Our planet has an ocean problem. It’s over-fishedover-warm, and over-run with plastic produced on land. Without a course correction on marine policy, our future as a species hangs in the balance. This is the backdrop against which the EU-hosted ‘Our Ocean’ conference unfolded in the Maltese capital of Valletta last month. Delegates gathered, speeches were given, pleas to international stakeholders were made, and, at the end of two days, member states pledged $7 billion to various initiatives aimed at protecting the world’s oceans. Yet despite how impressive this sum is, and how significant it is that global leaders are finally giving this issue the weight it deserves, this alone is not going to solve the problem. Prince Charles’ speech on the perils of plastic is unlikely to reach the ears of those living on the banks of the major rivers that belch the stuff into the world’s oceans. That’s not to say that the outcomes of Our Ocean are not steps in the right direction. Heads of state, NGOs, and businesses have put their money where their mouths are like never before. The funds pledged totalled almost as much as that promised at the previous three conferences and 437 tangible, measurable commitments were made. Even on of the biggest culprits behind the world’s plastics problem – big business – has begun to acknowledge its own role in damaging the oceans and some of the changes it needs to make. Unilever, for example, has pledged to make all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, while British retailer Marks and Spencer has said that it would study the feasibility of using a single polymer for packaging to make recycling easier. In addition, the event served as a platform for tabling multilateral solutions to protect the world’s oceans. Delegates focused on building momentum for an international treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas, an area beyond the jurisdiction of individual countries, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the oceans. Kristina Gjerde, high seas adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, also proposed a “World Bank for the ocean” to finance marine sustainability projects. All positive stuff, but unfortunately, saving the world’s oceans can only happen if we have buy-in from all the world’s countries, and one EU-led conference will not be enough to build momentum at ground zero—developing nations. Indeed, the major battlegrounds for these issues are Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The list of the biggest culprits for mismanaging plastic waste, for example, is largely populated by developing nations. Only five countries—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka—account for almost 60% of the ocean’s plastic pollution. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, while some coral bleaching can be attributed to macro issues such as climate change, a report has found that local issues such as tourism, overfishing, and pollution were posing the biggest problems. Elsewhere, in East Africa, countries might have the desire to protect their coastal territory but lack the funds and institutional capacity to deal with complex international issues such as pollution, illegal fishing, and the decline of marine ecosystems like coral reefs. That’s not to say that countries and NGOs in the developing world aren’t implementing positive initiatives. In Latin America, Chilean President Michele Bachelet has announced that the country will ban the use of plastic bags in all its coastal cities in a move that she says “will allow the public to contribute towards protecting the oceans.” Similarly, Niue, a diminutive South Pacific island nation, has turned 40% of its exclusive economic zone into a marine park, while Chile has again proven how seriously it takes the issue by creating two new marine parks where fishing and other extractive activities are banned. Combined, the three new parks protect a mass of ocean more than twice the size of Germany. Public-private partnerships are also creating real change by tackling some of the issues on land that are having a deleterious impact on our oceans. The Philip Stephenson Foundation, for example, is supporting efforts to restore marine life and coral reefs in the South Grenadines working together with CLEAR Caribbean, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and other NGOs. The aim is to support marine ecosystem restoration, alleviating some of the pressure on marine life in the area by facilitating an economy that does not fully rely on extracting reef resources.  Approaching the issue from another direction, the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy design challenge has awarded $1 million to six innovative businesses that have developed ways to reduce the plastic pollution caused by popular products such as shampoo sachets and coffee cups. Certainly, the appetite to do something about the impact humans are having on the world’s oceans is there, everywhere from the chambers of Brussels to innovative start-ups and NGOs. These public-private partnerships, combined with the record-breaking pledges at the Our Ocean conference and—finally—the implementation of a treaty to protect the lawless high seas, could prove pivotal.  

Caroline Holmund
Caroline Holmund is a management consultant and freelance writer in European affairs, transatlantic relations, and governance issues.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.