‘A losing battle for the ocean’s health’ | Sunday Observer

‘A losing battle for the ocean’s health’

Peter Thomson is the UN Special Envoy For Oceans. He grew up in Fiji, where he fell in love with the sea, and went on to work to protect it. The Permanent UN representative for Fiji since 2010, Thomson assisted with the formation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14), which aims to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.” During his tenure as president of the UN General Assembly from 2016 to 2017, he oversaw the UN’s first Ocean Conference. Now, as special Envoy for Oceans, Thomson’s primary focus is ensuring the faithful implementation of SDG 14. He spoke with the Sunday Observer when he was visiting Colombo for the Indian Ocean Conference.

SO: Growing up in Fiji, what was it like to watch as the environment changed due to warming temperatures and rising sea levels?

PT: In Fiji, you learn to swim around about the time you learn to walk. I had goggles on my eyes looking at coral reefs from a very young age. Seeing what those coral reefs held—millions of forms of life and beautiful colours—was one of the first indications I had of what a joy and what a privilege it is to be a human being on this planet.

To see, in my lifetime, the bleaching of coral, due to ocean warming, where a whole reef just dies off, is shocking. It’s like seeing a lovely city and then going and visiting it after it has been bombed to smithereens. It’s very depressing because it doesn’t have to be that way. I think coral is a real warning signal for us all as to what could happen on our planet if we don’t heed the warnings and take the joint action which is required.

SO: How is the progress on the implementation of SDG 14?

PT: Four of the ten targets of SDG 14 mature in 2020. This is very significant, obviously, for the ocean, but also for the 2030 sustainable development agenda because 2020 is less than 18 months away. SDG 14 says by 2020, we should have 10% of the ocean covered in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

7% of the ocean is currently covered by MPAs. I’m very hopeful that, with the work under way, we will get to the 10%, but it’s not a marathon, this is a sprint. 2020 is just around the corner, and MPAs are essential to the health of the ocean.

If you look at the other targets that mature in 2020, you’ve got the removal of harmful fishery subsidies. There is work underway at the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the moment, and I am very hopeful that governments will do the right thing. We are overfishing, and really there is no justification for subsidies when 80% of those subsidies are going to industrialized fishing fleets.Of the other two targets, one relates to better management of fish docks, that’s ongoing work at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The fourth one is better management of coastal and marine ecosystems. I’m confident with what I’m seeing around the world—(I’ve just come from a meeting in Potsdam, Germany, and I’m off to China next week)—that we now have the kind of awareness that we need for meeting that target.

SO: So you’re generally feeling positive about implementation of SDG 14?

PT: I’m feeling that way, yes. Although, my message is that we’re currently losing the battle in terms of the ocean’s health. If you look at ocean warming—which leads to rising sea levels, species migration, and (ultimately cause) coral reefs to die off—that’s trending badly.

Read the IPCC report that just came out. Look at the ocean acidification trends. Carbon Dioxide(CO2) levels (related to climate change) are causing acidification. As the ocean gets more acidic, life is harder for shellfish, for the calcium-based life, like vertebrates, and so on. Look at the other negative trends, like deoxygenation(less oxygen in the ocean), again, makes it harder for life in the ocean, (and results) in smaller fish.If you look at pollution, everybody is aware now that we’re dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day. And there’s a limit to this because it doesn’t go away. It stays there for for 500 years. And fishing (trends are) not good when you still have 33% being overfished. Overfishing means you’re on a track to extinction.

SO: Has the recent report from IPCC, which says we have ten years to address climate change before we reach a point of no return, change your vision for the future?

PT: It hasn’t changed because I’ve been very aware of this. Coming from a Pacific island country, two preoccupations for the last decade have been addressing climate change and addressing ocean change in realistic ways. So it’s like, the release of the report, for us...not so much, ‘we told you so,’ it’s more ‘hey! we’re all in this together,’ so let’s all work on solutions because there is a solution which is the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Agenda.

SO: What measures can Sri Lanka, as a nation, take to improve ocean management?

PT: I really want to commend Sri Lanka for its championing of ocean action—at home, regionally, and at the United Nations. Sri Lanka has played a very positive role in ocean action and in cooperation with the EU, has done some great work recently to combat IUU fishing (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated).

There are a couple of things I’d like to discuss this afternoon with the Ministry of Development and that includes that linkage between what’s happening on land and the effect on sea.

So rivers, what is coming down rivers? What are the agriculture and industrial policies are for capturing excess chemicals, fertilizers, and waste?

I’d also like to discuss the separation schemes for blue whales and shipping in southern Sri Lanka.

There are similar separation schemes operating in Hawaii and off the coast of New York, so there are very effective means of (preventing whale strike) and protecting the whale population and shipping safety.As envoy for the ocean, I think that the blue whale population is very significant globally. Apart from its biodiversity value, I think it can be of huge economic value to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.

SO: How is the role of the blue economy changing in a place like Sri Lanka?

PT: I think for all countries, the blue economy is emerging as a very important part of the future in terms of jobs, food, and breaking the poverty cycle. (But) we should never talk about the blue economy with just two words. It should always be three words: ‘sustainable blue economy.’ If we’re going to go into a new phase of maritime economic development, we must make sure it is sustainable. Otherwise, we will be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. We have to be thinking about the economic value of the sustainable blue economy for our grandchildren, not just for ourselves.

SO: What is the current status of the UN Global Ocean Treaty?

PT: There are two very important pieces of international law being created at the moment. One is at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Jamaica where the mining code is being worked on and best estimates are that that law will be enacted by the ISA as early as 2020.

The other very important piece of international law will be the likely adoption of a treaty to cover Biological Biodiversity Beyond Natural Jurisdiction (BBNJ) which falls under NCLOS.It is under discussion now by member states. There will be two sessions next year and the final session will be in 2020 and that will result in new law for the high seas.

SO: It’s easy to feel that these issues are out of the individual’s hands and primarily dealt with at the national and international level, but what are some possible sustainable practices that individuals in Sri Lanka can adopt?

PT: If we’re going to succeed, everybody’s involved, the individual up to the UN. Regional cooperation is important because what happens in a neighboring country affects you. The ocean doesn’t respect human boundaries. Currents flow, fish swim, pollution travels, whaling conditions move, and man made boundaries have no significance. National policies are crucial because, as we know, most of the ocean’s problems are stemming from what’s happening on land. Then you come down to communities—things that communities can do in terms of education, rubbish collection, better waste management, etc. And then you get right down to the individual, which isa critical part of the jigsaw—your decisions as a citizen because you have a vote, your decisions as a consumer because you have a choice as to what you are going to buy and what your daily life patterns will be.

So, for example, single-use plastic is used for a brief period and then remains in the environment for hundreds of years. I am old enough to know of a time when single use plastic did not exist.In my lifetime, I’ve seen the result, and it’s an abomination. As an individual, you can choose not to use single-use plastic, and if all of us do that, end of problem.

SO: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to taking joint action?

PT: Even when people are aware of a problem, it’s hard to change human habits, so it’s all about that. I often refer Mahatma Gandhi who said, ‘the world has enough for what humans need, but it doesn’t have enough for humanity’s greed.’ It’s a matter of deciding (things like) - do you need to own a car? I haven’t owned one for a long time. Why? Because very good public transportation is available in the cities in which I’ve lived, so why own a car? The individual has choices.