Four Things to Watch for at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference

Fish Swimming coast of Somalia

This week, leaders in ocean conservation from around the world will meet in Washington, DC for the third Our Ocean conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. During the first two conferences in 2014 and 2015, political and business leaders committed $4 billion to new maritime sustainability initiatives and announced 6 million square km of new marine protected areas. This year, the conference will spur new action in four areas: marine protected areas, climate, sustainable fisheries, and marine pollution.

The Our Ocean conference is an important mechanism for catalyzing initiatives and producing commitments from global leaders to improve the health of the world’s oceans. According to Dr. Ayana Johnson, principle at Ayana Elizabeth Consulting LLC and resident at TED, “The greatest value of [Our Ocean] is in setting a deadline that forces entities to plan ocean conservation commitments they can announce publicly. This conference-as-deadline has resulted in a suite of notable announcements at previous Our Ocean summits.”

At Secure Fisheries, we are especially concerned with the threat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing poses for the health of the world’s fisheries. IUU fishing undermines sustainable fisheries when illegal gear destroys ocean habitat, endangered species are targeted or discretely discarded at sea, or management quotas are exceeded. Furthermore, the inability to properly track and report IUU fishing means fisheries management organizations lack accurate information on where, when, and how much fishing is taking place in national waters, thereby increasing the risk of overfishing.

Here are four outcomes for sustainable fisheries we hope to see resulting from the 2016 Our Ocean conference:

1. Increase ratifications of the FAO’s Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA) to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate IUU Fishing.

The PSMA was approved by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2009 and went into force earlier this year when 25 nations, including the United States, ratified the agreement. This agreement aims to reduce IUU fishing by preventing fish caught illegally from entering into ports of commerce for importation and sale. Nations who ratify the treaty agree to inspect fishing vessels that request access to their ports and deny entry and port services to those vessels that violate regulations. By making it more difficult and therefore more costly for vessels engaging in IUU fishing to unload their catch, the incentives to fish illegally are reduced. At the Our Ocean conference, we hope to see announcements of ratification from the 10 nations that have signed but not yet ratified the agreement, from the 10 additional nations that have begun ratification procedures, and from the many nations that represent some the world’s largest fishing fleets and maritime ports that have neither signed nor ratified the agreement. Until all coastal nations ratify this agreement, vessels engaged in IUU fishing will continue to find safe haven and markets for their catch.

2. Improve global coordination on IUU fishing through the US State Department’s Safe Ocean Network.

At Our Ocean 2015, the US launched the Safe Ocean Network, a partnership of governments and ocean stakeholders dedicated to fighting IUU fishing through information and technology sharing. At this year’s conference, the Network is expected to announce a series of projects designed to build technical capacity in all aspects of the fight against illegal fishing including detection, enforcement, and prosecution. The Safe Ocean Network has gained support from key players around the world, but the global nature of IUU fishing means far more nations need to join forces. We hope to see firm commitments from nations to support, monetarily and technically, the goals and efforts of the Safe Ocean Network.  For example, nations should commit to sharing information about their on-going or new efforts to combat IUU fishing. They should also commit to broader dissemination of and training in the use of satellite information, Automatic Identification Systems, and Vessel Monitoring Systems for tracking fishing vessels. Such commitments will dovetail with efforts by the FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement to prevent IUU fishing vessels from selling their catch.

3. Reduce overfishing by ending subsidies that unsustainably promote fishing capacity.

Governments provide subsidies to the fishing industry to support the costs of gasoline and diesel, boat construction, and operating costs. While key to developing fishing fleets decades ago, today these tax-payer-funded subsidies encourage overfishing. Dr. Rashid Sumaila, Professor and Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, says the most important conference outcome would be “us[ing] public funds to support sustainable fisheries, not undermine them: take down capacity-enhancing subsidies.” Dr. Sumaila’s research has shown that this financial support allows too many boats to fish farther from shore and for longer periods of time than is economically efficient. This overcapitalization has created a global industrialized fishing fleet that is 250% larger than what sustainable fisheries can support. We hope to see strong commitments from nations with industrial distant water fisheries to fully end capacity-enhancing subsidies in the next 3-5 years.

4. Leverage momentum from the IUCN World Conservation Congress to more fully protect global shark populations.

From September 1 – 10, members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) met at the World Conservation Congress to set priorities for a global approach to conservation. The Species Survival Commission Shark Specialist Group noted with alarm the growing number of sharks and rays categorized as threatened on its Red List, an assessment of the conservation status of species around the world. IUCN members voted to support trade restrictions on silky sharks, three species of thresher sharks, and nine species of mobula rays. These restrictions will be considered at CoP17 World Wildlife Conference, the 17th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES is an effective mechanism for protecting endangered species by restricting legal trade, and in 2013 the organization added five species of sharks to its protective mandates. But in the past, a minority of member countries have blocked efforts to protect other species of shark. Our Ocean comes on the heels of important shark conservation commitments at the IUCN World Conservation Congress and one week before politically contentious discussions begin at CoP17.  We hope to see explicit support for the listing of silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays on CITES Appendix II by all nations attending Our Ocean 2016.

In its first two years, the Our Ocean conference has resulted in important deadlines to hold policy makers and organizations accountable to their promises, a platform to enhance partnerships between ocean decision “makers and doers”, and greater public attention to issues of ocean conservation. The above list contains just four important outcomes we hope to see for sustainable fisheries. Keep a watch on #OurOcean2016 for a host of important announcements and commitments!