Yikes, another year has zoomed by, but before embarking on all the seasonal silliness – I mean merriness – let’s reflect on what 2017 has meant for the ocean. 

Ok, so it hasn’t felt like the most momentous year for our blue planet, but that’s probably because things have been somewhat overshadowed by the US government’s environmental U-turn, which has provided a fair share of ocean lowlights – from reversing the ban on oil drilling in the US’s Arctic waters to rolling back national monument protections. However, looking back over what’s been achieved, there’s still a lot that we can feel optimistic about, and proud of too.  

Firstly, a number of very large marine reserves were declared in the national waters of Chile, the Cook Islands, Gabon, Mexico and Niue. The world’s largest high seas marine reserve – the Ross Sea, agreed in 2016 – officially came into force a few weeks ago. These designations and marine protection champion countries are really raising the bar on ocean conservation and paving the way to achieving 30 per cent protection by 2030, which science tells us is the minimum level of protection needed for a healthy ocean and planet.  

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A major milestone in ocean governance was also reached when the world’s governments, after more than 10 years, finally gave the green light to negotiate a new United Nations treaty to protect biodiversity in the two-thirds of the ocean that lie in the high seas. Up til now the rules and regulations covering the area have had more holes in them than a fisherman’s jumper. That’s all about to change. Negotiations will start in 2018 and will hopefully result in a strong agreement in 2020 that ensures proper protection of biologically special places on the high seas.

The UN made history in June by hosting The Ocean Conference, the first UN conference of its kind, putting Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life on the Water into the limelight. More than 1,300 voluntary commitments were made by governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. This year we have seen increasing numbers of businesses take on a more public role in raising awareness of the Ocean crisis, and highlighting their responsibility to be part of the solution. Ocean Unite’s “The Ocean is Everybody’s Business” initiative has worked closely with companies this year to show that safeguarding the ocean makes good environmental AND business sense. Check out our short film to find out more.

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Sharks also got a look in this year, with greater shark and ray protection in the Pacific. Internationally, the recent Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals gave extra protection to six shark species: whale sharks, blue sharks, dusky sharks, angel sharks, common guitarfish and the white-spotted wedgefish. This is a welcome breakthrough for sharks, as over 100 million are killed each year through bycatch or for their meat and fins. These new measures are an important step towards ensuring these top Ocean predators are able to survive. 

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Finally, some good news coming out of the Arctic: a few weeks ago 10 Arctic countries and distant water fishing nations agreed to keep the 1.1 million km2 of the Central Arctic Ocean off limits to commercial fishing for at least 16 years. This time out will give the opportunity for more scientific research in the region so we can better understand the impacts of climate change on the area, including its fish stocks and Arctic marine life, and what is needed to ensure protection of this special place and avoid more of these heartbreaking images of starving polar bears. 

The planet’s growing plastic epidemic has made the headlines often this year. And with this growing awareness is also increasing global commitment and action to fight marine plastic pollution. Earlier this year the UN launched its #CleanSeas campaign to turn the tide on plastic; a growing number of countries have banned the use of plastic bags and microbeads or are planning to; we were strawless in Seattle; corporate giants announced plastic action; coastal clean-ups were organized all other the world; and public awareness films helped get the message out of the bottle.

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On a “personal level” for Ocean Unite, it’s been a pretty big year for us too. We were proud to officially launch our Ocean Unite Network in February – a network of influencers from the worlds of business, politics, science and the media. These remarkable Ocean advocates are working with us to help amplify key Ocean messages to decision-makers to help secure the health of our blue planet. They are clearly very dedicated to the cause, as Sir Richard Branson proved when he dropped his trousers for the Ocean on the Stephen Colbert show on World Oceans Day! 

 So let’s take heart from our achievements, open up the bubbly, bid 2017 goodbye, and get some Dutch courage for what lies ahead... Peace and best fishes for the New Year.  

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.