Overline: 4th Potsdam Ocean Governance Workshop
Headline: From Good Intentions to Concrete Action? Experts Analyse Progress on Protecting Oceans

The oceans are in crisis – climate change, pollution, and over-fishing have caused severe harm across half of the world’s oceans and seas. Ocean conservation ranked accordingly high on the international political agenda in 2017.

Jorid Hammersland (Swedish Ministry for the Environment and Energy) spoke about regional ocean partnerships.
Jorid Hammersland (Swedish Ministry for the Environment and Energy) spoke about regional ocean partnerships. IASS/Dirk Enters

Politicians and experts from science and civil society gathered to explore ways out of the marine crisis at the UN Ocean Conference in New York, the EU-organised “Our Ocean” Conference in Malta, the annual Session of the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development and at the UN Climate Conference. But did they succeed in turning the tide towards greater sustainability? Representatives from science, policymaking and civil society met at the IASS on 13-14 December to discuss this at the 4th Potsdam Ocean Governance Workshop.

Martin Visbeck from GEOMAR – Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel emphasised the importance of viewing the Sustainable Development Goal for the oceans (SDG 14) as an integral component of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “Analysing the interactions of SDG 14 with the other SDGS is important because it help us to find our friends, it strengthens the motivation for cooperation and gives impetus for new areas of work”, explained the oceanographer and climate scientist. An international report on this topic was published in May with contributions from Visbeck and ocean research teams in Kiel and the IASS. The report offers a detailed analysis of SDG 14 and three other goals and their interactions with other Sustainable Development Goals.

Companies want to stop over-fishing and slavery

According to Meg Caldwell from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the growing awareness of these issues is reflected in the private sector in the willingness to change. She highlighted two initiatives presented at the UN Ocean Conference in June 2017 as examples of this development: in the first of these, the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration, 18 civil society organisations have united in an effort to stop the distribution of illegally caught tuna; meanwhile, the SeaBOS initiative has brought together nine major fishing companies to prevent unlawful acts such as the use of slave labour and over-fishing. “What makes me optimistic is that companies are getting into the nitty-gritty, into the operationalisation. There is a strong social equity narrative across the SDGs, and industry is picking up on that”, explained Caldwell.

Companies, governments, foundations, scientific institutions and other stakeholders submitted over 1,400 voluntary commitments to SDG 14 in the run-up to and following the UN Ocean Conference. But many of these commitments reflect a half-hearted approach, reported Barbara Neumann of the IASS: “Most of the voluntary commitments were directed to addressing sustainable ocean management, ocean pollution, capacity building and sustainable fisheries. There were very few examples tackling politically difficult issues such as harmful fisheries subsidies.” Challenges to the implementation of these voluntary commitments include the need to strengthen the hitherto largely neglected sub-goals as well as transparency and quality assurance.

Transparent implementation and closer cooperation needed

Sebastian Unger (IASS) drew an optimistic conclusion following two days of discussions: “The ocean is in a deep crisis. But all the international engagement we have seen in 2017 gives hope that change is possible.” What is needed now, he argued, is a transparent system to track the voluntary commitments made by states and stakeholders, coupled with stronger cooperation within marine regions and a holistic approach to the implementation of the different SDGs linked to the ocean.

The results of the workshop will be fed into future policy briefs and scientific publications, including contributions to a special issue of the journal “Marine Policy”.