08/09/2012 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After Rio+20: What Now for the Ocean?

I've been back from Rio+20, the U.N.'s once-in-a-decade sustainable development conference, for a little more than a month now. Many in the conservation community had hoped that the meeting would help steer the world onto a trajectory of "greener" economic and development policies, as well as better ways of managing the loss of Earth's natural resources because of human activities.

Yet, as the summit drew to a close, the disappointment and frustration of many attendees, including some governments, was palpable. Media pundits lamented the conference's lack of ambition, and critics in the NGO community accused delegates of failing to commit to anything truly new. Indeed, the youth representative who addressed the Heads of State, governments and ministers in attendance asked, "Are you here to save the world, or to save face?"

In contrast to the picture that was painted in the press, however, I believe there is reason to be hopeful about progress that was made on ocean conservation issues, the policy priority for the Pew Environment Group at Rio+20.

At the original 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, very little attention was given to marine issues. Ten years later in Johannesburg, discussion on the matter still was not as prominent as it could or should have been. As governments prepared to return to Rio, it was unclear whether ocean matters would even be featured on the agenda.

But this time around, in no small measure because of the concerted advocacy work of Pew and other organizations, there was a clear shift in the discussion about ocean conservation imperatives and the deteriorating status of marine fisheries globally. Delegates at the summit recognized that sustainable development cannot happen without a healthy ocean and that well-managed fisheries and secure ocean ecosystems are critical to the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of people.

So just what did world leaders agree to in June? Looking past the sometimes-convoluted technical jargon, the Rio+20 declaration stressed that:

  • Overexploitation of fish stocks has to end, as does illegal fishing, both of which deprive communities and countries of billions of dollars of revenue each year and damage marine biodiversity.
  • Harmful government subsidies that support an unsustainable global fishing industry must be phased out.
  • Vulnerable marine ecosystems should be protected, particularly by stopping destructive fishing practices.
In sum, governments this year in Rio clearly recognized the importance of marine conservation issues. It now remains to be seen if U.N. organizations, regional fisheries management organizations and governments will make the necessary changes to reduce the excessive number of industrial fishing vessels at sea, stop taking more fish out of the water than can be sustained biologically, halt unsustainable fishing practices, and take the steps required to end illegal fishing. On a less positive note, due to opposition from some countries, world leaders deferred for two and a half years any decisive action on the protection of high seas biodiversity. These areas beyond national jurisdiction make up about 50 percent of our planet and are outside the control of any one country and need collective decisions to manage them. Governments in Rio recognized the critical importance of this issue, but although the overwhelming majority of countries wanted to move forward immediately, consensus was blocked by a small minority of governments. In the end, it was agreed to set a deadline for the end of 2014 for a firm decision on how to proceed. It is vital that conservation advocates keep up the pressure so that marine protected areas, including critical no-take reserves, can be established in these regions. While perceptions may differ about the value of the overall outcomes for this year's Earth Summit, I believe most would agree that it is unthinkable to endure another decade marked by inertia in the face of the ongoing collapse of vital ocean ecosystems. World leaders made it clear they know what needs to change for the ocean. Governments now must take bold actions and ensure that the promises made by their delegations were not empty.

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