Why Paris Talks Must Include a Plan for the World’s Oceans

Bradley Campbell

A cunner swims through healthy kelp forest at Cashes Ledge

Protection for our oceans must be part of an international climate agreement. Photo: Brian Skerry

It is Oceans Day at the COP21 talks, with thought leaders from the U.S. and from around the world highlighting the devastating impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans. Leader after leader touts the linkage between climate change, fisheries, food security, and (in the case of island nations that will be submerged by sea-level rise) national survival. The U.S. State Department’s Undersecretary Catherine A. Novelli has been eloquent on these points.

Island developing states, in particular, make the compelling case that climate change already is devastating their economies, increasing debt burdens linked to sea level rise, storm recovery, and ocean acidification. Impressively, many of these small island developing states are leading the effort to conserve their marine resources, which in most cases comprise the lion’s share of of the natural capital available to sustain their economies.

Despite or because of climate threats, many small island states have recognized that marine protected areas (MPAs) with no-take zones are essential to the long-term health of their economies. Pulau proudly boasts here that 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone is an MPA. Easter Island has an MPA of a million square kilometers. These boasts come with scientific confidence that, by providing safe habitat to foster recovery of species stressed by climate change, the remaining waters open to fishing will be more robustly productive both for fishermen and for the larger economy.

The View from New England
The Paris talks are a poignant reminder that, while less developed nations like Pulau, Seychelles, and Indonesia clearly understand – and have acted on – the importance of MPAs for the long-term survival of commercial fisheries and marine biodiversity against the impacts of climate change, New England’s fishermen and regulators have yet to buy in.

For years, Conservation Law Foundation has advocated for permanent protection of a miniscule but biologically important area of the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. This can be done by creating the United States’ first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, comprised of biodiversity hot spots at Cashes Ledge and nearby Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

Last summer, renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle joined a CLF dive on Cashes Ledge, a fragile underwater mountain range located just 80 miles off the coast of New England. Dr. Earle, who has dived on some the world’s most remarkable ocean places, found herself in awe at what she found on Cashes Ledge, declaring it “the Yellowstone of the Atlantic,” and marveling at the “glorious, golden forest” of kelp that covered its underwater peaks. After experiencing this special place for herself, she joined CLF’s call for President Obama to use his authority to protect these areas permanently by designating them marine national monuments.

But the president has yet to act, despite the lack of dispute on the scientific merit of protecting these areas, and many elected officials have bowed to short-term interests of fishermen rather than supporting the steps needed to protect the long-term sustainability of fisheries increasingly stressed by ocean acidification and rising ocean temperatures.

Here in Paris, during these critical climate talks, world leaders must act on the fact that climate change places the natural capital, the economic prosperity, and the vital communities dependent on ocean resources in immediate peril. And yet, on this putative “Oceans Day,” word has come that those at the negotiating table have, as in past climate negotiations, have removed critical ocean protections from the anticipated agreement. We cannot let this happen.

Of course, no agreement that emerges from Paris will dictate country-specific MPAs, but an international climate agreement must support and compel action to address the impacts climate change is having on our oceans. If it does, MPAs will inevitably follow the science.

At home, New England states and the Obama administration, which have led the nation and the world on so many aspects of climate and energy policy, cannot afford to end their leadership at the water’s edge. In this area, at least, Pulau is ahead of us.

Read more from CLF advocates about how what happens in Paris will impact what needs to happen here in New England to cut carbon, boost renewables, and protect our communities.

CLF President Brad Campbell is on the ground in Paris reporting from COP21. Follow his updates on Twitter.

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