Can 14 nations put global ocean protection back on track?

Ambitious pledges made by members of the Ocean Panel were welcomed at the end of last year, but can they achieve their goals, and bring other nations on board?
<p>A school of bigeye scad off West Papua, Indonesia (Image: Steve Bloom / Alamy)</p>

A school of bigeye scad off West Papua, Indonesia (Image: Steve Bloom / Alamy)

For ocean conservation, 2020 was a year of high hopes dashed. It had been billed as the year when world leaders would end harmful subsidies that drive overfishing, agree a new law to protect marine life beyond national waters, and edge closer to protecting 30% of ocean space by 2030. Instead, the world grappled with the fallout of Covid-19.

But amid the missed deadlines and postponed talks, a ray of hope emerged. In December, 14 nations who together oversee 30% of the ocean’s exclusive economic zones committed to managing their waters 100% sustainably by 2025. The plan, conceived by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, sets out a blueprint for restoring marine ecosystems globally, in a way that provides more food and jobs, benefits the economy and helps to mitigate climate change.

On 14 January, the panel launched its action plan in the US, calling on other ocean states – including the US – to sign up, and commit to 100% sustainable management of their waters. As a way of encouraging others, the panel extended the completion date for new signatories to 2030. “It’s a call to action… and not just to governments, but also to the private sector, financial institutions and civil society. It’s a rallying cry,” says marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, who co-chaired the panel’s expert group, and previously served as administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Obama.

The speed and urgency at which the ocean is changing requires a commensurate response.

“The speed and urgency at which the ocean is changing requires a commensurate response. While there are formal processes [to address ocean issues], we need an additional process,” says Kristian Teleki, head of the Secretariat for the High Level Panel.

The 14 nations that have agreed the deal so far are Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal. A motley crew, of which some – such as Norway and Palau – boast successful ocean economies, while others – such as Ghana and Jamaica – are struggling with severely depleted fish stocks. Yet all have citizens who rely heavily on the sea for food and income, and are facing the pressing need to balance these demands with environmental protection.

“The ocean divides these countries but it also unites them. They each face different challenges but are connected by the plight of their people, whether that’s their finances or their wellbeing,” says Teleki.

In 2018, they formed the High Level Panel as a way of redressing humanity’s ailing relationship with the ocean. What followed was a two-year process of gathering data and knowledge from 250 global ocean experts – in 48 separate countries and regions. The panel also sought counsel from more than 135 organisations across industry, finance and civil society. The result was a series of 19 peer-reviewed reports that cover in unprecedented detail the challenges facing today’s ocean – from overfishing to plastic pollution – and the possibilities for its sustainable use, including drug discovery and renewable energy.

Informed by this evidence, the 14 nations committed to major transformations in five key areas: seafood production, climate mitigation, biodiversity protection, and integrated management, aided by huge investment in the ocean economy. Applied globally, these efforts could, by 2050, give us six times more seafood, 12 million more jobs and 40 times more renewable energy, add US$15.5 trillion to the economy and deliver 20% of the emission reductions needed to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Did you know?

Coastal marine ecosystems have carbon sequestration rates up to 10 times higher than land ecosystems, and yet we’ve lost an estimated 20-50% of them globally.

“They have gathered this incredibly rich resource of material to guide the decision-making process,” says Dana Miller, a senior policy advisor with non-profit Oceana, and an author of the panel’s report on ocean finance. “There is an enormous opportunity here,” she says, “for these leading countries to really transform the way our ocean is considered, valued and used, both now and into the future.”

But while the plan sounds ambitious, it’s “not about some future nirvana”, says Torsten Thiele, an ocean governance specialist who served as one of the panel’s expert advisors. Thiele says that nations have already signed up to many of these obligations elsewhere. The new plan is about how these goals can be achieved, and how they’ll be financed.

A crisis on many levels

The ocean faces a growing crisis: more than 90% of commercial fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited; waters are warming and acidifying due to climate change; and ocean pollution is at an all-time high. “The state of the ocean is parlous. To be completely frank, it’s much worse than a lot of people think,” says Dan Laffoley, an ocean conservation expert with the International Union for the Conversation of Nature.

Right now, ocean governance is a patchwork of rules and regulations. Plans to mine the seabed for minerals, for instance, may fail to take into account efforts to restore wild fish populations. Coastal waters are the responsibility of nation states, and are typically managed sector by sector. Their adequate protection is crucial because they contain 90% of ocean biodiversity and are where most of the economic activity takes place.

Wooden fishing boats at Elmina port. The decline in Ghana’s fish stocks is putting livelihoods and food security at risk (Image: EJF)

Central to the panel’s vision is a plan to derive more food from the sea to meet growing global demand for protein and nutrients. With the right investments, the ocean could deliver 36–74% higher food yields by 2050. But first, nations will have to end overfishing and replenish wild stocks, goals that already exist internationally.

So what exactly have these nations signed up to? Will others do the same? And who will hold them accountable?

Ending subsidies and illegal fishing

Currently, all major fishing nations have an opportunity to end harmful fisheries subsides through a deal being negotiated by the World Trade Organization (WTO). These subsidies drive overfishing by, for instance, covering fuel costs or financing the construction of larger boats. The deal, which was due to be finalised last year, has been delayed by Covid-19. The 14 members of the High Level Panel are now leading the charge by agreeing to end this practice in their nations unilaterally.

“While reform by these individual countries is positive, ultimately, we want to see it at a much bigger scale,” says Isabel Jarrett, a fisheries reform campaign manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington DC. “We would still like those countries to come to the table at WTO and push for a multilateral agreement,” she says.

To make a dent in IUU fishing… additional key countries would need to commit, especially those with large distant-water fishing fleets.

Another, separate, commitment from the panel is to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Internationally, the Port State Measures Agreement targets IUU fishing by giving nations the authority to refuse port access to fishers engaged in illicit activity, such as poaching or intentionally undervaluing their catch. Not all nations have signed on. While the panel’s commitment to end IUU is welcome, will it make a difference?

Miller is concerned that “the actions proposed to achieve this are not very concrete.” She would like to see nations push for greater transparency by requiring their fleets to carry publicly accessible vessel-tracking technology or mandating the use of international registration numbers, for example.

“If they were to commit to these types of concrete measures, I am confident that it would make a dent in IUU fishing. But to do this on a global scale, additional key countries would need to also commit, especially those that have a role as flag, port processing and market states, and those with large distant-water fishing fleets such as China, Taiwan and Spain.”

Protecting and restoring ecosystems

The High Level Panel has also committed to restoring and preventing the degradation of “blue carbon” ecosystems – the mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and salt marshes that are the ocean equivalent of rainforests. Coastal marine ecosystems have carbon sequestration rates up to 10 times higher than land ecosystems, and yet we’ve lost an estimated 20-50% of them globally. To reverse this trend, and the destruction of marine ecosystems more generally, nations will need to safeguard them within marine protected areas (MPAs).

Currently, just 2.6% of the global ocean is strictly protected, meaning off limits to industrial extraction. Scientists advise that at least 30% of the ocean needs to be placed within strict MPAs by 2030, if we’re to stem the loss of marine life. The High Level Panel supports this goal, but how they’ll scale up actions to achieve it is unclear.

A sea cucumber in a seagrass meadow off Komodo, Indonesia.
A sea cucumber in a seagrass meadow off Komodo, Indonesia (Image: Ethan Daniels / Alamy)

“We had a target to protect 10% of the ocean by 2020, and we haven’t reached it,” says Peter Jones, a marine planning and governance expert at University College London, who argues that it’s important to focus on how MPAs work, and whether they are effective and equitable, rather than simply focusing on numeric targets. Others, including Laffoley, argue that the 30% target doesn’t go far enough, given the continued decline of ocean health, and that we should be looking to exclude industry from at least 50% of ocean space. “We need to go much further, much more quickly,” he says.

Elsewhere, the UN is negotiating a deal that would protect marine life in the high seas – those waters beyond national jurisdiction – and handle many of the same issues, such as establishing MPAs, offshore. Much like the WTO talks on fisheries subsidies, these negotiations have been delayed by the pandemic, and are due to reconvene in August.

Thiele cautions against seeing the new deal as an alternative to these ongoing international processes. “This is just another part of the puzzle. These processes should be nicely complementary,” he says.

Converting words into actions

Unlike many of the formal negotiations taking place on ocean issues, the commitments of the High Level Panel are voluntary and non-prescriptive. Describing it as “a healthy competition”, Teleki says that the aspiration is for nations to lead by example, showing others that ocean restoration can be regenerative. Signatory nations will update the panel regularly on their progress, with the first report due in September 2021.

Whether the panel’s vision for ocean recovery can be achieved will ultimately depend on whether it can garner political and financial support. As a starting point, the panel members would like to see nations direct a chunk of their Covid-19 stimulus packages toward a “blue” ocean-centred economic recovery plan. Writing in Nature, Lubchenco and others note that following the 2008–09 global fiscal crisis, each $1 million invested in ocean recovery in the US created an average of 17 jobs – more than twice those created for each dollar invested in road construction and fossil-fuel exploration and extraction combined.

Another hope, says Thiele, is that institutions such as the EU and the UN will understand that ocean restoration can help to solve the climate problem and direct their climate funds accordingly. “The UN green climate fund will have to be an ocean fund; otherwise we’ll continue to destroy the ocean,” he says.

Landmark events in 2021, including UN conferences on the ocean, climate and biodiversity, could help garner support for the panel’s action plan. Getting the US to sign the deal – a possibility with Joe Biden now in office – would also rally support. “It all depends on where the money goes, and big decisions will be made in 2021,” says Thiele.

Teleki sees the agreement itself as a “blue silver lining” of 2020. “Despite everything that’s gone on in the last year, heads of states and their ministers still managed to work to put together an ocean action agenda”, says Teleki. “Converting those words into action will be the real necessity over the coming years and decades,” he says.