EU takes the helm in a year of ocean mobilisation

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The EU's new Biodiversity Strategy will increase the EU’s network of marine protected areas, writes Virgilius Sinkevicius [Ghost-in-the-Shell/Flickr]

2017 will be remembered as the turning point in how the international community works together to protect the ocean, write Karmenu Vella and Isabella Lövin.

Karmenu Vella is European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Isabella Lövin is Sweden’s minister for international development cooperation and climate.

The first ever UN Ocean Conference in June and the fourth edition of Our Ocean conference in October will mobilise the global community to focus on marine conservation.

These two events will shine a light on what still needs to be done to save our ocean, and what resources and new partnerships are required to do it.

The oceans and the seas have shaped Europe’s identity and destiny throughout our history. This rich tradition is now at risk.  The health of the ocean has been in decline for decades, and the victims of this manmade crisis are found well beyond its shores. The ocean is the world’s biggest employer, directly supporting the livelihoods of over 3 billion people, and a source of food for over 2.6 billion around the globe. It is difficult to calculate its total value, but if we consider industries like fishing and tourism, plus services like carbon absorption, the ocean is the world’s 7th largest economy. Every second breath we take is produced by the ocean, it regulates the earth’s climate, gives us food and water and is home to hundreds of thousands of species.

Despite the ocean’s role, it was not until the Rio+20 conference in 2012 that conservation and sustainable use of oceans was put high on the international development agenda. Since then, we have been slowly but surely building momentum. But we need to act faster. The oceans are under multiple stresses. For a long time the oceans have been our best friend in efforts to curb climate change.  More than 93% of all the heat people have added to the planet since the 1950s has been absorbed by the oceans – but at a price we are only just beginning to understand. Rising ocean temperatures and increased acidification are now becoming apparent in melting Arctic sea ice, sea level rises threatening the homes of millions of people and coral bleaching. Islands of marine litter are growing at the same time as overfishing and illegal fishing still is of great concern. If nothing is done there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050

We need strong political leadership to save our oceans for the sake of our planet and future generations. The European Union and its member states are acutely aware of the threats that endanger our oceans and seas. We are ready to take responsibility in securing a healthy future for the oceans and all who depend on it.

Sweden will co-host, along with Fiji, the UN Ocean Conference taking place from 5 to 9 June in New York, while the EU will for the first time host the Our Ocean conference on 5 and 6 October in Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The goal of these two events is to ramp up ambitions, forge new partnerships, and be the springboard for the launch of new actions.

Underpinning all of this is the commitment to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14, in which the world’s governments pledged to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Protection of the oceans is not only a government matter. Much must and can be done through voluntary, innovative initiatives at different levels, including by private actors.

In advance of the UN Ocean Conference, governments, NGOs, communities, businesses, international organisations and academia already submitted more than one hundred commitments to help drive SDG14 forward.

Previous Our Ocean conferences have clearly shown the game-changing power of this kind of mobilisation. Since the first gathering in 2014, these events have led to 250 concrete actions, committing over €8.2 billion and designating 9.9 million square kilometres as new Marine Protected Areas. The first EU-hosted Our Ocean conference will build on this remarkable legacy, bolstered by the pledges and official SDG14 Call to Action that will be launched a few months earlier in New York.

Besides mobilising global political and private action, the EU and its member states are making several commitments. A fundamental necessity for building the sustainable ocean future promised in SDG14 is to strengthen ocean governance. Based on its recently adopted Ocean Governance Agenda, this will be a major focus for the EU in both Our Ocean events. We are acutely aware of the need to close legal gaps, cooperate more effectively, and strengthen the enforcement of existing regulations. The ocean and the life within it pay no regard to lines on the map, and the EU has learned from experience that responsibility and collaboration generate the best results for marine industries, communities and ecosystems alike. We will continue to support developing countries to strengthen their capacity to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries and the European Commission will adopt a Plastic Strategy to reduce marine litter.

Taking on the organisation, along with Fiji and our UN partners, of the two key ocean events in this critical juncture is a huge responsibility for us Europeans, but it is nothing compared to what is at stake.

The EU and Sweden stand up for and prioritise healthy and thriving oceans and a sustainable blue economy able to support coastal and island communities and provide food and jobs for millions of people. We are committed to making SDG14 a reality and protecting our ocean for the future generations. Many other countries, communities and companies share this vision and we look forward to gathering with all partners in June and October and making 2017 go down in history as the year of ocean mobilisation.

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