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Top 20 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2017

In this time of unnatural disasters, international conflict, and social injustice, we still need to work on ocean conservation. A healthy ocean is critical to food security, economies, cultures, and (thank you, phytoplankton) the very oxygen to breathe. Although it barely made headlines, 2017 saw international diplomats focus on ocean conservation – on solutions to the challenges...

In this time of unnatural disasters, international conflict, and social injustice, we still need to work on ocean conservation. A healthy ocean is critical to food security, economies, cultures, and (thank you, phytoplankton) the very oxygen to breathe.

Although it barely made headlines, 2017 saw international diplomats focus on ocean conservation – on solutions to the challenges of overfishing, pollution, and climate change. In June, in New York City, the UN hosted political, corporate, philanthropic, scientific, and non-profit leaders at its first-ever Ocean Conference. And in October, the European Union hosted the 4th annual Our Ocean conference in Malta, gathering an equally illustrious crowd.


Notably, and thankfully, both gatherings focused on bigwigs making public commitments to restore and protect our ocean. 1,414 commitments were made at the UN. At Our Ocean, there were 437 commitments, totaling over 8 billion dollars in financial pledges. Out of all of those, here are the most exciting ocean conservation commitments of 2017.


Enforcing Ocean Laws

Context: Labor abuses and piracy are rampant, and illegal fishing is estimated at $10 to $23 billion.

  1. Vulcan Inc.’s new SkyLight initiative will leverage satellite imaging and machine learning to improve marine enforcement, starting by partnering with Gabon and Palau.
  2. Airbus will build and launch four new satellites to track illegal fishing and piracy.
  3. Norway committed $5 million to combat transnational organized fisheries crime, in cooperation with the UN and Interpol.
  4. New Zealand, Sweden, and Norway pledged to help fund implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement in developing nations, a legally-binding treaty to address illegal


Making Fishing More Sustainable

Context: 32% of global fish populations are overfished, and an additional 58.1% are fully exploited. Three billion people rely on seafood for their primary source of protein,

  1. Thai Union (one of the largest seafood companies, includes Chicken of the Sea) will ensure 100% of its tuna is sustainably sourced. (Thank you Greenpeace for leading this charge and including the need to improve labor conditions!)
  2. The World Economic forum launched the 2020 Tuna Traceability Declaration, aiming for “full end-to-end traceability of all commercial tuna into major markets.”


Reducing Pollution

Context: We are on track to have more plastic than fish by 20504 to 10 million tonnes enters the ocean each year.

  1. France banned single-use plastic dinnerware (utensils, cups, and plates), plastic microbeads in cosmetics, cotton buds with plastic stems, and had already banned plastic bags.
  2. Werner & Mertz (a consumer goods company) raised the industry bar by committing to use 100% recycled content in all consumer packaging by 2025. (Thank you Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative for instigating major corporate change on this front!)
  3. Trash Free Seas Alliance is set to raise $150 million to fund better waste collection, sorting, and recycling, in southeast Asia (the primary geographic source of ocean plastic pollution).
  4. Cyprus will eliminate all wastewater discharges into the sea by 2020, and Mauritius will connect about 50% of the population to the sewage network by 2030.


Creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Context: Only 1.8% of the ocean is strongly protected in no-take marine reserves that are completely closed to fishing.

  1. Among other declarations, Chile announced MPAs totaling roughly the size of France, Mexico created Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park, and Niue designated 40% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as an MPA.
  2. The Wildlife Conservation Society with Waitt Foundation launched an MPA Fund invest $15+ million toward declaration of new MPAs by 2020.
  3. The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project committed $30 million toward creating 15 large marine reserves by 2022.
  4. South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Argentina, Montserrat, Mexico, and Brazil committed to developing national marine spatial plans.


Supporting the Blue Economy

Context: Marine industries are collectively worth about $24 trillion, and fishing provides livelihoods for 11% of the world’s population.

  1. The Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA) launched its Ocean Solutions Accelerator, to help young entrepreneurs build and scale ocean-focused start-ups.
  2. The Nature Conservancy dedicated $20 million to map the value of the oceans.
  3. The European Union will launch a $17+ million investment initiative to promote a sustainable blue economy in the European Union.


Addressing Climate Change

Context: The ocean has absorbed over 90% of our excess atmospheric heat (trapped by greenhouse gases), making it warmer and 30% more acidic. We have already lost 50% of the world’s mangroves ecosystems, which have an extremely high capacity to sequester carbon.

  1. The Global Mangrove Alliance was launched, aiming to increase the global area of mangrove habitat 20% over current extent by 2030.
  2. The International Chamber of Shipping aims to reduce average CO2 emissions per tonne-km 50%+ by 2050, compared to 2008.
  3. XL Catlin (an insurance company) launched its Ocean Risk Initiative, to help leaders prepare to address pending ocean changes.


Bonus – Keeping us informed and inspired:


It was a big year! And if you’re still in need of more good news or are feeling nostalgic, my lists of ocean wins from 2016, 2015, and 2014 may do the trick.

Of course talk is cheap, and I’m long past getting starry-eyed about conference speeches. But there is reason to believe that action will indeed follow. Almost 50% of the commitments made at previous Our Ocean conferences are already fully implemented, with another 46% are underway. And the increase in corporate engagement is particularly exciting – nearly 25% of commitments at Our Ocean in 2017 were from the corporate sector.

In 2018, let’s keep shining a light on what’s working (#OceanOptimism) and those who are leading, so good ideas spread. Let’s have a race to the top for ocean protection, instead of a race to the bottom to catch the last fish. (Aside: One of the most jarring disappointments of 2017 was the failed WTO effort to eliminate subsidies for overfishing and illegal fishing – yes, governments are helping fishing companies buy fuel and equipment to fish unsustainably!)

Individuals can certainly do their part — reducing our carbon footprints and plastic consumption, voting and encouraging our representatives support sustainable policies, choosing sustainable seafood and cleaning up beaches – but we really need bold and visionary action from political and business leaders. And thankfully, from the list above, we have plenty of examples to follow – and to quickly surpass.

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Meet the Author

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.