It’s “now or never” for our oceans: Part One on the Global Ocean Treaty

In just two days, one of the most critical UN conferences in the past decade or so will come to an end. It is likely to be the last in a series of discussions leading up to the signing of a Global Ocean Treaty in New York. It’s the fifth and final round of negotiations. Now, the question is: will such a treaty be comfortably and agreeably signed, incorporating the needs and priorities of the global “North and South”? Or will it be a watered-down version (pardon the pun!)? And importantly, what actions will result?

Greenpeace USA activists project scenes of beauty and fragility onto New York’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge. On the eve of the IGC5 negotiations at the United Nations where governments are meeting to negotiate a new Global Ocean Treaty, which will determine the fate of the oceans. The projections urge negotiators to act and finalise the strongest Treaty possible. (Photo: Greenpeace USA)

Because it’s “now or never” for our oceans.

Here’s some background information. In my next post I will give you an update on how it all “went down”… Meanwhile, you might also like to take a look at the Treaty Tracker created by the High Seas Alliance here to keep you up to date.

The recent Pilot Edition of the State of the Ocean Report 2022 produced by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission underscores the impact of human activity. It is not cheerful reading but stresses the importance of science and of the need for more observations, more research, more data (we still know so little about what’s under the sea’s surface, and how it is impacting the planet). If you take a read, you will understand that the results of the New York meeting ending this week will constitute the world’s last chance to achieve a meaningful agreement to save our oceans, which are under incredible stress.

A pod of Sperm Whales move into a defense line to stop a pod of Orcas (Killer Whales) getting to their calf, off the coast of Sri Lanka. (Photo: Greenpeace)

The above report lists ten challenges – by now, you are sadly familiar with at least some of them – especially if you live on an island as we do. The challenges are: to understand and tackle marine pollution (including the nightmare of plastic); to protect and restore marine ecosystems and the magical, fantastic diversity of life forms (Marine Protected Areas are critical); to create a sustainable and equitable “blue economy” (we have a long way to go on making this work, although it has become a favourite buzzword); how to make the most of the seas’ incredible capacity for carbon storage in fighting climate change, especially in our coastal areas (stop cutting down mangroves please, Jamaica!); improving community resilience to hazards such as sea level rise and pollution; strengthening the Global Ocean Observing System and data collection; improving our capacity for scientific research through training, information sharing, and more.

And finally, improving our “ocean literacy” – in other words, let’s learn to love our oceans more…

The beautiful blue Caribbean Sea: a view from Carriacou in the Grenadines. (My photo)

SO – if we don’t have as strong a Global Ocean Treaty as is humanly possible this week in New York, it won’t be possible to deliver the 30×30 goal that some 84 countries signed onto last year: that is, for at least 30% of the oceans to be protected by 2030 (and that is a minimum requirement, scientists say). At the One Ocean Summit in Brest, France in February this year, groups of nations committed to fight illegal fishing, protect marine biodiversity, regulate the polluting shipping industry, and more. Barbados was among the 41 countries that contributed to that meeting “at a very high level.”

Back to New York. As the negotiations opened on August 15, here are some comments shared by Greenpeace. In my next post, I will bring you up to date on how things are looking as the meeting draws to a close. But here are some thoughts to consider, meanwhile…

Arlo Hemphill, Greenpeace USA Sanctuaries Project Lead: “As these delegates meet, the oceans continue to decline. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices, plastic pollution, and climate change are weakening the systems we depend upon. We can no longer afford the delay and inaction that have plagued these talks for over a decade. Now is the moment to set aside the politics, special interests, and inertia and approve a truly transformative Treaty that provides the strongest possible protection for the ocean. I urge these delegates to get this done – for every life on Earth.”

Aakash Naik, Greenpeace International Head of Communications and Engagement for the Protect the Oceans campaign, said: “The oceans support all life on earth, but centuries of neglect have pushed them into crisis. The strength of the new Global Ocean Treaty will decide whether we can fix this crisis or if we will continue with the broken status quo. That’s why we’ve lit up the Brooklyn Bridge, turning this iconic New York spot into a monument to ocean beauty.”

Laura Meller of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said from New York: “These negotiations are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the blue part of our blue planet. The oceans sustain all life on Earth, but for too long, we’ve neglected them. Delegates must finalize a strong Treaty this August. A weak Treaty, or any further delay, will maintain the broken status quo that has pushed the oceans into crisis.”

Awa Traore, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, said from New York: “Governments have been discussing a Treaty for two decades. In that time, the oceans have lost so much, and communities which rely on ocean resources are struggling. Here in West Africa, we’ve already seen fish stocks severely depleted by industrial fishing vessels, often from Europe, and this is already harming livelihoods and food security across the region. Any further delays would be a slap in the face to all who put faith in political leaders keeping their promises. Delegates must follow through on their governments’ commitments and finalize an ambitious Global Ocean Treaty now.”

Greenpeace continues: In the two decades since a Treaty was first discussed, more than 100 marine species have become critically endangered. Industrial fishing pressure now covers at least 55% of the global oceans, and the climate crisis continues to damage the oceans’ ability to regulate our planet’s climate and temperature. 

And recently in Kingston, Jamaica, governments were negotiating rules (at the International Seabed Authority) that could allow the launch of deep sea mining by July 2023, contributing to the further degradation of the already stressed oceans. Remember, Jamaican youth climate activists wrote to their Prime Minister, requesting the Government’s clarification of its stance on the issue, back in July. And as Arlo Hemphill pointed out in an interview with me “We don’t even know the life down there” – and yet we are planning to destroy it, in our ignorance.

Greenpeace International activists from the Rainbow Warrior attach a flag reading ‘Stop Deep Sea Mining” to the cable holding the prototype robot, Patania II. In an action to disturb a new deep sea mining impact test carried out by the company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) after a recent major failure that resulted in a 25-tonne mining robot left stuck on the Pacific Ocean seafloor for days. An activist also holds a banner reading ‘Stop Deep Sea Mining’. The Greenpeace ship is in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific to bear witness to the deep sea mining industry. Part of the ongoing ‘Protect the Oceans’ campaign.

Here are the Greenpeace priorities:

To be considered a success, the meeting must deliver a Treaty that:

  • Sets as a primary objective the establishment of a global network of Marine Protected Areas.
  • Allows states, through a Conference of Parties (COP), to establish ocean sanctuaries, free from destructive activities like fishing and deep sea mining.
  • Allows the COP to make decisions by vote when a consensus is not possible.
  • Defines Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to allow for the creation of fully and highly protected areas, which are most cost-effective.
  • Allows the COP to decide whether activities such as fishing are allowed or prohibited in MPAs, without deferring to existing bodies.
  • Allows the COP to adopt interim or emergency measures to protect an area pending the establishment of an MPA.
Mesophotic reef. Video grab taken at 100 meters depth in the Amazon Reef. Mesophotic coral reef is characterised by the presence of both light dependent coral and algae, and organisms that can be found in water with low light penetration.

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