Twelve months to save our seas

Liz Karan advocates for better ocean governance at the Pew Trusts. It may have come three years later than planned, but 2023 was a year of action to protect our oceans, she tells Karen Thomas

BACK IN THE mists of early 2020, ocean campaigners and charities were gearing up for a busy year. The United Nations had declared it the year to rise up for the oceans – a “super year of treaties to protect marine life, tackle pollution and close loopholes that were failing to check deep-sea mining, shipping emissions, illegal fishing and dumping of pollutants.

There were summits planned; and conference centres booked. Then the Covid-19 pandemic came along, throwing everything into chaos.

The Pew Trusts ocean-governance lead Liz Karan is sitting in her New York office for our Zoom call. Asked about that time, she looks pained. “Yes, Covid delayed a lot of US policy and so many international meetings that would have reached key policy decisions,” she says. “Instead, a lot of those decisions were actualised in late 2022 and into 2023.

And some of those decisions give cause for optimism. “Weve a really positive development with the Convention on Biological Diversity setting the target to protect at least 30 per cent of the worlds oceans and lands,” Karan says.

Thats a big stride forwards to help us to live in better harmony with nature. That agreement has spurred countries to think about how we realise that commitment – it has created momentum. It puts the High Seas Treaty talks under a final lens, too; thats reaching its final stages as well. That treaty will be a key part of the solution.”

The High Seas Treaty opened for signing in mid-September; 67 countries backed it immediately, including the European Union bloc, the US, the UK, China and Australia. Russia was among the hold-outs. Each country that signs up must then ratify the treaty at home. The treaty takes effect 120 days after 60 nation states have done so.

An end to overfishing
Also in the in-tray is the World Trade Organizations (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which was adopted in summer 2022. The agreement aims to halt subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and to bring an end to overfishing.

For the agreement to come into effect, it needs the signatures of two-thirds of WTO member states – 110 countries; fewer than 50 have signed up so far. Diplomats admit that our seas are at least 50 per cent overfished. Therell be a fresh push in February, when talks resume in the United Arab Emirates.

“The agreement didnt resolve everything being negotiated – remaining items include overfishing and capacity to tackle overfishing globally,” Karan says. But the momentum is good.”

A bigger challenge, she says, is seabed mining. Julys international seabed talks stalled and there are fears that, unchecked, mining companies will take full advantage, racing to unlock new resources, having exhausted our land-based reserves.

That needs to stop, Karan says, at least “until we understand more about the science of the deep ocean and, more specifically, how these activities impact and perhaps harm the environment.

Without regulation, its not clear what would happen if a company or country wanted to pursue that activity. How would the International Seabed Authority act? How would applications be evaluated? Theres real concern that activities will go forward, unregulated.”

Hotter seas
The Pew Trusts wants more effective protections to tackle overfishing, illegal fishing, seabed mining and plastic pollution. It wants better protection for coastal and marine habitats. Its pressing for investment to develop or restore coastal wetlands, to protect us from coastal erosion and storm surges.

It has been a year of extreme weather on land, but scientists warn that climate change is also devastating for our oceans. This summer, average sea-surface temperatures broke previous records, with extreme marine heatwaves in the North Atlantic. And the World Meteorological Organization has warned that switching to an El Niño climatic system could push global temperatures “into uncharted territory”.

Can diplomacy tackle these problems at the scale and speed we need?

“I think were seeing more governments, companies, corporations and industry realise that greening their bottom line is also in their best interests,” Karan says. “Weve seen the International Maritime Organization develop a framework to reduce shipping emissions, with broad support from industry groups and companies. More companies are looking to be part of the solution.

“The question is; is it enough? Companies voluntary actions can go a long way, but its multilateral agreements – having policy change at national, regional and international level – that will drive the change we need to make concrete progress.

And theres the challenge for smaller, developing countries: whos going to pay for these changes? Theres a real opportunity through climate and biodiversity finance for the traditional polluters to help to finance global solutions. We need nature-based solutions and climate credits – but we need to make sure that these credits are drawn from verifiable sources, that they offer long-term solutions.

Theres a growing body of methodology working to develop sounder credits. Not all nature-based solutions are created equal… But its not enough for polluting industries or economies to simply buy credits – we cant buy our way out of the climate crisis. We need concerted action to reduce our emissions. Were living now with the impacts of climate change.

“This years wild weather hints at what our future may hold.

This story was first published in The Environment magazine in Dec 2023/ Jan 2024

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