Rain, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe are provided and regulated by the ocean. But the ocean is in trouble.
There is a continuous deterioration of coastal waters due to acidification caused by the increase in global temperature, which, in turn, has an adverse effect on the functioning of ecosystems, marine biodiversity and small-scale fisheries. Pollution from liquid and solid waste is increasing at an alarming rate, a third of fish stocks are overexploited, marine biodiversity continues to decline and approximately half of all living corals have been lost, while invasive alien species are a great threat to ecosystems and marine resources, according to data from the United Nations (UN).
Acting to counteract this condition in which the ocean finds itself is imperative, not only because our well-being and survival depend on its health, but also because it is a key ally in the fight against climate change. "The ocean absorbs about 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans, cushioning the impacts of global warming," the UN notes.
However, this service of trapping carbon dioxide is increasing its acidity and decreasing its oxygen, with the consequent effects on marine life. The dialogues, parallel events and plenary sessions of the United Nations Conference on the Ocean (UNOC) dealt with these and many other problems facing the ocean and the negative effects that the communities closest to it will suffer. The conference was held from June 27 to July 1 in Lisbon, Portugal.
The main goal of the conference was to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 Life below water: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” However, to achieve the objective, the commitment of political leaders and other actors in society is necessary, who must make and reinforce efforts to mobilize, create and promote solutions that allow saving the ocean from the decline it is experiencing, as well as it is dictated by the proclaimed Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) .
The good news is that beyond the words and promises that the leaders of the participating countries usually make in this type of event, there are people and non-governmental environmental organizations that are making demands and concrete actions in favor of the ocean, for the benefit of all living beings on the planet.
The youth stand guard
An example of willingness and optimism to participate in events of global interest such as this UNOC 2022, is the Guatemalan aquaculturist Hazel Araujo, coordinator of the marine-coastal education department at Semillas del Oceano.
Araujo is in charge of planning and teaching environmental education courses to children and youth in coastal communities in Guatemala. Her biggest challenge continues to be obtaining financing, both to cover the costs of her participation in training and events of world importance (UNOC 2022), and to implement long-term educational projects. “The attitude and perception of people regarding the environment and natural resources cannot be changed or measured in less than six months. To generate real impacts, it is necessary to be able to achieve educational goals in the short, medium and long term,” she pointed out during an interview in Lisbon.
“There is also a need to combat social factors – such as age and gender discrimination – that impede climate action. For example, there are times when in the Caribbean of Guatemala I teach environmental courses to children in general, which are only attended by boys, because their parents do not authorize girls to go to study. They must stay at home doing housework. And other times, not all the children who have registered come either, because they must work to contribute to the family support," she said.
"How to promote interest and action for conservation among populations without equality or equity and who also do not have their basic needs met?" asked Araujo.
Despite the challenges that Araujo must overcome, her leadership and track record in environmental education in favor of the ocean allowed her to be one of the young people selected by The Millennials Movement to obtain their UNOC 2022 accreditation. This civil society organization led by young people, based in the Latin American and Caribbean region, promotes knowledge and action to achieve the goals of each SDG, and in this case, SDG 14 Life below water, in which Hazel has extensive experience. That was how she, along with Nicole Reyes, (Peru), and Camilo Ramírez (Colombia) were participating in the aforementioned conference.
Seabed mining: imminent danger
Araujo also chairs the Guatemalan chapter of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA), an international organization that introduced a moratorium to ban deep-sea mining in Latin America, an issue that is not yet talked about in Guatemala, but one that we must be attentive to.
What does this mining consist of? Well, in addition to flora and fauna, the seabed is home to mineral deposits rich in metals, whose potential value makes extracting them of commercial interest for some sectors. In this regard, Hazel commented that deep-sea mining would cause a lot of damage to the biodiversity of the sea and would even affect ecosystems for which there is still not enough or no scientific information.
“Deep sea mining is an industry and a threat to ocean health that we need to stop before it starts,” said Sian Owen, director of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), who participated in the panel: Time Is Running Out to Act for the Ocean: Identifying the Next Opportunities to Protect the Ocean and the Planet, held at UNOC 2022.
During the aforementioned panel, Owen also expressed hope that not only more countries but also civil society, business representatives, scientists and citizens get involved, because it is a topic of interest to both those who live in the mountains and on the coasts, because we all, in some way, depend on a healthy ocean for our daily subsistence.
Let's protect the high seas
“2022 is a critical year for our ocean, and we have two unique opportunities to protect it. One is the negotiation to be held in New York in August of a new legally binding treaty for the conservation and management of the high seas, which is the area of the ocean that extends beyond the national jurisdiction of each country in particular. The high seas make up two-thirds of the world's ocean and cover nearly half of the planet's surface," said Lisa Speer, a marine biologist, director of the International Oceans Program at the National Resources Defense Council (NDRC).
However, the high seas face growing threats from multiple sources, including chemical pollution, noise, plastics, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and a variety of new and emerging uses, all compounded by the growing effects of climate change and ocean acidification. "This ongoing negotiation provides an opportunity to protect the ocean to improve its management and begin to reverse the declines we have seen globally," she added.
The other opportunity Speer alluded to is the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which will take place in December in Montreal, Canada. “During this, new conservation goals will be set for the next 10 years, and we hope to see an agreement to significantly protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. And while 30 x 30 is the mantra that many have introduced to refer to this goal of protecting 30% of land and sea surfaces by 2030, it is important not to focus only on the number of protected areas, but also on the quality of that protection. Otherwise, we will risk 30% of the ocean and be left with only paper parks or protected areas, ineffective in conserving biodiversity and improving the resilience we need for the ocean,” she emphasized.
The ocean of the new generations
“From young people we need their perspective, their solutions, because they are the future leaders of government. The way they produce stories and use them along with technology to share important information is different and we need to take advantage of it,” said Anne-Marie Laura, director of international government relations at the Ocean Conservancy .
“I would add that they bring energy to these globally important discussions, different, new, creative energy that adds success. In them there is a mobilizing force, an opportunity for these issues to be mobilized more widely, because young people have the urgency that the speeches be transferred to concrete actions,” Owen pointed out.
Given that the protection of the ocean must be a priority, because marine biodiversity is vital for the health of people and the planet, Araujo will continue working on environmental education for children in coastal communities in Guatemala. Between her various tasks — and just as she did at UNOC 2022, where she met with the Guatemalan Minister of the Environment and handed him letters from her students — she will help her students get their messages across local authorities. In these letters, children and young people — as all citizens of the world should do, says Araujo — call on them to legislate and enforce the law for a healthy ocean, free of contamination by plastics and sewage.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was first published in Spanish in No-Ficción on July 11, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The sea and the Volcanos of Guatemala / Credit: Cesar Zacarias-Coxic.