Addressing the Our Ocean Conference in Palau on Thursday, the President of the UN General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, urged the international community to expand protective areas of the ocean, support the scientific community and tackle plastic pollution. 

This year, the Conference, which is hosted for the first time by one of the countries of the small island developing States group, focus on the theme Our Ocean, Our People, Our Prosperity.  

The two-day event is a key moment for countries, civil society, and industry to commit to concrete and significant actions to protect the ocean.  

Protect the ocean, ‘together’ 

There is no way to protect the ocean without wading together with all relevant stakeholders”, Mr. Shahid told an audience that included the two co-hosts – Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr. and John Kerry, the United States’ Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. 

Speaking at the 7th Our Ocean Conference, the Assembly President, who hails from the Maldives, said he was heartened that the event was taking place on one of the frontline island nations most at risk from climate change-induced rising sea levels, driving home the importance of the issue. 

In his address, Mr. Shahid, the sixth elected assembly president to come from the small islands group, cited four main areas of conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and seas.   

More protection  

Firstly, he called for an expansion of protected areas. Even though the ocean covers about 70 per cent of the planet, less than eight per cent of it is protected.  

“The Our Ocean Conference continues to marshal global momentum in this regard”, he continued.  

The past six conferences have led to more than 1,400 commitments, amounting to over $90 billion, protecting at least five million square kilometres of the ocean.  

More data and information  

Second, the UN Assembly President called for investment in “solid, reliable, and accessible ocean science data and information”, which could be used to inform policies and programmes. 

The United Nations in 2021, declared a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. 

As mandated by the General Assembly, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is working with Member States to build up national capacity in science, to better understand and improve management of the ocean, coasts, and ecosystems.  

This year several major international summits are also being organized to promote ocean health. And later in June, Portugal will be hosting the UN Ocean Conference, which will seek to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action

Warming planet means a warming ocean  

In his address, Mr. Shahid also stressed the important of recognizing and addressing the threats facing the ocean. Referring to the IPCC report launched earlier this month as a “wake-up call”, the President noted that “a warming planet means a warming ocean” with increased levels of acidification and greater loss of marine ecosystems and marine biodiversity. 

Just in the past few weeks, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) announced that climate change had triggered the Great Barrier Reef’s sixth mass bleaching.  

Meanwhile, UNESCO scientists are considering whether to add the Reef, which is considered one of the world’s seven natural wonders, to their “in danger” list.

Microplastics and marine pollution  

The fourth point which he emphasized was “tackling plastic pollution”. 

“Just last week, researchers found, for the first time, microplastics in lungs of humans, highlighting the scale and severity of the problem,” Mr. Shahid said, of the study published in the Science of the Total Environment. 

Given that plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, it is estimated that only about 20 per cent of the plastic created since the 1950s has been incinerated or successfully recycled. 

Highlighting the importance of amplifying synergies between ocean action and other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as poverty reduction and sustainable consumption and production, Mr. Shahid reiterated the importance of a complete ban on plastic pollution in our ocean.

The President also noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary since the adoption of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.

The occasion provides an opportunity to review and renew commitments to the ocean – its governance, its sustainable use, and its conservation, he concluded.