Sustainable Oceans Conference: The Importance of the Sea

By Ines Tamaddon

Right now, only a measly 2 percent of our oceans are protected. We’ve lost about 90 percent of our big marine predators, and 38 percent of coral reefs have been destroyed over the last 30 years, according to UNEP. On July 12, 2012 the Dräger Foundation, in cooperation with The Earth Institute at Columbia University, hosted their second of three conferences on ocean sustainability to identify solutions to the issues plaguing the world’s oceans. As water levels rise, it’s become clear if the public doesn’t care and policy-makers don’t act, we’ll all be struggling to keep our heads above water.

Tim Ragan, Executive Director of U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, says the key insight that people—policy-makers, in particular—need to fully internalize is that “we are part of an entire eco-system.” Whether it is oil, land, or power, societal and technological advancements have made us over-confident. What the public needs to know is that our future is dependent on ocean sustainability. If action is not implemented to protect our oceans, it will not just be traders and fishermen, but all of us who will suffer the consequences.

In the first session of this conference, “Valuing the Oceans,” the inevitable question arose: Why should we value the oceans? The oceans cover some 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, make up 97 percent of the world’s water supply, and support 350 million jobs. Yet, they are still not receiving the attention they deserve.

One of the four panelists, Dr. Larry McKinney, Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, compared the ocean to a rubber band. If we keep over-exploiting the environment, eventually its elasticity will wear out and won’t be able to snap back. This will have dire consequences.

Professor Michael Orbach of Duke University explained how sea levels are rising, and unfortunately, there’s little we can do to stop it. “Twenty out of 30 large cities are in costal areas and in danger from the sea level rise,” he says. By the year 2100, San Francisco, New York City, Singapore, and South Korea will all be between one and four meters under water. He proposes provisions for new natural infrastructure and in the worst of cases , a plan to move our cities as well. Orbach declares the sea level rise is permanent, not a phase, and if we want to secure a viable global economy, we must orchestrate a plan of action immediately.

During the second and third sessions, aimed at defining “Blue Growth,” the necessity of an informed public became clear. In order to address these obstacles that are hindering maritime economy, the public needs to be behind sustainability initiatives. The standard definition of blue growth is a long-term, viable expansion of the maritime sector. To Tiago e Cunha, Counselor for the Environment of Science and Maritime Affairs to the President of Portugal, the first step of achieving blue growth is to recognize that is synonymous with ocean sustainability. “We generally speak of sustainability as using the interests of marine natural capital while preserving the capital without compromising the interest for the future of other generations,” Cunha says.

He also touches on the title of this conference, Developing a New International Architecture for Maritime Policy. “When you speak of architecture,” he explains, “you speak of grand deeds and major changes. Architecture implies infrastructure and development. It also implies, strong foundations.” And in his opinion, “We do not have that yet. We are at the level of developing and understanding but we are not yet at the level of taking the right decisions that are needed to solve the problem.” In order to accomplish this, the most urgent question is, “How can we make maritime policy, blue growth, and ocean sustainability work?”

Cunha declares that it needs to be “through cooperation at all levels of power.” From policy-makers to the public, there must be a common interest in the sustainability of our oceans.

Making people realize the importance of sustainable will require a new focus on the language used to discuss the topic. These issues are simply not relatable to the average person. Whether it be non-verbal tools or more accessible language, such as political campaigns that promote awareness, there needs to be more constructive ways that politicians and policy-makers incorporate the importance of ocean sustainability into their agendas. 

As Cunha says, there must be an inclusive effort from all levels of power to acknowledge that sea-level rise and an unprotected ocean will affect each and every one of us. Ragan’s earlier point that we are all part of a single and interdependent eco-system is simple concept that the world must grasp. 

Christopher Mann, Senior Officer of the Campaign for Healthy Oceans
at Pew Environment Group, argues that if  “we don’t set aside pristine places now, they won’t be here in 50 years.” But a key problem in addressing this topic is the time frame people are presented with. Instead of taking immediate action, people are constantly kicking the can forward because they are not under pressure. If they knew however, that sea-level rise and the ocean’s deterioration would affect their lives, their children’s, and grandchildren’s—the public might be more inclined to act quickly.

Regardless, Mann explains that in the United States “the political context is very challenging. What seems to be lacking is the political will.” In all three sessions, experts from the fields of politics, business, academia, and international organizations all recognized the lack of interest or effort made by policy-makers and how it is severely hindering the future of our oceans.

Internationally, places like Portugal and Holland are doing a better job than most countries. But as the title of this conference, Developing a New International Architecture for Maritime Policy, so clearly states, a structured global effort is essential. The way to do this is to popularize science and put more pressure on policy-makers. Mr. Ragan argues that we need to “extend perspective beyond the oceans and think of who we are as a society, as a civilization, and as a species.” Only then, he says, will we have a clearer vision of what needs to be done to preserve our most precious resource.


Ines Tamaddon is an Editorial Assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Image courtesy of Paulo Brandão]

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