A Look Back at the 2017 United Nations Ocean Conference

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Each of us must pick one issue — generally, globally, specifically, locally — and engage our many talents and actions toward that one solution. Pick yours, and by so doing, join in turning the tide by marking this the point in history when humanity — you and me — began righting the wrongs perpetrated on our ocean.
~ Peter Neill, World Ocean Observatory

The UN Ocean Conference in New York City took place in early June, an event to bring together nearly all nations with interest in policy, governance, and international cooperation for the future of the world ocean. The specific focus was on UN Sustainability Goal 14 (SDG14) “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” According to the post-meeting summary, approximately 4,000 delegates attended the conference, including 16 Heads of State or Government, two deputy Prime Ministers, 86 Ministers, 16 Vice Ministers, other government representatives and intergovernmental organizations, international and regional financial institutions, civil society, academic and research institutions, indigenous peoples, local communities, and members of the private sector. It was reported that no official United States representative was in attendance.

Success at the UN Ocean Conference was to be measured by three outcomes: 1. a renewed Call to Action, 2. a register of voluntary actions taken and to be taken by governments, and 3. key messages and partnership dialogue from delegates, activists, and other interested parties regarding the growing challenges in various areas and the need for their solution. Such calls to action are typically built on the calls from previous conferences, modified to meet the changing circumstance. The partnership dialogues vary; in this instance focusing primarily on ocean acidification in the context of the Paris Climate Agreement; marine pollution — particularly long life and micro-plastics; and over-fishing. Some progress was reported; certain exemplary actions taken were celebrated; and some amount of satisfaction was expressed for certain projects that represent incremental innovation and action.

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Neither I nor a representative of the World Ocean Observatory was in attendance. I did, however, read the final conference summary report published by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. I streamed the conference from time to time and listened to experts, colleagues, and ocean friends re-emphasize the urgency and need for actions beyond those achieved, destruction to be reversed, and scale to be faced in successfully addressing a complicated global problem.

Truth is in the details, evinced by the specific actions and investment pledged by the attending nations and others. The accounting is always problematic:

< What funds have already been committed?
< What are the new commitments?
< Which commitments have been met? Which have not? Why?

Cynics abound. But we must understand that the entire enterprise is a voluntary collaboration by entities that don’t often collaborate easily or well. There is no central leadership. There is no evaluation or enforcement. No one is penalized if they fail to perform.

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One must respect the talent, energy, and commitment of the nations, NGOs, philanthropists, and others determined to meet the ocean challenge. One must also acknowledge the work being done by so many others — from scientists to economists to business people to a growing community of Citizens of the Ocean — all contributing exponentially to this vast and necessary response. It is awesome, even as it is not enough.

What to do? We ask that question often at World Ocean Observatory and on World Ocean Radio, our weekly audio podcast. And every week we come up with a different answer. That diffuse reality is evident even in the compression of a five-day international meeting of leaders and activists — there are so many urgent problems that require so much specific energy and skill to solve, how can we possibly prevail? In that question is found the single cohesive answer: that each and every one of us must become an informed agent for change in one aspect of the larger ocean response. Each of us must pick one issue — generally, globally, specifically, locally — and engage our many talents and actions toward that one solution. Pick yours, and by so doing, join all the participants of the UN Ocean Conference in, as General Assembly co-president Isabella Lövin of Sweden stated in her closing remarks, “turning the tide,” by marking this the point in history when humanity, you and me, began “righting the wrongs perpetrated on our ocean.”

The next meeting will be convened by the European Union in Malta in October of 2017: Our Ocean, An Ocean For Life, and will thereafter to be hosted by Portugal and Kenya in 2020. Learn more at ourocean2017.org.

The Ocean Conference Revisited first appeared as a 5-minute audio episode on World Ocean Radio. Host Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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