“There has never been a greater collective movement towards the ocean”. These were just some of the inspiring sentiments that were expressed during this week’s The Ocean Conference in New York.
And what a week it has been! Five days have passed by in a flash for myself, Sigrid and Fabienne who together represented OceanCare at the conference.
In my previous post I spoke about our anticipation for this milestone event which acts as the starting block towards the journey we must take towards achieving sustainably managed oceans by 2030. It has been a week of many highlights and one which has reinvigorated our own hope and passion for the ocean and one which will help shape our work in the months and years to come.
First there was the moving opening of the conference featuring traditional Pacific island dance and song – a reminder that there are so many people on this planet whose very future depends on the actions we take to protect oceans today. Then there were the many meetings we had and side events we attended where we exchanged views with governments, industry representatives and other organisations who are all critical to the success of our efforts, where we learnt about all the important work taking place around the world on issues which we share concern about. Most importantly, we were able to communicate the importance of addressing issues such as ocean noise, marine plastic debris, whaling and aquatic wild meat with world leaders and policy makers.
A personal highlight for me was being able to address the conference on the main UN General Assembly stage, and on behalf of OceanCare and 24 other organisations, provide our recommendations on the urgent issue of ocean noise. I could never have imagined that I would ever find myself on that prestigious platform and it was a real honour to do so and to have the opportunity to make the UN audience aware of the responsibility they have to solve the problem of harmful ocean noise. Ocean noise is generated by a variety of human activities, including military, shipping traffic, coastal and offshore construction work and the oil and gas industry among others, and poses a significant threat to marine ecosystems, marine animals and the future sustainability of our oceans. In comparison to other types of marine pollution, ocean noise does not yet appear to be a priority focus for the majority of governments so OceanCare will be stepping up its efforts to make sure that this changes as governments work to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Marine debris however, does very much seem to be top of the global agenda and we were very impressed with the amount of commitments being made to address it on a local, regional and global scale. At one of the side events I attended there was a presentation by an incredible man called Alfroz Shah, who single-handedly started a movement which led to the world’s largest beach clean up on Versova beach in Mumbai, India. Over a period of 21 months the beach was transformed from being a filthy wildlife death-trap to a place which local people can once again use and where wildlife is safe. Stories like this demonstrate that efforts at an individual level can be just as impactful as those initiated by companies, organisations and countries.
On Thursday we celebrated World Oceans Day at a wonderful, uplifting event which featured inspiring speeches by Richard Branson, Silvia Earle, Fabian Cousteau and many other high profile champions of the oceans which reminded us of why we are all here and why change is critical and possible. All throughout the event the images of turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, humpback whales, silver shoals of fish, just some of the animals OceanCare is working to protect, were projected through the two giant screens to the General Assembly and we left with a renewed sense of purpose and pride in the work that we do.
As the days have gone by we have been encouraged by the commitments we have heard, the new connections we have made, the fruitful meetings we have had and the positive reception to our work. But most of all we have been uplifted by the collaborative atmosphere, the shared empathy being expressed for the plight of our oceans and the existence of a common vision for change.
Somehow it seems that many of the messages that OceanCare, and like-minded organisations have been trying to spread for so many years are now being heard at the highest level. Is it too late we may wonder? We certainly hope not, but we know we cannot be complacent. The commitments being made look aspirational on paper, the speeches are motivating and there is no doubt that the existence of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the focussed goal on oceans, is the opportunity that our blue planet desperately needs. But as we leave the impressive dome of the UN Assembly hall behind we know that it is here that our work must truly begin.
We have to ensure that governments and other critical stakeholders go beyond speeches and documents. We need to make sure that we are not returning to New York in three years’ time at the next Oceans Conference to listen to the same words. Instead we must be reviewing the steps that humanity has collectively taken to save our oceans, celebrating the progress we have made and setting new goals to go even further towards the future we all want for our oceans, the people that depend on them and the animals which call them home.
To quote another phrase I heard expressed passionately this week: Yes, our oceans may be rising but so are we!
Ocean Policy Consultant
Joanna has spent the last decade working on animal welfare and ocean conservation issues within both the NGO and Intergovernmental sectors. Together with Sigrid Lüber and Fabienne McLellan she attends the UN Ocean Conference in New York.