NUSA DUA, Indonesia — Countries, businesses, and organizations took the lead at last week’s fifth annual Our Ocean conference, with pledges totaling $10 billion and some 300 actionable commitments for improving the state of oceans globally. These ranged from pledges to expand marine protected areas, to those focused on transparency, data sharing, plastic pollution, and waste management.
“This conference was really different,” said Meg Caldwell, deputy director for oceans at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, who has attended several previous iterations of the conference. “The focus here is on implementation, and there’s a real shift toward action.”
Part of this is due to the now widely accepted realization that the world’s oceans are in a perilous state due to several challenges: overfishing, pollution, climate change, and coral degradation. They are also a conduit for other illegal activities such as human trafficking, drugs, and modern slavery.
“A new narrative is emerging, that the ocean is important, and so central to all of our key problems: energy, food security, and climate change,” said Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist at Oregon State University, during the plenary. “We have solutions that work. They are not at the scale we need, but we know what needs to be done.”
This conference focused not on assessing the known problems, but on creating actionable solutions. Here are some of the key takeaways.
Transparency is necessary for protecting global fisheries
A data revolution is taking place when it comes to understanding the state of global fisheries, led by efforts such as Global Fishing Watch, but much work remains to be done. At the conference, speakers highlighted the need to address several data gaps. There is still limited understanding of how small fishing vessels operate, the linkages along complex seafood supply chains, and even what species are being caught and the scale of bycatch — fish or other marine species caught unintentionally.
Indonesia's oceans are a mainstream economic and food security issue, but they are in peril. Using the power of data and innovative technology, the country is fighting back against overfishing, plastic pollution, and slavery at sea.
Under the leadership of Minister for Marine Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, host country Indonesia has made remarkable progress on cutting back on foreign vessels conducting illegal activities within its territorial waters and has begun taking a stronger global leadership role on ocean policy.
Susi and others called for all coastal countries to follow Indonesia’s model for open data and transparency. Indonesia also announced the creation of its One Data MAFF, a unified data portal that aims to standardize all domestic fisheries data and allow the country to better regulate domestic fishing.
Micronesia announced it will become the third country, after Indonesia and Peru, to openly share its fishing data, bringing a huge swath of the Pacific under global monitoring and paving the way for increased data sharing and collaboration. GFW set a goal of bringing 20 countries onto its platform in the next five years, and several other nations, such as Costa Rica and Namibia, expressed interest in engaging with Indonesia and GFW on sharing their data.
The plastic crisis has gone mainstream
One of the biggest announcements at the conference was the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and United Nations Environment Programme. According to the foundation, over 250 organizations have joined, including large multinationals such as Unilever, PepsiCo, and Danone, which together account for an estimated 20 percent of all plastic used in the world.
“This global commitment … points to a bigger opportunity,” said Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.”It demonstrates the possibility for shifting global systems, and holds promise for many other systems challenges facing our oceans, other natural systems, and our extractive global economics, which are all profoundly interconnected.”
The commitment aims to bring more organizations onboard, and has the ambitious goal of ensuring that all plastic packaging globally can be either reused, recycled, or composted by 2025 — and not end up in the ocean.
“We’re humbled by the strong support we’ve received for the Global Commitment, and we expect 100 more organizations to sign in the coming months,” Morlet said.
Asia accounts for the vast majority of ocean plastic pollution, with five countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam — accounting for 60 percent of waste. A big challenge is the lack of an effective waste management system to collect plastic, or properly process it.
Project STOP, a public-private initiative, aims to build local capacity for recycling and waste management as part of Indonesia’s goal of reducing plastic pollution by 70 percent by 2025.
However, Brahmantya Poerwadi from the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said to truly tackle this problem, companies need to figure out how to cut single-use plastic in remote regions, as reduction is as important as recyclability.
“When I go to outer islands, people just throw out sachets, bottles, wrappings,” Poerwadi said. “In small islands, we don’t have a recycling drop box, the drop box is the ocean, and it’s a disaster for us.”
A binding treaty for the high seas?
While there is a real understanding that countries around the world can do much more to reduce ocean-bound pollution and monitor activities within their exclusive economic zone, which extend 200 nautical miles from territorial sea baseline, much of the problem lies in the mostly unregulated high seas. This is where illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, the transshipment of catch, and the use of slave labor are rampant.
Read more on ocean conservation
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, there are 23 different governance bodies tasked with managing one or more aspects of the high seas. These range from transnational fishing arrangements, such as the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, or entities that govern trade and the movement of goods, such as the International Maritime Organization.
Many of these bodies have overlapping coverage, but there are currently few mechanisms to facilitate cooperation or coordination. Furthermore, there is no entity with the responsibility for ocean waste, one reason that plastic pollution continues to grow.
The current international legal framework for the high seas, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, came into force in 1994 but is widely considered not to be up to the task of addressing the modern challenges facing global oceans. The U.N. has begun high-level discussions on a binding high seas treaty that would address the gaps in conservation management and the ability to address issues such as slave labor at sea. The U.N. is aiming to have a final treaty ready for member nations to begin ratifying by 2020.