UN seeks global approach to ocean protection

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UNITED NATIONS, New York: The UN Oceans Conference planned for June 2017 aims to create a more coordinated global approach to protecting the world’s oceans from rising threats such as acidification, plastic litter, rising sea levels and declining fish stocks.

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The tiny country of the Seychelles off the East Coast of Africa is one of 39 UN member states known as small island states, or as Ronald Jean Jumeau, Seychelles’ ambassador for climate change and SIDS called them, “large ocean states.”

Kids growing up in the Seychelles think of the ocean as their backyard, said Jumeau.

“Our ocean is the first and eternal playground of our children, they don’t go to parks they go to the ocean, they go to the beach, they go to the coral reefs, and all that is just collapsing around them,” Jumeau told IPS.

Ambassadors and delegations from these 39 countries often speak at UN headquarters in New York steadfastly sounding the alarm about the changes to the world’s environment they are witnessing first hand. Jumeau sees these island states as sentinels or guardians of the oceans. He prefers these names to being called the canary in the gold mine because, he said, “the canaries usually end up dead.”

Yet while much is known about the threats rising oceans pose to the world’s small island states, much less is known about how these large ocean states help defend everyone against the worst impacts of climate change by storing “blue carbon.”

“We are not emitting that much carbon dioxide but we are taking everyone else’s carbon dioxide into our oceans,” says Jumeau.

“There are three billion people around the world that are primarily dependent on marine resources for their survival and so they depend on what the ocean can produce,” said Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s deputy prime minister.

Despite decades of research, the blue carbon value of oceans and coastal regions is only beginning to be fully appreciated for its importance in the fight against climate change.

“There’s proof that mangroves, seas salt marshes and sea grasses absorb more carbon (per acre) than forests, so if you’re saying then to people don’t cut trees than we should also be saying don’t cut the underwater forests,” said Jumeau.

This is just one of the reasons why the Seychelles has banned the clearing of mangroves. The temptation to fill in mangrove forests is high, especially for a nation with so little land, but Jumeau said there are many benefits to sustaining them.

Mangroves guard against erosion and protect coral reefs. They also provide nurseries for fish.

But its not just coastal forests that take carbon out of the atmosphere. Oceans also absorb carbon, although according to NASA their role is more like inhaling and exhaling.

The Seychelles, whose total ocean territory is 3,000 times larger than its islands, is also thinking about how it can protect the oceans so they can continue to perform this vital function.

The nation plans to designate specific navigation zones within its territories to allow other parts of the ocean a chance to recover from the strains associated with shipping.

The navigation zones will “relieve the pressure on the ocean by strengthening the resilience of the oceans to absorb more carbon dioxide and ocean acidification,” said Jumeau. He acknowledged the plan will only work if all countries do the same but said, “you have to start somewhere.”

Fortunately, other countries are also beginning to recognize the importance of protecting the world’s oceans.
Sweden’s Lövin told IPS that the world is going “in the totally wrong direction,” when it comes to achieving the goal of sustainable oceans and life below water.

“If you look at the trends right now, you see more and more overfishing, we are seeing more and more pollution, plastic litter coming into our oceans, and we’re also seeing all the stress that the ocean is under due to climate change, acidification of the water, but also the warming and sea level rises and all of this is putting a tremendous, tremendous pressure on our oceans,” said Lövin.

Together with Fiji, Sweden is convening a major UN Ocean Conference in June this year.

The conference aims to bring together not only governments but also the private sector and non-governmental organizations to create a more coordinated approach to sustaining oceans. It will look at the key role that oceans play in climate change but also other issues such as the alarming prospect that there will be more plastic in our seas than fish by the year 2050.

Lövin also noted that rich countries need to work together with developing countries to address these issues, because the demand for fish in rich countries has put a strain on the global fish stocks that developing countries rely on.

“Rich countries … have been over-fishing with industrial methods for decades and now when they European oceans are being emptied more or less we have depleted our resources and then we import and we fish (over long distances in) developing countries’ waters,” she said. “We need to make sure that fish as a resource is conserved and protected for future generations.”

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