A look back at what's been happening
Failure to agree ban on harmful fisheries subsidies at WTO
To say it’s a major disappointment is an understatement: despite being supposedly one of the "low-hanging fish" of this year’s World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, the world’s governments were still not able to agree on how to get rid of harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, a failure that The Economist called "baffling and shameful". According to BLOOM and the Varda Group, within just a few hours of the start of discussions, a small handful of governments had severely watered down the draft decision. India reportedly blocked a deal, arguing it needed to protect subsidies for its many low-income fisherfolk. However, the country only spends US$499 million per year on subsidies and 83% of that goes to industrial trawlers. According to The Economist “fish were the unfortunate bycatch” of a disagreement between India and the USA on lifting restrictions on stockpiling food.
The meeting did, however, agree to continue to engage constructively with the fisheries subsidies negotiations, with the aim of adopting an agreement in 2019. The ministerial decision on fisheries subsidies is available here. This is still within the 2020 sustainable development goal deadline, but it’s another 2 wasted years – time that the Ocean and marine life doesn’t have spare, particularly after 20 years of discussions. Some are still confident that a solution is within reach, and all eyes are on the Second Oceans Forum, which is being held in Geneva on the 16–17th July 2018.
Plastic waste – international, regional, national and corporate action
In December 2017 more than 200 countries at the UN Environment Agency conference signed a resolution that commits to coordinated international action to combat marine plastic pollution and microplastics. There’s no timetable and it’s not legally binding, but it could be the tipping point that sets in motion tougher measures in the future, including a global legal treaty. Sick Ocean creatures (check out this great new animation from Plastic Change International), a pepsi-branded lobster, trash gyres as large as countries, polystyrene on Arctic ice floes, plastic in our salt and drinking water all these plastic phenomena show that our “love affair” with plastic has to stop. It’s a planetary crisis and we need to up the urgency. Check out these 7 charts that explain the plastic pollution problem further and read about 4 tough actions needed to reduce the plastic waste problem.
Regionally, the EU has waged war against plastic waste as part of its plan to clean up its act and ensure that every piece of packaging produced in Europe is reusable or recyclable by 2030. On a national level we’re also seeing increasing action. The UK’s ban on microbeads just entered into force. It has also just revealed its 25-year plan for the environment (25 years… seriously? Why so long?), which focuses heavily on tackling plastic waste, including plastic-free aisles in supermarkets and a tax on takeaway containers. However, many in the UK say that it is flawed and lacks ambition and urgency. Scotland is the first country to ban plastic cotton buds.
Industry is also taking action with the NextWave consortium, which includes companies such as Dell and General Motors, announcing efforts to build a supply chain that intercepts plastic waste at Indonesian trash hotspots and recycles it into anything from packaging to furniture. Perhaps 2018 will be the year when the focus shifts to removing and reducing plastic from the production stream. The 3Rs put recycling last, so c’mon business leaders, it’s time to focus on a reduce and reuse approach first.
High seas governance is on course
We knew it was on the cards, but on the 24th December 2017 (an early Christmas present!) the UN General Assembly made the historic decision to formally adopt the recommendation by the high seas PrepCom to start negotiations for a new UN landmark treaty to protect the high seas. More than 140 nations co-sponsored the resolution, which contains strong provisions allowing NGOs to be able to participate meaningfully in the negotiations, something that unfortunately can’t be taken for granted. A collective "woohoo!" was heard around the world from the Africa Group, G77, Small Island Developing States, the European Union and members of the High Seas Alliance.
This will be one of the big Ocean things happening in 2018. In April, there’ll be a preliminary meeting to organise the logistics of the discussions, including who’ll be the Chair and lead discussions. Negotiations will start from 4–17th September 2018, and hopefully conclude by 2020. A key issue being discussed is ensuring a preliminary working draft treaty text is developed in advance of the meeting. Conservation advocates from the High Seas Alliance are keen on this approach to making the most of the meeting in September. However, not all countries are on the same page, preferring a slower approach to a Treaty. What’s clear from the number of co-sponsors and all the work done to date, not to mention the wave of science showing increased threats to human health, is that we need to inject a bit of sustainable rocket fuel into this UN process. Buckle your seat belts and prepare for lift-off!
Arctic fisheries highs – and oil drilling lows
Finally, there's some good news coming from the Arctic: in December 2017 Arctic countries and distant water fishing nations agreed to keep the 1.1 million km2 of the Central Arctic Ocean off limits to commercial fishing for at least 16 years, a move strongly welcomed by scientists and environmentalists. In 2015 the 5 Arctic countries – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US – signed the Oslo Declaration that agreed to no commercial fishing in the area. Since then they’ve been in talks with distant water fishing nations Japan, China, South Korea and the EU, to ensure they too respect the area as off-limits to fishing.
The moratorium will automatically be renewed in 2033, and then every 5 years after that, unless a country objects or fisheries management structures have been put in place. This time out will enable more scientific research in the region to better understand the impacts of climate change on its fish stocks and Arctic marine life. A precautionary suspension to protect marine life. What’s not to like?
But our joy at good news in the Arctic was short-lived with a range of setbacks. US President Trump has re-opened US Arctic waters to oil drilling and elsewhere. Greenpeace and the Nature and Youth Group lost their joint lawsuit against the Norwegian government; this argued that the awarding of new oil exploration licenses violates the countries’ right to a safe and healthy environment. Statoil announced it's moving full-steam ahead with its flagship Arctic oil project in Norway. And scientific reports confirmed that the Arctic continued in 2017 to warm at double the rate of the global temperature increase. Given the Ocean has absorbed about 93% of the heat from our carbon emissions, and we can see the impacts and increased hazards and risks from a warming and acidifying Ocean, we do wonder how these types of policies make any sense in the short or longer term.