Environment

Countdown to Our Ocean

28/09/2017

Our Ocean is a world-leading conference, an annual event that moves to Europe for the first time this year. It's an opportunity for public and private leaders to announce actions that keep the world's oceans safe, sustainable and healthy. Leaders from governments, companies, foundations and civil society organisations will be taking part. Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries talked to Environment for Europeans about Our Ocean and how he wants people to remember it.

Another conference … what's different about this one?

Our Ocean is young (this is only the fourth edition), it's ambitious, and it takes a new approach. We call it a conference, but that might not be the right term because it's not a talking shop. It's all about tangible commitments. Basically, it's a showcase for new efforts to protect the world's seas. And it's invitation only.

I have always thought that if we get the blue economy right, the green economy will follow.

This time it's Europe's turn …

Absolutely, and people will be surprised at how much we've already achieved. Wherever you look, Europe is there in the vanguard – biodiversity protection, marine pollution, fighting climate change, making fisheries sustainable, maritime security, and investing in the blue economy. This is a great opportunity to share all we've achieved in those fields, and to announce new measures for the future. And of course I'm proud that it's happening in Malta, my home.

As Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, you have a particular interest in the blue economy …

That will be a big focus of course. I have always thought that if we get the blue economy right, the green economy will follow. The ocean economy is already worth more than EUR 1.3 trillion, and that figure will probably double by 2030. There are so many promising avenues, from aquaculture and biotech to minerals and offshore renewables. But we have to get the balance right, and build sustainability into the coming expansion. I want this blue economy to be a textbook example of how to expand without damaging the natural resources we rely on.

And of course this expansion will need to be part of a concerted global effort, the result of cooperation, where the benefits are shared appropriately.

When people think of the oceans, fisheries are often the first thing that comes to mind …

Indeed. They are so vital for millions of communities around the world, yet some of the statistics make grim reading. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing still accounts for something like 15 % of the global catch every year, worth EUR 10 billion. Overfishing means that we have already removed up to 90 % of the larger species from the oceans around the globe.

So the case for more coordinated action is crystal clear, and we are hoping to see big commitments here too. We need to get rid of the subsidies that are driving some of this overfishing, we need to make sure that all the relevant parties are committed to the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, and perhaps more than anything, we need to militate in favour of an implementing agreement at the UN level on marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions. That's the biggest black hole at the moment, and we need a clearer pathway towards commitments there.

Marine pollution, and especially plastics, will also be high on the conference agenda. What is the true scale of the problem?

Mostly people aren't aware of what we are up against. Fifty years ago we hardly made any plastic at all – now 10 million tonnes of it end up in our seas every year. That's an incredible 400 kilos of plastic entering the sea every second!

And that plastic is ingested by marine animals, and they die in their millions. In some areas, microplastics already outnumber plankton by six to one. We could be looking at a situation where there is eventually more plastic than fish in the seas.

Nobody wants that. So the Commission is looking very closely at how to resolve the problem, with a new plastics strategy on the way before the end of the year. And we are doing all we can to highlight the problem.

Which brings us to the Aquariums Campaign …

We needed a concept that brought home the reality of the situation, showing people that there is nowhere to hide from plastic pollution. So the Commission launched World Aquariums Against Marine Litter in late July, and within weeks nearly a hundred aquariums across five continents had joined. The latest recruit is Sea Life, and with their network that brings the number closer to 150 aquariums.

The participating aquariums take a creative approach. Many of them have simply removed the fish or marine life from one of their tanks and replaced them with commonly found waste plastic, or an artwork that used recycled plastics, to convey the problems faced by inhabitants of the seas.

It sounds rather pessimistic?

Not really – raising awareness is just the beginning. The aquariums also stress the things that people can do to help, from buying responsibly and recycling their own waste to changing their habits and taking part in clean-up events.

And on a broader scale, this plastic problem is also a great opportunity. It's a powerful incentive to move towards a more circular economy, where we reduce waste and start using plastic in a far more efficient way, creating economic value and new jobs in the process. That's the direction Europe is taking.

How do you want people to remember this conference?

These two days are really the tip of the iceberg. We have been doing a huge amount of work on ocean governance, both inside the European institutions with processes like the Communication on ocean governance, and behind the scenes on the international stage, to bring the international community together and coordinate its efforts more closely. So I want it to be remembered for the commitments that all that hard work will produce.

You often speak of your relation to the sea. But why should we care about the seas, if we are sitting in Berlin or Bratislava?

We are all people of the sea, whether we know it or not. This is the blue planet, and the ocean is what gives it life. In a very literal sense – life probably began in the seas, and we all rely on this enormous reservoir that surrounds us for the air we breathe, the water cycle, our climate and our food. We are nothing without it, and we neglect it at our peril. Our Ocean is a reminder of that.

Water, marine and coast