What is stalling the creation of global ocean sanctuaries?

by Richard Page

June 26, 2014

Pristine reefs in Cenderawasih Bay National Park. The Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior is in Indonesia in its "100% Indonesia Tour which aims to tell the story of Indonesia's rich biodiversity and call for urgent action to ensure that the country's oceans and forests are protected.

© Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Recently, after sifting through a box of dusty 45s, I have had a Billy Bragg song,Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, firmly stuck in my head. The song has lodged itself there, not just because it has a nifty piano hook, but because the lyrics seem so pertinent to my work the long-running campaign to create a global network ofocean sanctuaries. In the song, the gruff-voiced singer-songwriter describes the struggle associated with trying to achieving political change and the need to hang on to hope and persist.

This week, I am at a meeting of the scientific body of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) where one the major issues up for discussion is the identification of the areas of international waters most in need of protection. It has been nearly a decade since Greenpeace published, in collaboration with ProfessorCallum Robertsand a team from York University, ourRoadmap to Recoveryat a CBD meeting in Brazil. That proposal was ground-breaking, and demonstrated how, by developing a set of ecological criteria and using the scientific data available, it was entirely possible to design a network of protected areas that would protect the full array of marine life and marine habitats located beyond countries’ national waters. It took some years before the CBD agreed and adopted its own set of criteria that were very similar to those in the Roadmap to Recovery, but happily it did. Subsequently the CBD has convened a series of nine regional workshops with the purpose of identifying the ecologically most important areas in each oceanic region. Most recently, a workshop was held in Finland, looking specifically at the international waters in the central Arctic Ocean. The report of the Arctic workshop substantiates Greenpeace’s demand that the area should be made an Arctic Sanctuary, by giving a whole series ofecological reasonswhy the waters around the North Pole should be protected. Here in Montreal, it is hoped that the meeting will endorse the results from these workshops and add the areas identified by the workshops to a global repository of the world’s most significant ocean areas.

This is all good the CBD’s repository of potential high seas protected areas is growing, as is the science in support of establishing fully-protected ocean sanctuaries. In fact, in recent weeks, we have seen some very positive moves with a number of large scale protected areas designated, or soon to be designated, in national waters.

What is not so good is that we seem to have got into a political log jam in terms of actually establishing ocean sanctuaries on the international waters of the high seas.

The reason for this is because, with few exceptions, such as in with the exception of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, there are no actual means or rules for establishing such areas. Countries have long agreed for the need to establish a global network of marine protected areas, not least through the CBD which has set specific targets, but the legal framework to designate and protect areas identified by the scientific process does not yet exist.

There is a solution which we pointed to in our Roadmap to Recovery a new United Nations agreement to protect the biodiversity of the high seas. Greenpeace and our allies in the High Seas Alliance are not the only ones calling for such an agreement. This week theGlobal Ocean Commissionpublished itsreport, which includes a key recommendation calling for a High Seas biodiversity agreement within the framework of UNCLOS. Additionally, last week at aspecial meeting of the UNto discuss these matters, it was obvious that a majority of countries agree that such an agreement is vital.

Unfortunately a small handful of countries are blocking progress to launch the formal negotiations that would make such an agreement a reality.

One of these is the USA, a position which is at odds with its generally helpful approach to ocean protection and its often stated support for establishing marine protected areas.

So how can we overcome this log jam and make the great leap forward with respect to ocean sanctuaries? Well helpfully,John Kerry, US Secretary of State, told us exactly how at the Our Ocean conference which he recently convened in Washington. He spoke of how all stakeholders and the wider public should make oceans an election issue and hold their politicians to account. Billy Bragg says much the same thing in Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards by pointing out that‘You can be active with the activists/Or sleep in with the sleepers/While you’re waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’. Well I know which I’d rather do and if you feel the same join us, first by registering your support for ocean sanctuarieshere.

It’s a mighty long road down rock’n’roll and so it is securing a global network of ocean sanctuaries…

However, if we all do our bit, we’ll get there for sure. That’s why I work for Greenpeace.

p.s. Mr Bragg, if you’re reading this, regarding that vexed question of whether pop and politics mix the answer from this listener has long been a resounding yes!

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