The UN ocean negotiations have been taking place recently and the outcome of the negotiations will affect us all. They bring together leaders from all around the world to talk about ocean protection and what we can do to restore ocean health.

What exactly are these discussions about?

Picture the vast ocean expanses that make up our blue planet. The global ocean and the high seas (outside of national waters) cover more space than all the continents combined. They’re home to underwater canyons that could fit Mount Everest (with room to spare) and 500 year old sharks that make turning 30 seem way less stressful. The global ocean is also home to a greater diversity of creatures than tropical rainforests, and just like forests, they can help protect us from the worst impacts of climate change.

When you look out at sea from a beach, you’re not even close to seeing the global ocean. These waters are 200 miles away from any coastline and so far, it’s been out of sight, out of mind. But with the ocean facing more pressures than any time in history, we can’t ignore these seemingly-distant problems any more.

Who’s in charge?

The global ocean is beyond national waters  – it is our global commons and collective responsibility to protect. While there are different bodies in place to regulate different human activities (such as fishing or mining) there is currently no way for governments to come together and protect the global ocean from its smorgasbord of threats.

This is all the more frustrating because the solutions are in our grasp. Ocean sanctuaries (also known as Marine Protected Areas), put areas of the ocean off-limits to direct pressures like industrial fishing, mining or drilling. This creates a safe haven for wildlife populations to recover from past pressures, and build resilience to ongoing threats, like climate change and plastic pollution. Where sanctuaries are in place, we see the ocean bouncing back, with bigger, more diverse and abundant wildlife.

Scientists tell us that if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change and safeguard wildlife, we need to strictly protect at least 30 per cent of our ocean by 2030. The ocean revolution must be organised.

Preparatory negotiations for this treaty have been going on for over a decade and now is the time to bring urgency and momentum into the corridors of power and national capitals. Governments met last September, and in March and April this year, to kick start discussions through the intergovernmental conference process. With a deadline of 2020, they only have two more rounds of negotiations  –  this August and early in 2020. That means we have a year to shift the power from ocean exploitation to ocean protection.
What’s the latest?

The good news is that the wave of public interest in ocean conservation (spurred by the rage against plastic pollution and love for everything that David Attenborough says) has pushed many governments into backing the creation of a regular international meeting. Whilst this is a good start, what’s missing is political support for a process that ensures sanctuaries provide effective protection, not just lines on a map only protected on paper. A treaty must empower governments to create and manage sanctuaries collectively  –  drawing on the advice of scientists and existing bodies, whilst ensuring that all governments are accountable to what happens on these high seas.

So, what’s next?

We need to see more governments calling for protection and ensuring that a draft treaty is ready well ahead of the upcoming August meeting. Just as young people are schooling their governments on climate science, it’s up to us to create unstoppable momentum for ocean protection. We must step up the ambition and urgency and bring these conversations into the open. 
‘Greenpeace (a key partner of Ocean Unite) has just started sailing an ambitious pole to pole expedition, and will be working with the High Seas Alliance to raise ambition in countries around the world’ who care deeply about the ocean –  working to open up political spaces in national capitals for leaders to inject ambition into negotiators’ mandates. Global leaders must use high-level platforms like the G7 to drive greater political leadership on the ocean.

International cooperation and global collaboration is the only way we will protect the ocean and safeguard it for future generations.

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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.