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By Piers Dunstan 27 June 2017 5 min read

UN assembly hall filled with conference delegates
The UN’s Ocean Conference held in June this year brought together experts, politicians, business leaders, NGOs, community groups and artists from member countries to raise global awareness about reversing the decline in health of the world’s ocean. Image: © IISD/Mike Muzurakis

Oceans cover three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, and serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 3 billion people depending on the oceans as a food source. Importantly, oceans absorb about 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.

But it’s a rare opportunity to meet with political and community leaders from across the globe to discuss how our science might help them solve the growing pressures on, and uses of, oceans. Pressures as diverse as marine pollution, illegal fishing, food security, ocean warming and acidification, coastal erosion, sea-level rise, loss of livelihood and culture, and challenges in high-seas governance.

The first United Nations Ocean Conference , held at the UN headquarters in New York in early June, was indeed a rare opportunity and CSIRO scientists were part of the Australian delegation.

It was the first-ever meeting organised by the UN around its global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The UN describes these 17 SDGs – first formulated in 2015 to replace the UN’s earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – as “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”.

SDG14 in particular is a list of aspirational targets that the UN’s 193 member countries have agreed to try and meet by 2030, to make sure the oceans are healthy and well-looked after, and that the resources in the oceans are used sustainably.

Small island nations take the lead

The conference was diverse: attended by more than 6000 people of almost every nationality, from government, scientific organisations, NGOs, community organisations and the private sector ­– including entrepreneurs (Sir Richard Branson was a speaker) and celebrities (#SaveOurOcean social media feeds were helped along by Leonardo di Caprio, Adrian Grenier, Don Cheadle and Australia’s Cody Simpson among others).

As well as the eight high-level plenary meetings, and seven ‘partnership dialogues’, there were 150 side events and 41 exhibitions covering just about every issue you could think of to do with oceans.

The conference was co-hosted by Sweden and Fiji, which staged a traditional kava ceremony for the opening. Image: © IISD/Mike Muzurakis

It seemed overwhelming – how could something of this scale and complexity produce tangible outcomes? But for almost every problem identified, there were groups of people working together to find innovative ways of solving it.

The leadership provided by Pacific island nations stood out. The idea for the conference was initially put forward by Fiji, subsequently partnered by Sweden as co-host. Geographically, Pacific island countries are almost 100 per cent ocean. For them, the ocean is fundamental – it drives their economies and livelihoods, and is intrinsically linked to their culture.

These small nations were very effective in making use of the conference to get the commitments and resources they needed. They were a strong presence and drove much of the agenda. Interestingly, these small nations tend to negotiate as a unit, which gives them a lot of strength.

Capacity-building in the South Pacific

There was also tremendous interest around the ‘side events’. Our group from CSIRO was involved in three of these. For me, the most significant was the side event we held with representatives from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC, part of UNESCO), the University of the South Pacific, the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, and Nauru.

The focus of this event was capacity-building. Often, capacity-building efforts in developing countries are run on a project-by-project basis, which means that as soon as the project ends, the resources and skills to build capacity and teach people also end. This meeting was about getting longer term engagement between CSIRO, the University of the South Pacific and the IOC, as well as other developed countries, to help set up a permanent ocean observing and monitoring program in the South Pacific, with a focus on capacity-building.

For example, Australia already provides data from its main research vessel, the RV Investigator, to the IOC for oceanographic and climate modelling. But could we also use the Investigator’s downtime to do ocean monitoring in the South Pacific with students from the University of the South Pacific on board to learn how it’s done?

The fundamental resources of South Pacific nations are the biological resources of the sea – sustainable fisheries, making sure their oceans are healthy, tourism, and aquaculture. If we could help these countries build their capacity to monitor and measure those resources, this would have a significant impact on their future well-being and security.

The two other side events in which CSIRO participated were around opportunities for South East Asia and the Pacific in managing blue carbon ecosystems (mangroves, tidal marshes, seagrasses and coral reefs) for carbon sequestration; and identifying and monitoring Ecologically and Biologically Significant marine Areas (EBSAs) in the Indian Ocean, where we explored ways to use EBSAs as a scientific tool for implementing SDG 14 in special places in the oceans.

A confluence of science and policy

It was as much a scientific conference as it was a UN conference. It was good to see the scientific input constantly feeding into the statements being made, such as the high-level ‘Call for Action’, a universal agreement on need for measures to reverse ocean deterioration. Importantly, the Call for Action recognises the importance of the Paris Agreement on climate change, to which Australia is a signatory, as a key to future ocean health.

CSIRO's Dr Piers Dunstan was part of a panel discussing the use of Ecologically and Biologically Significant marine Areas (EBSAs) criteria for protecting and managing biodiversity hotspots in the ocean.

In terms of practical outcomes, the conference produced more than 1370 ‘voluntary commitments’ – pledges, large and small, by representatives of countries, organisations, companies, industries and individuals to act on protecting oceans and using them sustainably. The Ecoship proposal by Peace Boat is a creative and interesting example. Many countries announced steps to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags.

Of course, the real test will be in two to three years’ time, when many of the SDG14 targets and the voluntary commitments from the Ocean Conference will start to materialise.

It’s significant that it’s the first international conference on the SDGs. It was not like a scientific conference where scientists focus just on the science. Instead, the Ocean Conference was at that interface between science and policy, where the work we do ultimately has impact.

Dr Piers Dunstan is leading a CSIRO team working in the Pacific and Coral Triangle to assist countries to develop the technical capacity to improve the governance and management of oceans. This includes support for information management, geospatial analysis, and development of environmental policy.

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