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Marking World Day, Speakers in General Assembly Call for Urgent Collective Action Placing Oceans at Centre of Sustainable Development

The Ocean Conference dedicated its penultimate day to commemorating World Oceans Day, with speakers in the General Assembly Hall emphasizing the need for immediate collective action to turn the tide on marine degradation and place oceans at the centre of sustainable development for future generations.

Peter Thomson (Fiji), President of the General Assembly, called World Oceans Day a time not only to celebrate the majesty of the sea, its beauty and its bounty, but also commit to its conservation.  Oceans were the preserve of no man or country, he said.  Rather, they belonged to all to conserve and sustainably manage for generations to come.

“Now we must engage and now we must act,” said Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate of Sweden, and co-President of the Conference, adding that people could no longer plead ignorance about the damage that had been wrought on the world’s oceans.

The half-day event featured a number of presentations that brought together oceanographers, astronauts, photographers, entrepreneurs and youth representatives of coastal communities, among others.

Fabien Cousteau, founder of the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center and grandson of French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, said oceans were Earth’s only life-support system — one that must be treated as an invaluable bank account.  The problems of pollution, over-consumption of natural resources and climate change could be overcome through such efforts as education, the creation of marine protected areas and renewable energy use, he said, inviting participants to strike the word “impossible” from the dictionary and ensure that children were better stewards of the environment.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, said the ocean covered more than 70 per cent of Earth’s surface and held 97 per cent of its water, yet it was the least known, the most biologically diverse and the most undervalued of all ecosystems.  “Our job is clear:  to unite and revive it,” he said, urging those negotiating a binding treaty on high-seas biodiversity to be bold, to give that instrument teeth and to make it a game-changer on par with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In the afternoon, a partnership dialogue addressed the topic of increasing scientific knowledge, developing research capacity and the transfer of marine technology in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially its Goal 14 to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Thorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture of Iceland and co-Chair of the discussion, said sustainable development targets would not be met without acquiring and sharing the necessary scientific information.  “Understanding the vast oceans can be compared with sailing towards the horizon — it never seems to get closer until you see the land,” she said, adding that sustainable development must begin at the local level and that all policies should be firmly based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Héctor Soldi, Vice-Minister for Fisheries and Aquaculture of Peru, the other co-Chair, said the dialogue was not only an opportunity to hear about national experiences, but also to spark new partnerships, commitments and other concrete proposals.  Peru had a strong research institute that had done much work in data collection.  However, the data “are never enough”, he said, noting that the Government had also established a partnership in data collection with private fishing fleets, whose data were especially useful.

The Conference will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 9 June.

Special Event Commemorating World Oceans Day

ISABELLA LÖVIN, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate of Sweden, and co-President of the Ocean Conference, said people could no longer say they did not know about oceans or the extent of the damage that had been done to them.  “Now we must engage and now we must act,” she said, emphasizing that the health of the oceans must be incorporated into all social and economic development plans.  Today was a celebration of the fact that the world’s oceans gave life and that everyone depended on them.

PETER THOMSON (Fiji), President of the General Assembly, said World Oceans Day was a time join hands and celebrate the majesty of the sea, its beauty and its bounty, and to commit to its conservation.  A critical mass of nations and humanity was joining forces through the universality of Goal 14 of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and fidelity to the Paris Agreement on climate change.  Through voluntary commitments — which had surpassed one thousand — as well as practical solutions and its Call to Action, the Conference had started a process of righting wrongs, he said, adding:  “The ocean is no man’s and no country’s preserve […] It is ours to conserve and sustainably manage for posterity.”

MIGUEL DE SERPA SOARES, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, said today was a celebration of our oceans and the gifts they gave us:  food, energy, medicine, a source of livelihood and much of the air we breathe.  The Conference marked a commitment to the sustainable use of those gifts so they were available for future generations.  To fulfil it, people must relieve the pressures threatening oceans, such as pollution, destructive fishing practices, climate change and acidification.  “Today we look to the future,” he said.  The Conference had catalysed new initiatives, partnerships and voluntary commitments, demonstrating what was possible in giving effect to global visions and giving life to Goal 14.  The future would be determined by a collective resolve to share information, solve problems and sustainably use ocean resources.

In a video message, four UNESCO Youth in Paris said that efforts to recycle waste and use less water were not enough to improve the state of the planet.  To resolve problems, Governments must encourage greater use of green energy and pass laws to ban plastic waste.  Those efforts were difficult and required funding, but such investments would prevent future problems.  “Time is running out, we must act now,” they stressed.

FABIEN COUSTEAU said that as a third-generation ocean explorer, he had immersed himself in “the beauty of the liquid realm” and bore witness to its heart-breaking degradation.  Oceans represented 3.4 billion cubic kilometres of the world, and it would stand to reason that there was much to discover.  Yet, with greater frequency, the devastating impacts that our species had created were becoming known.  “We are up against some monumental challenges,” he said, but there were equally amazing opportunities to overcome them by leveraging out-of-the-box thinking “as if our lives depended on it”.  For too long, humanity had treated the ocean as an endless resource and a garbage can.  “Ocean is life,” he said.  “It is our one and only life-support system.”  New technology had allowed for making better decisions and global communications offered the power to unify.  Pollution, over-consumption of natural resources and climate change could be overcome through such solutions as education, the creation of marine protected areas and renewable energy use.  “Together, we will change the course we have set for ourselves,” he said, stressing that the ocean represented tens of trillions of dollars in economic value and endless intangible benefits.  The sour lessons learned over the last century had made clear that we must treat the ocean as an invaluable bank account.  He urged participants to strike the word “impossible” from the dictionary, ensure that children were better stewards than we had been and achieve Goal 14.

CATHERINE COLEMAN, former United States astronaut, said “we are all together, here on the same team called Earth.”  Presenting a series of photos recounting her six-month mission for National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States (NASA) on the international space station, she said the five other astronauts on her team were of different nationalities.  “However, we placed our nationalities to the side to work together,” she said, encouraging everyone to do the same on Earth to save the oceans, notably by being more ambitious, open-minded and cooperative.  She also recalled a space mission taken after the 2011 tsunami had hit Japan.  “We could see that the world is a magnificent, spectacular place,” she said, recalling the cooperation she had witnessed, from space, to help Japan in its time of need.  “We must make efforts to protect this planet and ourselves, one and all.”

RICHARD BRANSON noted that most of Earth was less familiar than other places in the solar system.  Twelve people had walked on the moon, but only three had descended into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.  Oceans covered more than 70 per cent of Earth’s surface and held 97 per cent of its water, yet its ecosystems were the least known, most biologically diverse and most undervalued.  People dumped plastics into the oceans, saturated them with carbon and relentlessly extracted life from them.  “Our job is clear:  to unite and revive them,” he said, adding that all companies could contribute to the global mission of bringing oceans back to health.  Protecting 10 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2020 should be a first step to protecting 30 per cent by 2030, giving them space to recover and to build resilience.  Stressing that a binding treaty on high-seas biodiversity could be a giant leap for humankind, he urged negotiators to be bold, give it teeth and make it a game-changing “Paris Agreement” for the oceans.

SYLVIA EARLE, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and President of Mission Blue, said humankind was only now taking serious notice of the fact that the ocean made life on Earth possible.  “Now we know what we could not know when I was a child — that we have the power to harm the ocean,” she said.  The ocean was in trouble and therefore humankind was in trouble.  However, as the Conference demonstrated, there was plenty of reason for hope, she said, describing as a milestone efforts to establish 10 per cent of the world’s oceans as protected areas.

Ms. Earle then introduced presentations by Aulani Wilhelm, Conservation International; Scott Bolton, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance; and Chris Jordan, photographer, on the theme “Exploration of the Blue”.

Ellen Cuylaerts, photographer, announced the winners of the 2017 World Oceans Day Oceanic Photo Competition.

Terry Tamminen, Chief Executive Officer, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, announced the recent signing in Mexico of a memorandum of understanding to protect the endangered vaquita species in the Gulf of California.

Leonardo DiCaprio, actor and United Nations Messenger of Peace, delivered a video message.

The Conference then moved into a segment titled “Sustainable Development Goals in Action for Humanity”.  DIEGO LUNA, actor and director, speaking on the theme of “Coastal Communities”, said the ocean was always his refuge, giving him inspiration, tranquillity and “many amazing meals”.  More than half of the world’s oxygen was produced by the ocean.  After a trip to the Maldives, his perception of the ocean had changed.  Its survival — and that of humanity — had stirred great purpose for him as part of a generation responsible for dumping 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year.  He encouraged participants to be grateful for also being part of a generation able to create profound systemic change and rescue the gift they had inherited.  “Let’s respect our source of life”, he said. 

He then introduced FATOU JANHA MBOOB of the TRY Oyster Women’s Association in Gambia and BUDI SETIAWAN of the Kelompok Peduli Lingkungan Belitung Group in Indonesia next spoke on similar issues facing coastal communities.

Following were YOHEI SASAKAWA, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation, who spoke on “Human Capital”, and ERIC LIEDTKE of Adidas who spoke on “Corporate Responsibility and Education”.

Partnership Dialogue

In the afternoon, the Ocean Conference held a partnership dialogue on the topic “Increasing scientific knowledge, and developing research capacity and transfer of marine technology”.  Moderated by Johan Kuylenstierna, Executive Director, Stockholm Environment Institute, and co-chaired by Thorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture of Iceland, and Héctor Soldi, Vice-Minister for Fisheries and Aquaculture of Peru, it featured a panel discussion by Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Mark Abbott, Director and President, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Patricia Andrea Miloslavich de Klein, Professor of Simon Bolivar University and University of Tasmania, Venezuela; and Amos Barkai, co-Owner and Chief Executive Officer, OLSPS, South Africa.

Ms. GUNNARSDÓTTIR, opening the meeting, said the present session was of particular interest because the sustainable development targets would not be met without first acquiring the necessary scientific information and sharing it.  “Understanding the vast oceans can be compared with sailing towards the horizon — it never seems to get closer until you see the land,” she said, adding that sustainable development must begin at the local level and all policies should be firmly based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Sustainable harvesting, processing and transport were also vital, as was achieving a better use of existing technologies.  As a country heavily dependent on the sustainable use of living marine resources, Iceland had much to contribute, and also appreciated the opportunity to learn about other experiences.  Noting that politicians bore a particular responsibility to ensure the sustainable use of oceans, she said one major challenge was to have the strength to follow scientific advice, “even when it was unwelcome”.

Mr. SOLDI said today’s discussion offered a chance to share national knowledge and experiences in technology.  The idea was not only to hear about national experiences but also to spark new partnerships, commitments and other concrete proposals.  Peru, for its part, had a very strong research institute that had done much work in data collection; however, the data “are never enough”.  Peru had also established a partnership in data collection between its Government and private fishing fleets, whose data were very useful.  He also drew attention to the importance of “big data” in that regard.

Mr. KUYLENSTIERNA said today’s panel would tackle such questions as how partnerships could help the international community enhance scientific understanding on oceans, as well their interactions with humans.  In that context, capacity-building and technology transfer must adequately meet the needs of developing countries, while funding must move away from the typical project-based model.  Other ideas to be considered by the panellists included “new frontiers” in deep oceans or under the ice, which brought opportunities for new partnerships in scientific observation systems, as well as how to create better systems to transfer technology to developing countries.  He also echoed Mr. Soldi’s hope that the session would lead to a number of new commitments and partnerships.

He then asked Ms. de Klein why more ocean observation systems were still needed when so much data already existed.

Ms. DE KLEIN responded that preparing for the future required very good observation systems that were global in nature.  It was also critical that those observations, along with the necessary capacity-building, led to an “end-to-end” product that could be employed by end-users.

Mr. KUYLENSTIERNA then asked her to outline some of the key barriers to such work, as well as areas where observation strategies should be advanced.  To that question, Ms. DE KLEIN responded that many barriers — including a lack of sustainability — did in fact exist.  Most funding structures at the moment were project-based, and had a start and an end.  “Global sustainability can have no end,” she said in that regard, citing a lack of follow-up and lack of connection between the observation and the policymakers as additional challenges.

Mr. KUYLENSTIERNA then asked her for a concrete example of efficient transfer of scientific technology to policymakers, to which Ms. DE KLEIN responded by citing a 10-year census programme whose data had been translated into policy briefings and used by many managers and policymakers.

Mr. KUYLENSTIERNA then asked Mr. Abbott what was needed to develop strong observation and data systems in the future, to which Mr. ABBOTT responded that the twenty-first century risked becoming the “second century of undersampling”.  Samples needed to be taken at much smaller scales, in areas that were changing.  “We need to begin monitoring the ocean on its own time and space scales,” he said, also calling for systems that were more affordable and open to everyone.  All stakeholders, including managers, scientists and policymakers, needed to be engaged in the same system.

Asked to outline barriers to new observation technology, he cited such important developments as battery power innovations using seawater and use of “big data” in the cloud.  The pace of innovation was moving very quickly, he said, noting that it was coming largely from such unexpected sources as very small teams, young people and researchers dispersed across the globe.  Indeed, social networks were driving innovation, and while keeping track of them presented a large challenge, the opportunity they provided “is even greater”.

Asked whether the technology gap between developed and developing countries was decreasing, Mr. ABBOTT continued that “while it is not there yet”, technology in developing countries was advancing significantly.  In particular, the price points for mobile technology were dropping and breaking down barriers between people in developed and developing countries.

Mr. BARKAI, responding to a question about managing and analysing large amounts of data, said it was sometimes assumed that once enough data was gathered, it could be put together like a puzzle to provide a picture from which a system to sort out everything could be devised.  In fact, there could be too much data, but insufficient tools to process it.  Describing technology as an empowerment tool, he said it should be deployed at a level appropriate to the type of questions being addressed, among citizens, industries and internationally.

Turning next to Mr. Ryabinin, the moderator asked if the scientific system was set up to provide the science that policymakers needed.  He also asked what UNESCO was doing to bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers.

Mr. RYABININ said the challenges for ocean science were greater than the achievements that had been made.  Several questions needed to be answered, such as the degree to which oceans could continue to absorb carbon.  A reliable observing system was therefore required, he said, adding that there were many unknowns that should nevertheless not prevent the development of a blue economy.  He went on to say that oceanographers in the past were driven by the urge to discover, but now they needed to think more of their role to inform policymaking.

Asked what he thought would be the most important change that scientists would have to make to be more policy-relevant, he said science must be global at different levels, with all countries benefiting from achievements.  He added that as the only United Nations entity specializing in ocean sciences, it was important for the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to mainstream its work.

Mr. ABBOTT said science was entering a new world in which decisions would have to be made amid much uncertainty.  It was unclear, he added, how climate change would affect ecosystems.  Choices would therefore have to be made, with the results observed and changes made accordingly.  He added that technology would be an enabling factor, but policies must be in place to ensure that data was open and transparent.

Mr. KUYLENSTIERNA then asked Ms. De Klein what was needed to develop new networks as well as the capacities to use them in an efficient way.

Ms. DE KLEIN said a few such networks existed, but the challenge was how to implement them.  In addition, the 100-plus Member States that had signed on to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission must also commit to funding, and “there needs to be a focus”.  It was also critical to link networks and capacities, she said.  Asked specifically what kind of funding was needed, she pointed out that many low-income countries currently lacked all access to observation systems, which were simply too expensive.  While the quality of those systems must not be reduced, “it can be done with technologies that are more accessible”, she said, calling in that regard for more funding to support such technologies as mobile phones.  Resources were also needed for such innovations as radio plankton imaging and the use of sonar scanners, she said.

Asked how data could be used to improve the management of local fisheries, Mr. BARKAI said that while the word “sustainable” was frequently used as a political term, on the local level it needed to be quantified and further defined.  The main problem was that old thinking was often applied to fishery technology, with 95 per cent of data still collected on hand-written log sheets.  At the same time, the burden was on fishermen “to become professional data loggers” in order to supply the required amount of data, which was an untenable situation.  There was also very little understanding of data science by the people collecting it.

Asked what he meant by the “guidance” that should be provided to policymakers, Mr. RYABININ said many existing instruments were crucial and had to be used.  The proposed Decade of Ocean Science would help spread technology, allowing it to become more widely used and more transparent, he said.

Asked to raise her own question to the panellists, Ms. GUNNARSDÓTTIR asked whether political barriers existed that hindered the progress of the scientific community.

Ms. DE KLEIN, in closing, said more collaboration and mutual listening was needed between stakeholders.  Urging them to learn from past examples and existing best practices — and drawing attention to several relevant examples — she added that a stronger focus was needed on essential ocean variables.

Mr. RYABININ said he dreamed of a “real, informed commitment” by 2030 on the parts of Governments, peoples and other stakeholders, which was translated into concrete technologies and made available to States around the world.  He also hoped for a policy of free and open data exchange as well as stepped-up efforts in capacity development.

Mr. ABBOTT urged his colleagues in the scientific community “to listen as well as inform”.  A much deeper level of two-way engagement was needed and science should avoid remaining in its silo, he stressed.

Mr. BARKAI said the world was currently suffering from the over-collection of data and more standards and streamlining were needed.  “We need a platform for data-sharing” that was more accessible to everyone, he said, also urging stakeholders to begin to apply “big-data-thinking”.

In the ensuing interactive discussion, speakers addressed the ways in which their States and organizations had been developing and sharing ocean-related research capacity and technology.

The representative of Finland said a priority area of his country’s turn as Chair of the Arctic Council was meteorological cooperation in order to increase scientific understanding of the Arctic climate.  Emphasizing the need for better Arctic monitoring, he said there was an opportunity to build networks and foundations based on international cooperation, as well as satellite data-sharing.

The representative of the United States said his country was committed to recovering fish stocks, ending overfishing and addressing illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.  It would also make data available from its aggressive satellite monitoring programme.  He added that the International Ocean Decade should end with the creation of a map that clearly discerned the invisible sea bottom.  It was currently possible to measure the ocean’s pulse, but what was needed was a full-body x-ray, he explained.

The representative of the World Meteorological Organization said the growing impact of climate change made ocean observation more critical than ever.  He said the organization called on all Member States to strengthen their commitment to ocean observation.

The representative of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative said that it, along with other groups, was putting together a global scientific network that would champion the development of a deep-ocean observation system, encourage scientific enquiry into the effects of climate change and offer deep-sea science input to policy development in a number of areas.

INIA SERUIRATU, Minister for Agriculture, Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management of Fiji, said developed countries had a responsibility to work with small island developing States on the problems they faced.  Noting that little research had been done on the impact of climate change on small island developing States, he said his country had recently asked Germany to set up an institute in Fiji that would help address that knowledge gap.  Fiji appealed to other developed nations to give serious consideration to joining that effort.

The representative of China, pointing out that his was the largest developing country in the world, described its national focus on ocean science and technology as well as sustainable marine development.  Noting that China was also working in the field of marine observation and had developed an “ocean zoning” scheme to support the sustainable use of the ocean, he called on countries around the world to step up their cooperation in order to jointly launch stronger marine research systems and to implement the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission guidelines to support developing countries.

Delegates also cited a number of new or planned partnerships and research initiatives, with the representative of the United Kingdom describing his country’s involvement in a working group of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized countries, which was focusing on ocean sustainability.  Among other things, the working group aimed to enhance the global oceans observation system, develop a consensus view on the state of the oceans, encourage knowledge and skills transfer and remove legal, political and other barriers to effective marine observation.  While the working group was still in its infancy, he hoped it could one day be scaled up to assist all countries in their sustainability efforts.

The representative of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) said his organization was currently working on an assessment of capacity development needs of countries in the Asia-Pacific region for the implementation of Goal 14.  It had also proposed to establish an “Oceans Account Partnership for Asia Pacific”, bringing together member States, expert institutions and other partners to integrate information from across scientific domains, policy frameworks and institutions to inform progress on the Goal’s implementation.  The Partnership would ultimately help countries develop policies that optimized the sustainable use of oceans while minimizing the risk of ecological collapse and natural hazards, he said.

The representative of Germany announced his country’s launch of a new federal research and funding programme — developed through a broad multi-stakeholder collaboration — on ocean research.  The Government would provide more than €4 billion over the next decade to fund relevant research, in particular research focused on climate change, marine litter, sea-level rise and other critical areas.  It also planned to deepen its cooperation with research institutes across the world, he said.

Meanwhile, the representative of Cuba described his country’s participation in various intergovernmental programmes related to oceans, while highlighting national efforts to fill gaps in scientific knowledge — including by training more academic professionals in the sciences.  More international cooperation was required to support such efforts in developing countries, he stressed, echoing other speakers in calling on developed countries to accelerate the transfer of critical technologies and fulfil their official development assistance (ODA) commitments well ahead of the 2020 deadline.

The representative of the World Ocean Council — a network bringing together more than 34,000 ocean industry members from around the world — provided a perspective from the business community, pointing out that the industry could offer some 90,000 ships, 1-2 million fishing boats and tens of thousands of aquafarms, windfarms and other facilities for the collection of ocean and climate data.  Those facilities could also create business opportunities and drive more innovation, contributing to the global blue economy, he said.  In that regard, he looked forward to working with Governments to help increase scientific knowledge and implement Sustainable Development Goal 14.

Also speaking today were ministers and representatives of Portugal, Bangladesh, Brazil, Monaco, Colombia, Canada and India.

Representatives of the International Seabed Authority, Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, Business and Industry Major Group, United Nations University, China Energy Fund Committee, Living Islands Non-Profit, International Hydrographic Organization and the Commonwealth Secretariat also took the floor.

For information media. Not an official record.