Saturday, 17th September 2016

Our Ocean Youth Conference

DATE:Saturday 17 September, 2016
LOCATION:Georgetwon University, Washington DC

I have found the past 2 days at the Our Ocean Youth Leadership Conference held at Georgetown University a very motivating and positive experience. With approximately 150 university-aged youth from over 50 countries around the world there was a wide range of students involved. We heard from a number of speakers including my favourites; Philippe Cousteau (the grandson of Jacques Cousteau) and his wife Ashlan Cousteau, Dr Jonathan Pershing (US special envoy for climate change), and US Secretary of State John Kerry (the driver behind the Our Ocean Conference).

In particular, I found the story that Philippe and Ashlan shared particularly interesting. Philippe and Ashlan work together to produce documentaries covering ocean issues, and their most recent was on Reef Sharks that have returned to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This area was used as a nuclear bomb testing site, and as such all life was wiped from the area. However life is now slowly returning. One of the species that has returned to the area are the Reef Sharks. Reef Sharks are not migratory species and so some of these sharks were tagged to try and determine how the Bikini Atoll was re-populated. The data received from this tagging was surprising. Just under half of the sharks tagged demonstrated movement patterns typical of long-line fishing trawlers, and ultimately the signals from these tags led to fishing ports in South-East Asia. These sharks had been illegally caught from a protected area and taken to ports to sell.

For me, there are two key messages that come out of this story. The first is about the resilience of the ocean. In an area that was decimated by numerous nuclear bomb tests, life has still returned and managed to flourish. This shows that if we let it, the ocean will be able to fix itself. However our behaviours are so detrimental to the ocean that it does not have the time to recover, and the longer we go without changing our actions, the longer it will take for the ocean to recover (if it still can). The second message here is how important it is to find a way to police and prevent illegal activities on the ocean, and in particular illegal fishing. As Adrian Grenier said at the conference, “The oceans don’t have a 911”. This means that we have to work internationally to police the high seas, and also be smart global consumers to make illegal fishing uneconomical.

The Our Ocean Youth Conference was held alongside the official Our Ocean Conference, which was held at the US Department of State and is now in its third year, and on the afternoon of the second day we were granted access to the main conference. At his closing address, Secretary Kerry summarised some of the key pledges made at the conference. These pledges included over US$5.3 billion committed towards positive ocean action, 5 countries announcing complete nationwide bans on plastic bags, and the announcement of a number of marine protected areas including the largest marine protected area in the world around Hawaii. The next three Our Ocean Conferences were also announced (Malta 2017, Bali 2018, Norway 2019). The continuation of these conferences is an important step as it will hold governments and organisations accountable for their pledges, ensuring that positive and necessary action does take place.

Attending the conference has left me optimistic about the future of our ocean. Internationally, governments are realising the need to act now. And individually we can also make a difference through small actions in our daily lives. While each action may seem insignificant, combined, these small actions have a large impact. Holding one-another accountable for these small actions will also put pressure on governments to act, and will ultimately enable us to make a difference to the oceans and our future.