Our Ocean conference recap

A Boston University marine program lecturer gives readers a peek into the State Department’s Our Ocean conference last month

By Jennifer Bender, Ph.D. | College of Arts & Sciences Marine Program

This was no ordinary conference. Sure, there were keynote speakers and panel sessions, but there was no picking and choosing what sessions to go to. No revolutionary self-help expert to help you sell your software better. Just a giant room in the United States Department of State filled with world leaders all trying to accomplish the same thing: protecting our oceans.

I have wanted to go to Our Ocean as I heard a lot about it. Mainly that it is similar to what a United Nations meeting might look or be like, but focused on a country’s contribution to ocean conservation.

To give you an idea of the scope of attendees, here is a list of just some of the 90 official attending entities: Canada, Ecuador, Cambodia, Colombia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Malta, Morocco, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Norway, Lebanon, Kuwait, Philippines, Monaco, Panama, Australia, Spain, France. Oh—and dedicated environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, too.

Experts estimated the cause raised $5.24 billion dollars that week alone, with the promise of 136 new initiatives—all dedicated to ocean conservation. These commitments totaled protection of almost 1.5 million square miles of the ocean.

I have never been in a room where so much money was raised for the ocean, and it was truly an environmental scientist’s dream. It was the culmination of years of conservation efforts.

Though I did not sit next to Academy Award winner DiCaprio (as my daughter would have liked), I somehow ended up next to Sylvia Earle, another inspiration in the environmental conservation crowd. She’s the woman who once famously said: “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” She is a renowned marine biologist and author, and has been a National Geographic explorer-in-residence since 1998.

Secretary of State John Kerry. He hosted the conference.

In the blue-lit room where we sat, it seemed each speaker was greater than the last. Everyone was fighting to be the greatest problem-solver, the most innovative thinker. It was competitive ocean protection, but we all won.

As Secretary John Kerry, who hosted the Conference, said: “Our ocean is absolutely essential for life itself — not just the food, but the oxygen and weather cycles of the planet all depend on the ocean.”

The conference also introduced two watershed moments in conservation history for the United States.

President Obama announced the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, protecting 137,797 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. It will permanently protect 7,000 species from coral to green turtles.

Obama also made a pledge to protect the other side of the country (despite angering the local fishing community there). Introducing the first protected area in the North Atlantic, Obama decreed—through a presidential proclamation—the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. 4,913 square miles of permanent protection from fishing, drilling, and mining.

Obama has arguably accomplished the most for conservation of any president since Theodore Roosevelt.

During the conference, Obama quoted an old Native American saying that reminded me why I was there, and spoke to his deep commitment to our environment: “It’s been said that we don’t inherit the earth from our parents, so much as we borrow it from our children.”

At the end of the day, that is why we are environmental scientists. We want our kids and their kids to experience the warming waves of summer, the beautiful mountains of winter—the ebbs and flows that surround us.

I say again, Our Ocean 2016 was no ordinary conference—it was a meeting to declare international cooperation in protecting our oceans. It reinforced my feeling that around the world, people want to protect the same ocean I put my feet into every summer. It was diplomacy in motion, the UN of ocean protection. We are doing a better job than we have in years past. But, like farmers, our work is never done and we always have more to accomplish.

I think of another thing Obama said to us: “Nature is actually resilient if we take care to just stop actively destroying it.” This conference was active. This conference was forward. And it was a step in the right direction.

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