Time to Stop Taking Our Ocean For Granted

Our ocean is vital to the health of the planet, but we have been taking it for granted. It’s time for us to collaborate across sectors and disciplines on solutions.

“Without a healthy ocean, we cannot have a healthy planet,” said Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, at a panel discussion during the United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit, which was held virtually in June.

Climate change, plastic and waste pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and poor governance pose significant threats to ocean health, which is rapidly deteriorating. A healthy ocean is vital to the overall well-being of the planet and offers vast potential resources to support sustainable development. Ocean-based solutions can play a key role in recovering better from the COVID-19 pandemic and delivering on the Global Goals. 

Seafarers stranded

With nearly 90 per cent of the global trade carried by ocean-going vessels, shipping is a critical component of global supply chains and the transportation of goods.

The most pressing problem, according to Guy Platten, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Shipping, is that more than 200,000 seafarers are stranded at sea because COVID-19 measures in many countries mean that they are not allowed to disembark at ports.

Workers who would typically be at sea for six to nine months are now facing more than a year at sea, unable to see their families and missing events like birthdays, weddings and funerals. They are tired, which jeopardizes the safety of the ship, and in many cases, the situation is taking a toll on their mental health.

Meanwhile, the seafarers on shore who were due to replace them are currently stuck at home and unable to go to work. “We need Governments to prioritize seafarers as essential workers,” said Platten. 

In April, the UN Global Compact issued a Call to Action on the Imminent Threats to Integrity of Global Supply Chains. The recommendations were a consolidation of the work of the COVID-19 Task Force initiated by the Sustainable Ocean Business Action Platform of the UN Global Compact and called for the adoption of an internationally recognized “key worker” status for those operating essential services. 

Heike Deggim, Director of the Maritime Safety Division at the International Maritime Organization, said that shipping is a global business and therefore, solutions must be global as well. A coordinated, global effort is needed to address challenges caused by the pandemic, which inherently transcend national and administrative borders. 

The panel discussion was held in mid-June, but the issue remains at the time of writing

Collaborative clean-up
Global solutions will also be necessary to clean up the ocean, consequently helping to mitigate the effects of climate change and protect marine life. Baroness Scotland, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, said a third of the ocean falls under the jurisdiction of Commonwealth nations and since 2018, Commonwealth nations have been working together on conservation. Scotland noted that since membership of the Commonwealth Blue Charter is voluntary, only those with an interest in bringing about change sign up. She added that the problems facing the sector “cannot be solved by one nation or region nor by one sector”.

Rolf Thore Roppestad, Chief Executive Officer of marine insurers Gard, said: “National solutions often come [up] short and global solutions often take a long time. Therefore, in addition to the larger multi-stakeholder collaboration, it is also important to keep in mind the smaller, more practical cross-sectoral initiatives.”

He gave an example of collaboration between ship owners, Governments and regulators through which the quantity of oil spilled in the ocean from tankers on a 10 year average was reduced by 97 per cent over 40 years through international conventions focused on safety and ship design innovation. Multi-stakeholder approaches will be crucial to recovery from COVID-19 and for marine sustainability.

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