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The Urgency of Protecting the Ocean: A Social Demand

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"The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation" - IPCC 2013

The last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasised the impacts of global warming on the ocean. Scientists had previously warned us on sea level rise and explained its consequences for people - after all, most of us inhabit coastal areas. But in recent years, there has been growing evidence on other climate change processes affecting marine ecosystems: ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and connections between the ocean and extreme weather events. Appropriate action is urgently needed.

In February, at the launch of the Global Ocean Commission, I published an article in these pages entitled "Managing the ocean to ensure our future". Since then, the Commission has started work on translating scientific knowledge into concrete proposals for action to reverse ocean degradation. Without a doubt, we Global Ocean Commissioners share the urgency revealed by the IPCC report.

Today, the Commission is publishing findings from an opinion survey carried out in 13 countries encompassing all continents and levels of development. Seventy-four percent of respondents consider it essential that an international organisation is charged with ensuring adequate protection in high seas waters - the waters beyond national jurisdiction that comprise two-thirds of the entire ocean. Only 12% said they were against progress in this global governance challenge. Surprisingly, the same study reveals that a majority of people believe that at least 25% of the high seas is already protected by some kind of legal instrument. The real figure is actually less than 1%. This shows a general belief that conservation tools applied on land (national parks, the Natura 2000 Network, biosphere reserves...) have been successfully transposed to the international ocean.

Beyond national jurisdiction, the ocean is sadly seen as a free space. This leaves it open to various kinds of damage, and in some cases, illegal activities. This occurs because it seems far and invisible to all of us. Also, there is no integrated and holistic approach to ocean concerns.
The International Seabed Authority, which was established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, designates areas of environmental interest, but only for the ocean floor. It means that the seabed is regulated separately from the water column, which does not reflect modern scientific understanding - it is as though there were no interconnection between different parts of the marine environment. Other institutions, for instance the International Maritime Organization, regulate specific activities. But they do it in a sectoral manner. Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are expected to sustainably manage fish stocks; but their mandates are narrow and their records patchy. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has no power to protect high seas biodiversity. UNESCO can establish World Heritage Sites in the high seas, though it has not yet done so.

It is therefore not surprising that high seas biodiversity protection is a patchwork of competencies and agencies, whose mandates and priorities are sometimes contradictory. The Global Ocean Commission promotes a holistic and integrated understanding of processes affecting the ocean, and aims to develop global and effective measures to address current challenges.

The ecological balance in areas where food resources abound must also be maintained. The ocean provides food to a world population heading towards nine billion. If we do not conserve fish stocks in rapid decline, we will not eradicate hunger. Citizens of today and tomorrow have the right to access food. But the abyss between those suffering from hunger and those with excess of food keeps growing.

During my term as Environment Minister, I launched the process of creating El Cachucho, the first marine protected area in Spain. This was part of the European Commission's Natura 2000 Network - the European network of protected areas, which now covers 27% of our territory.
El Cachucho is a large seamount located 65 km from the coast of Asturias on the Atlantic coast in Northern Spain. It rises from 5000 metres deep to peak just 425m below the sea surface. Its northern slope is one of the steepest in the world, and its rocky floor allows corals and sponges to grow. It is a rich, well developed habitat in which more than 600 species have been identified, including an extraordinary giant squid.

El Cachucho is also an important nursery for commercially important fish including blue whiting, white hake, and monkfish. They are attracted by the presence of food and they benefit from marine currents spreading their larvae.

The protection of El Cachucho has been made possible thanks to the wide range of stakeholders involved in the process - with, in some cases, divergent interests. The Spanish Oceanographic Institute together with other national and foreign experts brought their essential scientific knowledge. Environmental organisations such as WWF/Adena and Oceana initially proposed protection for El Cachucho in 2006. From then on, the Environment Ministry led the stakeholder process together with other Ministries and the Regional Government of Asturias. In 2007, Parliament successfully approved the Law on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity, which includes the definition of a Marine Protected Area.

Still, the effort would not have succeeded without the very positive participation of local fishermens' groups. Their life experience coincided with scientific knowledge: protecting El Cachucho would allow the preservation of fish stocks, thus sustaining their economic activity.

Establishing protection measures in national waters can be a complex and lengthy process. In the case of El Cachucho, it took five years - the corresponding Decree dates from November 2011. But that looks simple when set alongside the process for creating protected areas in the high seas. And, still, for the high seas there isn't any organisation with overall responsibility of protecting biodiversity.

According to my own experiences as Minister of Environment, I can affirm that the "environment vs economy" paradigm needs urgently to be dismantled. If we do not take into account ecological concerns, humanity will increasingly be confronted with natural resource depletion, extreme weather events and pollution. The economic cost is high.

This week, I will be speaking at the International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Marseille, organised by the government of France and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It will be a perfect occasion for sharing successful experiences and identifying measures needed to improve current figures of ocean protection.

A ministerial conference will follow immediately afterwards in Ajaccio. Governments from more than 130 countries will assess how far we stand from the ambitious target (agreed in 2010) of protecting 10% of the global ocean by 2020. At the current pace, we would need 100 years to achieve the target. I will be representing the Global Ocean Commission in both events. My central message will be that the public demands a better management of the ocean - and that governments, with food security and other issues in mind, must respond.

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