It is an exciting time to be working to protect oceans. I don’t make that statement lightly or often. Anybody working on ocean related issues will tend to agree that the management of oceans is incredibly complex, and progress towards conservation goals is frustratingly slow. But right now there is clear momentum building towards something which could be a tide turner, and which could see governments, industries and United Nations agencies replacing baby step actions with giant strides towards ambitious ocean protection goals over the next 13 years.

I am talking about the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or ‘SDGs’ as we have come to know them, which for the first time elevate oceans high on the global agenda and are set to spur action towards reversing the wrongs humans have inflicted on them over the past decades.

Of course, this is entirely dependent on governments and other major stakeholders actually taking the actions required to do this. This is why I am travelling to New York with my OceanCare colleagues Sigrid and Fabienne, to spend the next week at the UN’s Ocean Conference focused on SDG14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, to find out precisely what actions we can expect to see being taken over the next few years and what this will mean for oceans and the marine wildlife we are working to protect.

I have been working on ocean protection issues at the UN level for several years but surprisingly this will be my first trip to UN HQ. I’m grateful for the opportunity to finally go to the centre of where the action happens, to this first of its kind conference, and especially looking forward to sharing this experience with Sigrid and Fabienne for our first assignment with the three of us all together to try and do something wonderful for the world’s oceans. I have also been informed by them both that I will try the best babaganoush of my life on this trip…what could be more exciting than that!

I started working for OceanCare in March. As a consultant I am lucky that I get to work with a range of different people, organisations and on a variety of issues. Working with OceanCare has so far been a very special experience. A small but extremely dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate team of people who make you feel like part of the family right from the start. I feel privileged indeed to have the opportunity to do what I love with people who love it as well.

At this five days conference, the OceanCare team are going to be super busy. With so many important issues on the agenda ranging from ocean pollution, over-fishing, ecosystem protection and resilience and ocean acidification, we will have our work cut-out attending all the sessions, participating in the discussions where possible, learning about the work of others from the many side events and providing our recommendations to governments on the issues which we have expertise in.

A particular priority for us will be marine pollution in its various forms. OceanCare has a long history of work on both marine plastic debris and ocean noise and we will be working hard to ensure that both get the attention they need at this conference. We will also be drawing attention to other issues such as aquatic wild meat and whaling which have not been prominent issues so far in the dialogue leading up to the conference but which we believe are important issues for the global community to address in the context of sustainable development.

Solving the global marine debris crisis is an issue particularly close to my heart and one which I have dedicated a lot of my career to. I have particular expertise in ‘ghost’ fishing gear, fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned in the oceans and which poses one the greatest entanglement threats to marine wildlife. This, alongside other forms of marine debris, looks set to be a hot topic at the conference and I hope this means that governments will be prepared to act with urgency. I have also spent many years working on the whaling issue, including attending the meetings of the International Whaling Commission, so I am looking forward to seeing whether the UN can provide an additional platform from which desperately needed progress can finally be made to protect these charismatic ocean giants from harm and secure the vital role they play in keeping marine ecosystems healthy and productive.

We can never be sure how these things will go but as the countdown to the conference begins we feel hopeful. Why? Well first of all embedding oceans within the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda ensures that not only is there a clear time frame for action but this action is rooted in an acceptance that sustainable development and conserving oceans are not the two opposing forces that the historical tug-of-war might suggest. In fact they go hand-in-hand. From the food we eat, to the air we breathe, we need the oceans to survive. Secondly the existence of SDG14 gives focus to all stakeholders who have a role to play in ensuring our use of the oceans is sustainable, whether they be a business, a government, an academic institution, a non-government organisation or an individual. It gives the threats the oceans face the visibility they need to stand the best chance of provoking action. It has been suggested, and supported, that progress will be monitored and reviewed by the Ocean Conference reconvening every three years, thus making all stakeholders accountable to the targets that have been agreed and the commitments they have made. And the intent to take real action is already evident by the increasing number of voluntary commitments that governments, UN agencies, private sector and NGOs including ourselves have been uploading to the conference website.

As the world turns its attention to oceans next week there is a sense that this is not a business is usual meeting, but recognition that this is the best opportunity we have to turn the tide on the damage that has been inflicted on the oceans for far too long. Let’s hope that the time for oceans really does start now and we are looking forward to being part of it.

Joanna Toole

Joanna Toole

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.