In 2014 U.S. Secretary of State initiated the first Our Oceans meeting, an international gathering where politicians, scientists, businessmen and civil leaders discussed how to most effectively protect our oceans. The conference was considered a success, agreements which protect over 3 million square kilometres of oceans were sealed, partnerships and initiatives valued at 800 Million U.S. Dollars were launched. On this occasion Chile also declared their commitment towards the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement. This multilateral treaty concerns the management of fishery resources that span wide areas, as well as straddeling stocks, which are fish who migrate from one economic zone to another. This illustrates the importance of multi-national conferences: fish species do not base their migratory patterns on economic or political borders. To effectively protect them, a number of nations have to act in accordance.
Chile also announced that they would organise a second Our Oceans conference, to further encourage partnerships and treaties, share updates on current developments and reinforce good relations and communication between all present countries. Hence this year’s event took place in the region of Valparaiso, Chile. Over 500 participants from a range of important institutions have met again in early October. Amongst them are Prince Albert of Monaco, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Sir Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
This time over 80 new initiatives concerning marine preservation and protection came to live, altogether valued at 2.1 billion U.S. Dollars. On top of that another 1.9. Million square kilometres of oceans are now supposed to be actively protected. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heraldo Muñoz, made clear that “We don’t want empty speeches. We want voluntary commitments to concretely protect biodiversity.”
So what exactly do those treaties contain and what real life effect do they have? There are a number of decisions and reaffirmations that were made during this event. The European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs, Fisheries and Environment presented plans to cover 10% of all European waters with additional protection and only allow necessary fishery measures by 2020. Furthermore the European Union intends to adopt innovative maritime spatial plans for all European Union marine waters by 2021, meaning the enforcements of sustainable use and management of these waters.
The U.S. made a number of decisions regarding the protection of waters of historic and national importance and removing marine debris from the ocean. Obama made, separate from the event, a public speech stating that certain marine areas need to be more protected and the government will reinforce efforts to prevent illegally caught fish from entering the US market. Chile announced that many more square kilometres in their economic area will become Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to preserve the biodiversity of their oceans. Chile also works with the Rapa Nui community on the Easter Island to create a 720,000 square kilometre MPA in the island’s exclusive economic zone, taking into consideration their ancestral fishing practices. These areas will form the largest MPA in the world.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s impassioned speech should also not be ignored. Speeches by celebrities have become a prominent tool of environmental groups. Celebrities hold certain sway over public opinion and public opinion influences the actions of politicians and policy makers. An unneglectable fact is also that actors frequently manage to hold more engaging and eloquent speeches than many politicians and make topics like this more accessible and prominent to the average person. The media is also more likely to pick up the topic – DiCaprio’s speech has made the new more than any other part of the conference. “This experiences haven’t just been adventures for me. They’ve been educational,” DiCaprio states when recounting his diving experiences, the latest one in one of the biggest natural shark sanctuaries in Costa Rica. “They taught me how fragile these eco-systems really are.” He further states that when he revisited the Great Barrier Reef 20 years after his first visit, he “Witnessed environmental devastation firsthand.” An underwater paradise had been replaced by bleached corals and dead zones. Illegal fishing vessels went out to sea every day. DiCaprio was uncompromising when pointing out that our destructive practices are causing the disappearance of our ocean’s abundance of lifeforms.
As this environmental devastation progresses, conferences like Our Oceans 2015, where decisions with real impact are made, are heartening. Because mainly small coastal communities have felt the impact of environmental devastation first hand, powerful nations and their citizens have in the past tended to dismiss these threats to our oceans as inconsequential on the long run. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence in combination with the experience of these communities, ignoring threats would be willful ignorance. The coming years and the updates presented at the next Our Oceans Conference will show if these policies have managed to start preserving and protecting our oceans’ better than we have in the past.
Here is the official report for download