Why Canada gives me hope in the fight for ocean protection

I am delighted to be spending some time in Canada, where I had the pleasure of meeting Catherine McKenna, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change. We talked about the steps Canada has been taking to protect more of the ocean at home and how we can come together globally - you’ll be able to hear us on an upcoming episode of Learning with Richard Branson on Sirius XM soon. 

Richard Branson and Catherine McKenna, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change

With the ocean facing unprecedented threats, these advances are needed more urgently than ever. Marine heatwaves, melting sea ice, acidification, overfishing and pollution are causing our ocean to change at rates not seen in millions of years, and – in the case of phenomenon like the onslaught of plastic – in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. And these changes bring risks: more extreme hurricanes, rising sea levels, the extinction and migration of entire species, and the devastating loss of live coral reefs. It is heart-breaking to witness the horrors we are inflicting on marine ecosystems. But we must mobilise not surrender.

Ocean risk is a constant, terrifying reality in the Caribbean, the region I am fortunate to call my home. We are experiencing more intense storms, like the hurricanes that hit the region in 2017. Our fishing and tourism industries are threatened by illegal and unsustainable fishing, plastic pollution and coral bleaching. The risks are felt up north in Canada’s part of the world too. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, causing even some of the oldest and thickest sea ice to break up and vanish, with massive consequences for marine life, indigenous communities, and geopolitical relations at the top of the world. Around the globe, millions of people are threatened by ocean risks that extend far beyond the coastline to exacerbate droughts, heatwaves, floods and fires hundreds of miles inland.

Ocean image from OceansNorth.ca

Governments, businesses, communities and experts of all kinds need to unite to combat and pre-empt these emerging perils of the sea. The insurance industry is an increasingly important partner inreducing our exposure to ocean risks. Ocean Unite, insurance giant AXA XL and Canada have developed a new Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA), looking for innovative financial solutions that reduce vulnerability, build ocean resilience and help protect the most vulnerable regions and communities. People are beginning to take notice. I was immensely proud a few weeks ago when, thanks to Canada’s leadership, our newly-created Alliance was the only initiative to be supported by all G7 members – as well as the EU, India, Mexico, Fiji and Norway – at a meeting of Environment Ministers hosted by France in advance of their G7 Summit this summer. ORRAA’s plans to identify solutions, help bring them to market, and show that investments in nature-based solutions are good for people, business and our blue planet, were just one of the exciting developments I discussed with Minister McKenna.

This ground-breaking ocean risk initiative is already proving that the union of scientists, business, conservation and government can help inspire rapid results on the water. Just this week, Bermuda announced it is designating at least 20 per cent of its waters as fully protected MPAs by 2021, meaning that at least 90,000 km2 of ocean will be closed to all fishing and other extractive activity. This commitment – inspired by collaborations connected to the Ocean Risk Summit – is the latest in a growing trend of Atlantic island states leading the way in ocean protection ambition, following declarations by the Azores, Barbuda, Curacao and Ascension Island.

Ocean image from OceansNorth.ca

Island nations have been punching above their weight in the fight against climate change and oceandecline for decades. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to seriously up their game, and I’ve been thrilled to see Canada doing just that over the last year. When Prime Minister Trudeau took office, less than one per cent of Canada's ocean was protected. Today, that proportion has risen to over eight per cent and the country is on track to meet and exceed the global commitment to protect 10 per cent of its waters by 2020 a year early and become a vital voice for the protection of theincreasingly vulnerable Arctic Ocean. This was given a massive boost by the designation of the largest marine protected area in the nation’s history by the Government of Canada, the Nunavut Government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association: the 109,000 km2 Tallurutiup Imanga - Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area.

Canada is a shining example of an emerging global ocean leader. They have insisted on a strong focus on ocean challenges as Chair of the G7 in 2018-2019 - which sparked their support for our Alliance. They have also launched the Ocean Plastics Charter that’s now supported by 21 countries and helping inspire stronger laws and policies against single-use plastics – including in Canada. I was thrilled to congratulate Catherine McKenna on her government’s announcement of a bold new plastics strategy.

Richard Branson and Catherine McKenna, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change

What Canada has achieved in just a couple of years gives me huge hope. And it’s just the beginning. Securing 10 per cent ocean protection by 2020 is a good start, but we at Ocean Unite – not to mention the combined voices of the world’s leading scientists – are calling for 30x30 Ocean Vision. That means nothing less than 30 per cent of the ocean strongly protected by 2030. It’s the minimum requirement for a healthy ocean able to replenish its biodiversity and build resilience to global heating, pollution, overfishing, and other stresses – all of which also need to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

I hope Canada and all ocean-loving countries will join us in advancing marine protection and giving our precious ocean the 30x30 vision it needs to thrive.

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