Ocean action in Washington, but High Seas Biodiversity was still ignored

by Daniel Mittler

June 18, 2014

Young male Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus) frolick in the waters off the island of St. George in the Bering Sea. The Pribilof islands are a protected breeding ground for the fur seals and a prime birdwatching attraction. Greenpeace is campaigning to save the Arctic from attempts by oil companies to exploit the regions resources for short term profit.

© Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

US Secretary of State John Kerry clearly cares about the ocean. He grew up with the sea and backed many progressive ocean policies while in the US Senate. You could feel that emotional connection at theOurOcean conference, which he hosted over the last two days in Washington, D.C. Unlike most political conferences I have been to, there was a tight agenda, and there was by the standards of political conferences, anyway a lot of action.

  • The United States announced asignificant extension of the Pacific Marine Sanctuaryand actions to stop illegal fishing in US waters.
  • The Bahamas committed to making 20% of their oceans ocean sanctuaries by 2020 (and 10% already this year) and put forward $200 million to improve the management of their protected areas.
  • Palau and Kiribati both declared huge new areas off limits to commercial fishing in order to help (especially) tuna stocks to recover.
  • Norway will invest $150 million in sustainable fisheries research.
  • Togo pledged to join Senegal and fight illegal fishing of their coasts a move that could havesignificant positive impacts for local fisher communities.

The list goes on. The devil with many of these announcements will be in the detail. Just because good words were spoken in Washington does not yet mean that there will be real change out on the ocean. Still, in a situation whereless than 2% of the oceans are currently protectedand fishstocks are being overexploited everywhere, this list is heartening. And Chile committed to host a follow up meeting next year to check whether the words have indeed resulted in action.

Daniel Mittler holds a disk containing over 40,000 signatures urging Secretary Kerry to support high seas biodiversity protection.

Daniel Mittler holds a disk containing over 40,000 signatures urging Secretary Kerry to support high seas biodiversity protection.

Kerry’s approach was refreshing. His speeches were engaging and forceful, reminding us all that without the ocean there can be no security or development in future. He also freely admitted that there was not enough being done yet. He even called on the audience to create a global mass movement to force politicians to take ocean protection (more) seriously. Greenpeace definitely wants to be part of that!

But oddly enough, at the very same time as he said those words, Secretary Kerry ignored the strong movement that already exists to protect the High Seas.OurOceanshamefully ignored the tens of thousands of you who called for urgent protection of 64% of the ocean that belongs to no nation.

It’s not that the need to protect the High Seas wasn’t mentioned.Leonardo di Capriocalled for an urgent end to the“Wild West” exploitation of the High Seasand said that people want to see governments taking action. But on the Twitter feed in the conference hall,not a single oneof theover 10,000 tweetscalling for High Seas protection ever showed up! And while John Kerry called for a “global political plan for the Ocean,” he failed to mention the High Seas even once.

It’s easy to see why. If Secretary Kerry had talked about the High Seas, he would have revealed a giant contradiction in the US position on ocean protection. While OurOcean was happening in Washington,global negotiations to create a rescue plan for the High Seaswere happening at the United Nations in New York. Secretary Kerry was rightly proud of the actions he could announce in Washington, but his own negotiation team is shamefully failing to back ocean action at the United Nations. That’s pretty untenable, and has left many of us, includingmy boss, Kumi Naidoo,very confused.

You shouldn't disappoint Kumi.

You shouldn’t disappoint Kumi.

Despite the infuriating censorship of the issue, I am inclined to give Secretary Kerry the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he is so embarrassed by the inconsistency of his government’s approach that he is ignoring high seas biodiversity out of shame?

We’re going to give him a little more time to change the United States position on theHigh Seas Biodiversity Agreement. But I’d like to see him apply the same efficiency and passion with which he and his team delivered the OurOcean conference towards fixing the US’s position on the High Seas. If he does not, the ocean movement, which he calleda “hard ass group of folks”will come right back at him.

It’s obvious that we can never protect our Ocean if we ignore 64% of it. So let’s take John Kerry at his word and help build a movement he cannot ignore.Join our call for Ocean Sanctuaries now!

By Daniel Mittler

Daniel Mittler is the political director for Greenpeace International.

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