Report from the World Ocean Summit

March 5, 2014

Last week, I flew to Half Moon Bay for the World Ocean Summit, hosted by The Economist and National Geographic. It brought together world leaders, nonprofit and industry executives, foundations, resource economists, and scientists to discuss the most pressing problems facing the ocean, and brainstorm solutions.

The conference began with a opening remarks by Julie Packard, founding Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who noted that California is home to the nation’s largest marine protected area network (a project Resource Media has been privileged to work on for a decade), and that business and conservation groups have a successful history of collaboration on marine issues, including the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, and the Marine Stewardship Council.

The first day’s speakers ranged from John Kerry and the Princes of Monaco and Wales to the Vice President of the World Bank, and Vice President for the Environment of Royal Dutch Shell. From conservation leaders, businesspeople, and government officials, the message was the same: the ocean is too big to fail. It is the primary protein source for 1 billion people, produces half the oxygen we breathe, and absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. Furthermore, it is a vast source of wealth—producing $3 trillion worth of goods and services every year—and a renewable resource if managed properly.

But all agree current practices aren’t sustainable. Marine reserves were mentioned dozens of times as a bright spot, a way to restore biodiversity and resilience while replenishing fisheries. But less than 2% of the world’s ocean is currently closed to fishing, and many marine protected areas suffer from inadequate enforcement or poor design.

The High Seas, waters under international jurisdiction, make up about two thirds of the ocean, and 45% of the world’s surface. There was talk at the conference of declaring the whole area off limits to fishing, since 2/3 of fish stocks there are now depleted, and fishermen are collecting $35 billion in subsidies to drive this exploitation.

The enforcement challenges facing existing marine protected areas, however, indicate that sweeping policy change is not the solution to ocean management. Instead, the World Ocean Summit focused on the business case for sustainability.

The Ocean Health Index created by Conservation International shows how our choices impact valuable ecosystem services like food provision, tourism and recreation, and coastal protection. PWC’s Total Impact tool models how different choices—say, wetlands restoration versus coastal armoring—compare on social economic, tax and environmental indicators.

The second day, attendees split into smaller working groups. I attended a session called “Natural capital: Putting the ocean economy on a rational footing” facilitated by Enric Sala of National Geographic Society, and Dorothy Maxwell of Natural Capital Coalition. We talked about the value of a mangrove to protect beaches from erosion, buffer hurricanes to save lives, and shelter young shrimp that support local fishermen. There are tremendous advances being made in natural capital valuation, and this data can inform policy and corporate strategy.

But, as veterans of many resource battles, we know that information alone is insufficient to promote conservation. There are cultural and logistical obstacles. Sometimes the group that stands to benefit from development is different from the group that relies on ecosystem services. And there are issues of habit and preference to contend with.

That is where communications comes in. I have returned from the World Ocean Summit inspired by the opportunities before us, and excited to uncover and amplify the stories and imagery that will bring natural capital and ecosystem services information to life and truly facilitate policy and behavior change.

Just last night, while editing an article for UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme newsletter about a youth education program at Guanacaste Area de Conservacion, I was reminded of all the wonderful work happening among our partners to communicate the value of natural capital in human terms. I am proud and humbled to be working with such tremendous changemakers.

Nicole Lampe