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The UN Ocean Conference from the eyes of a cautious optimist
Coastal communities must become leaders of ocean protection

The  2022 United Nations Ocean Conference (UNOC) that took place last June in Lisbon left me with a curious mix of disappointment and cautious optimism. 

Delayed since 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the week-long conference sought to secure solutions for Sustainable Development Goal 14, life below water. All 193 member states unanimously adopted a political declaration which specifies that countries are committed to halting and reversing the decline in the health of the ocean’s ecosystems, including among other goals, the need to strengthen data collection efforts, promote financing for nature-based solutions, as well as recognise the important role of indigenous knowledge.

However, the document has no real enforcing mechanism and does not detail specific targets or policies that states should implement. We never expected to have a legally binding document from the conference, but without it, we are left short on hope and on what to hold countries accountable for. 

Significant wins to celebrate
We cannot ignore the small - yet significant - wins at the conference. 

For one, a number of countries are stepping up their marine protection targets. Colombia announced the creation of two new marine protected areas in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific, and the expansion of two existing ones, achieving its 30% protection target already by 2022.
Furthermore, the Protecting Our Planet Challenge announced an investment of at least US$1 billion to support the creation, expansion and management of marine protected areas and Indigenous and locally governed marine and coastal areas by 2030.

The Aquatic Blue Food Coalition launched successfully at the conference. Supported by WWF’s Accelerating Coastal Community-Led Conservation Initiative, the coalition will put blue foods at the center of the food system, unlocking investments and influencing policies to support small-scale fishers who contribute to nutritious food, income, jobs and the identity of millions of coastal and rural communities around the globe. The work done by WWF in the Mediterranean provides solutions for small-scale fisheries sustainability that can be scaled up at the global level.

A moratorium on deep seabed mining was a hot topic of the conference, with strong leadership coming from the “big-ocean states” of the Pacific, supported by French President Emmanuel Macron announcement of a “legal framework to stop high seas mining and to not allow new activities that endanger ecosystems.”

Lavenia Naivalu, Nacula District Representative plea to leaders at the event, is a stern reminder for whom the Aquatic / Blue Food Coalition is purposed to support. “We are fighting on many fronts, and we are not losing hope. We need you to protect our rights as coastal stewards”.

A long way to go to fulfill promises

Despite these positive developments, major roadblocks remain ahead. 

In the framework of the 2022 International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture,  many small-scale fishermen and women took part in discussions, with strong statements and calls for action. However, policymakers were confined to discussions in ivory tower halls, and the disconnect between these two realities was again felt, made even more official when you read the final declaration that makes reference to the contribution of small-scale fishers to food security and poverty eradication, but it falls short in properly recognising their role in concrete terms.

The potential of “blue carbon” – the carbon stored in the ocean – was a prevalent topic. Many see it as vital in the mitigation of climate change and its impacts, others also look at it as a way to unlock finance that would support the protection and restoration of marine ecosystems. The declaration also emphasizes the intention to “develop and promote innovative financing solutions to drive the transformation to sustainable ocean-based economies''. While blue natural capital is promoted as a silver bullet approach, we need to ensure that sustainable finance trickles down to the community level - ensuring that coastal and grassroot communities have fair and equitable opportunities to participate in sustainable ocean-based economies. Some projects show real promise, such as the Blue Incubator for the southwest Indian Ocean’s coastal community enterprises, with a similar model currently under development in the Mediterranean region but we need to scale up these efforts to build an inclusive and sustainable blue economy. 

Where to from here
Countries collectively committed to do more, and faster, yet it's still blatantly clear that their words are not followed by actions. Policy-makers need to adhere to the global calls of coastal communities who are on the frontlines of climate change and stand the most to lose from the ocean crisis, they need our support to adapt to climate change and recognise community-led conservation, as a model that works for people and nature, fully committing to make it work globally. Crucially,  we need commitment to dedicated and sustainable funding to support community-led conservation, including the consolidation of community governance systems as a path to improve their involvement in planning, management, and monitoring of protected and conservation areas.

I am an optimist, I do believe we will see change in the coming Ocean Decade. But we are beyond the point of acknowledging demands, our leaders need to act on them too.