibility. The points put forth have long been within our power to enact. For example, states have adopted a range of global agreements to conserve and protect the marine environment. If these agreements were acted upon by all, the ocean would be in a whole lot less trouble. But there are also areas where new action is needed; right now there are no globally agreed standards for offshore oil and gas, and no funding mechanism that would finance cleanup once a spill or a blowout happens.

The big question is political feasibility. The positive rhetoric over the past months and weeks is a good sign of political will, but it still needs to be translated into concrete action. This is why WWF and others are pushing governments at the UN to include a stand-alone ocean goal among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that will guide post-2015 investment. Such high-level recognition of the precarious state of the ocean and its resources, and its potential ‚Äď if restored ‚Äď to contribute to sustainable development, is needed to drive the policy change we seek.

A new high seas biodiversity agreement could help fill the gaps in the current patchwork of agreements that cover international waters. (For scale, this is two-thirds of the ocean, or half the planet.) As the commission points out in its recommendations, a new agreement under the UN Law of the Sea would ensure the necessary cooperation between states and international bodies to overcome the current piecemeal approach to ocean use. We share one global ocean, yet each sector is managed in isolation, as if it has no bearing on the whole, and biodiversity comes last when fishing, shipping, seabed mining and other economic activities are carried out without clear regard for the ecological bottom line.

Barracudas seen underwater, schooling, Indo-Pacific Ocean ©Jurgen Freund / WWF-CanonBarracudas seen underwater, schooling, Indo-Pacific Ocean                                                ©Jurgen Freund / WWF-Canon

Such an agreement would promote a network of marine protected areas on the high seas, safeguarding fish nurseries and feeding grounds, and giving biodiversity a chance to recover. It would also ensure that all states can equitably access the potential wealth in marine genetic resources ‚Äď with scope for new compounds for medicine and industrial processes that can help solve both health and environmental dilemmas of today and into the future.

For years, I have been witnessing the gradual awakening to just how critical a healthy marine environment is for people. Now we have some powerful allies who claim to be ready to take action. The commission’s recommendations reflect the growing consensus of what needs to be done to restore ocean health. There’s really no excuse anymore; it’s time to get to work.

By John Tanzer, Director, WWF International Global Marine Programme

John Tanzer

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