At a first-of-its-kind event devoted to the oceans at the United Nations headquarters in New York, countries, private organizations, states, provinces, and universities have been making commitments to enhance the sustainability of the oceans.
Students and researchers from the University of California San Diego said on Thursday, June 8, World Oceans Day, that those pledges have inspired them to press on performing the science that helps understand the oceans and informing the policy that leads to protections – even if the United States is noticeably absent from the list of countries that have made such declarations.
The Ocean Conference, which concludes Friday, is the first convened to consider ocean protections as one of the 17 sustainable development goals identified by the U.N. in recent years. The goal pertaining to the oceans is identified by the moniker "SDG14" while others in the series consider poverty alleviation, gender equality, and other objectives. As with the landmark Paris Agreement from which the Trump Administration last week announced its withdrawal, the pledges made at the conference are nonbinding.
The UC San Diego delegates are traveling as representatives of the UC Revelle Program on Climate Science and Policy, the entity that represents the University of California system annually at the global climate-focused Conferences of the Parties, or COPs.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography graduate student Natalya Gallo, who has attended four COPs in recent years, said this event is like the climate conferences in demonstrating how essential it is that young ocean scientists are given the training to learn how to engage effectively with non-academic ocean stakeholders.
“The conference has left me feeling cautiously optimistic and very inspired to be part of the larger community of people here working to make a difference in ocean health,” said Gallo, whose own work on deep-ocean ecosystems has contributed to a gloomy assessment of the health of the oceans. “The value and importance of partnerships has been highlighted and scientists are and will be key partners in innovative, successful partnerships on ocean action.”
Representatives from Scripps and UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) took part in a range of science panel discussions and a press conference in which His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco and Scripps Director Margaret Leinen helped announce a three-year voyage by the research vessel Yersin. The ship will circumnavigate the earth in that time with Leinen, a member of its scientific steering committee, helping shape its science mission. Legendary Scripps Oceanography geophysicist Walter Munk presided over conference-related events at the New York-based Explorers Club. Today Gallo will speak at a side event organized by UC Revelle and the IOC-UNESCO Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE), which was co-founded by Gallo’s adviser at Scripps, biological oceanographer Lisa Levin.
GPS student Christine Pereira and some Scripps students noted a dearth of United States-hosted events at the conference, though the U.S. State Department is usually a fixture at U.N. climate conferences. Pereira said she had attended side events hosted by the governments of Seychelles, Palau, Grenada, Italy, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Netherlands, and French Polynesia among others. All of them stressed the issue of international cooperation in order to achieve the SDG14 targets.
“Under the current administration, it is very difficult to predict what will happen in terms of ocean policy,” Pereira said. “It will really be up to subnational and nongovernmental organizations to tend to the issue and to be at the forefront of ocean issues in the U.S.”
Travis Schramek, a Scripps student whose research team recently aided Palau’s efforts to safeguard marine resources in its territorial waters, said that small island countries were among the most prominent entities at the Ocean Conference. That in part reflects their outsized stake in maintaining the stability of ocean fisheries and ecosystems as well as the physical forces that govern sea-level rise and the frequency of extreme weather. At the conference, ocean acidification, marine protected areas (MPAs), and illegal, unregulated and underreported (IUU) fishing are interrelated topics “being heavily discussed at nearly every side event.”
Scripps student Matthew Costa is part of the Gulf of California Marine Program led by marine ecologist Octavio Aburto-Oropeza. In a blog post written from the conference, he noted that regardless of future national action, it is clear that science needs to be represented at international events considering the fate of the oceans and the environment as a whole.
“This need is broadly understood by all involved, but actually connecting the results offered by researchers to the efforts being made by policy leaders requires work. Many (Ocean Conference) speakers stress the need for more and better science to make all the proposed ocean monitoring and protection efforts possible. I have been struck by how governments, NGOs, and even businesses seem to have more representation at these events than academic institutions,” he said. “I hope that researchers and students continue to attend events such as the conference and actively advance science’s role in our global efforts for sustainability.”
– Robert Monroe
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