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The World Ocean Summit

by Tiare Boyes, commercial fisherwoman from Canada

Attending The Economist World Oceans Summit was an eye opening experience. Over the course of three days, I met students, CEOs, professors, philanthropists, economists, biologists, fishers, and entrepreneurs of all backgrounds, specialties and visions. The connecting thread that brought all of us here this week is our concern over our ocean’s future. The Economist curated a comprehensive line-up of experts in finance, fisheries, robotics, aquaculture, remote monitoring, engineering, plastics and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) among many other subjects. 

The Economist wrote in the Leaders section of the print edition of this month’s issue, “If anything ought to be too big to fail, it is the ocean,” yet here we are, experiencing coral bleaching on the majority of the world’s reefs, sea level rise, extreme weather systems, fish stock depletions, and marine plastics choking our waterways, birds, turtles and whales. The ocean can and will fail if we continue with business as usual.

The first day discussions were centered on the role of science in protecting our oceans. Vladimir Ryabinin, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Assistant Director-General at UNESCO, highlighted, “The health of our ocean is the most important problem for sustaining our planet. To do this we must engage the private sector, civil sector and our governments.” One of the questions posed to the panellists was: how can we ramp up the science focused on our oceans? Steve Adler, chairman of the Ocean Data Alliance, pointed out that if we want more science to focus on the oceans then we need more market for data from the oceans. Instead of investing in science itself, we should invest in the selling of data. “If we really want to change, we need more business to invest in the oceans. As long as saving the oceans is a moral issue, we are pushing a rope. With more market participants, we start to pull that rope.” Michael Jones pointed that a “Triple Helix” of industry, government and universities need to work together to find solutions based in science. 

In between the panels of experts, the audience was treated to presentations from young, bright, energetic entrepreneurs. Dan Watson, founder of SafteyNet Technologies, was one of these bright lights with his company, which uses light to either attract target species to fishing gear or dissuades non-target species from being caught. This increase in selectivity will help solve bycatch issues in many fisheries around the world and help make our wild marine protein sources much more efficient.

Another bright young spark, Melissa Cuevas, co-founder and chief executive officer of microTERRA, brought to the table a way of harvesting fertilizer from agriculture runoff through the use of algae. Fertilizer runoff is one of the largest sources of pollution of our oceans and one in which she saw a business opportunity to begin to recycle nearly half of the nutrients that are not used by plants during the first application of fertilizer.  She is turning pollution into a profitable opportunity.

Chilean senator Ricardo Weber asked an important issue to the audience: how do we balance urgent issues of our countries (such as housing and health care) with important issues (such as the preservation of our oceans)? He stated that we need to reconcile our short-term views with long-term goals. 

On the second day of the summit I attended the sustainable fisheries meetings, where we were in attendance for the announcement by the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) (in collaboration with Rare/Meloy Fund and Encourage Capital) Principles for Investment in Sustainable Wild-Caught Fisheries, which underline their three pillars of successful, sustainable fisheries: 1) Securing tenure, 2) Introducing or strengthening science-based limits on catch, and 3) Robust monitoring and enforcement.  

As a Canadian Pacific Halibut commercial fisher myself, it is wonderful to see that the 9 principles set out by the EDF encompass environmental and social concerns that are present in many of the world’s fisheries. It is imperative that we be accountable for every fish caught in our oceans, that we can trace those fish from the oceans to our plates, and that the harvest policies be based on sound science.

Reducing the risk to investing in the blue economy was a hot topic at many of the discussions. Seen as one of the last common-pool resources, our oceans are special: they belong to no one and to everyone at the same time, and this fact needs to be addressed in the policies reflecting financing of the blue economy. One radical idea floated by Michael Eckhart, Managing Director and Global Head of Environmental Finance at Citigroup, was the privatization of the entire ocean under the control of a new nation, which would charge fees for shipping, accessing fish, and the utilization of other marine resources. Mr. Eckhart pointed out that investing in something where the allocation and ownership is not established, and where reallocation could occur at any time, is a risky endeavour that dissuades long-term investment.

UN’s special envoy for oceans, Peter Thomson of Fiji, declared that, while previously we have only talked about fighting the destruction of our oceans, the battle is now on and action is being taken. He quoted Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, saying “There is a tide in the affairs of men / which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” giving us a message of hope in a time of many marine crises around the world.

Another issue that was discussed was the staggering amounts of plastic now present in our oceans. There were calls for individual to take more responsibility for our plastic consumption and calls for distributors of products in plastic packaging to be held accountable for their roll in marine pollution. A solution may lie somewhere in between. Ocean futures youth Shyang Bian, founder of H2earth, suggested a rentable, reusable drink container made from metal available to be filled with filtered water, re-filled and then returned after use for a small fee. He suggested this as a solution for places such as amusement parks and university campuses, with the opportunity to eventually scale up to whole towns with such facilities, eliminating the need for plastic water bottles.

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, President of Iceland, gave a compelling address saying, “What was once accepted in the past will not be accepted by the future generation.” His tone was serious, highlighting warming ocean conditions around Iceland and increasing acidification, but hopeful in that the present and future generations will not stand for business as usual. He also pointed out that Iceland, as a fishing nation, is leading the technology to utilize the whole fish of those caught, using internal organs for medicine, skin for bandages, meat for food and even the skin for fashion items (such as a dashing tie he wore to the summit, which was made from fish skin and died a brilliant red).

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were discussed on one panel, where ‘Aulani Wilhelm brought up the point that while MPAs are needed to protect static fish in some areas, most of the ocean needs to be protected in other ways, such as fisheries regulations and enforcement. She stated, “We need more fish. There is no cheaper way to produce fish than nature; we need to engage and be more sophisticated. This is not just a conservation or science problem. It is everyone’s problem.” 

Timothy Gordon, a young marine biologist from the University of Exeter, received a standing ovation for his speech on how to bring positivity to the conversation surrounding the crisis in our oceans. In the face of melting ice caps, coral bleaching and marine plastics, he said, “As a scientist we ask: why do we even bother? Why do we even try to measure these changes when we know that the results will reduce us to tears every time?” Timothy suggested three plausible, tangible things we can do that will help: 1) embrace novelty, 2) start thinking spatially and temporally, and 3) emphasize the wonders that are still present in the ocean and show people that it is still worth it to make an effort. He ended his talk by saying, “By being positive, you transform ocean conservation from being a burden to bear to being something to celebrate.”

The summit culminated with commitments from the audience, including: individuals committing to teach children the importance of the oceans; EDF committing to global financing solutions in 2018 to implement the principles rolled out this week; large organizations eliminating single use plastic at their facilities; a reef restoration company committing to continue their science in nano-coral technology; Mars Incorporated committing to restoring a further two hectares of coral reefs, and to expand this project around the world by 2020; a grad student from the University of Maine committing to bring home the positive mentality she was inspired by at this summit; ‘Aulani Wilhelm committing to capitalize a $30 million investment facility for ocean conservation; and many other inspiring commitments from the audience. 

This year’s World Oceans Summit was a fantastic collaboration of people from all sectors: private, civil, academic, and governmental. Next years summit will take place in Abu Dhabi, and I hope those in the audience this year will return next year with new commitments. 


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