REFLECTIONS ON A SHALLOW WORLD OCEAN SUMMIT
By Zeke Grader
Sea levels may be rising but there was little depth to the recent World Ocean Summit (www.economistinsights.com/sustainability-resources/event/world-ocean-summit-2014), this past February’s soiree attracting politicos, princes, press and varying degrees of celebrity.
Sponsored by The Economist and National Geographic, the gathering at the Ritz-Carlton golf resort in Half Moon Bay — a safe distance from the sights, sounds and people of the nearby fishing harbor — was a disappointingly shallow affair, snubbing key marine constituents and avoiding the single greatest issue confronting the health of the world’s ocean.
The logo for the Summit, a lionfish, should have been an indicator that the organizers didn’t know much about ocean issues, or didn’t care, in their selection of a voracious invasive (in parts of the world) as the symbol for this Summit, following its inaugural session in Singapore two years ago.
By video hook-up or in person, the publications and their co-sponsors (a major oil company, a shipping company, two major foundations involved in marine issues, Google and some lesser knowns) managed to attract the Presidents of Portugal, Gabon and Columbia, the former President of Costa Rica Jose Maria Figures (Co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission), Prince Charles, Prince Albert of Monaco, Secretary of State John Kerry, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former UK Foreign Minister David Millibrand (Co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission), Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Program, EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs & Fisheries Maria Damanaki, and former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenko, along with a bevy of lower ranking bureaucrats, World Bank personnel, corporation shills, corporate green NGOs and a few academics.
Snubbing the Fishing Community
Conspicuous by their absence were any fishery representatives on any of the panels, despite all the discussions about fishing. Indeed, there were only two fishermen representatives present among the 300 odd participants — John Papalardo of the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen?s Association, and myself.
In his opening remarks to the gathering, Secretary Panetta, who had chaired the Pew Oceans Commission, made a point of the fact that the fishing community has to be at the table in ocean discussions. That admonition was ignored by the organizers and its Advisory Board assembling the Summit.
No effort was made to involve representatives of global fishing organizations (e.g., the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF), or the World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fishworkers (WFF)), there was not even outreach to local fishing leaders, such as Pietro Parravano, a Half Moon Bay fisherman who served on the Pew Oceans Commission and lives less than a mile from the summit meeting site, nor Dan Wolford, a recreational fisherman and Chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, living in Silicon Valley just over the hill from the Ritz-Carlton. But that didn’t stop Summiteers from going on at length about fishing.
Fishermen were not the only ones snubbed by conference organizers; so too were those in the maritime trades, along with inhabitants of islands and coastal areas about to be inundated by sea level rise, subsistence and artisanal fishing communities threatened with displacement by marine protected areas or eco-tourism, and those whose food security depends on what they gather from the sea.
Missing as well were those engaged in the hands-on work of ending overfishing, rebuilding fish stocks, restoring habitats, cleaning up and preventing pollution. Given this Summit’s location along the north central California coast it would have been easy to summon a representative from either the Pacific or North Pacific fishery councils to discuss the steps those bodies took to end overfishing. It also would have been easy to bring in someone with experience in dealing with coastal pollution to discuss the steps needed to protect ocean water quality.
It should also have been easy enough to invite a representative of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for a preview of their upcoming Report and to talk about what effects may be expected from global warming, recommended steps for addressing greenhouse gas emissions, and measures for adapting to ocean related-climate change impacts ranging from sea level rise to increased acidification.
Audacity, Hubris and Exceptionalism
To be fair, the discussions did range beyond fishing. There were representatives from the merchant shipping industry and resort developers, along with business theorists nattering on about “natural capital” and “nature services” trying to put a price tag on everything. The format for the summit was mostly of short presentations and a lot of soft-ball questions from a moderator who was more dilettante than expert. It was all very polite and very British (thanks to The Economist), but with little substance.
The “Summit speak” was a combination of MBA/Business jargon — the type used by the true believers in our deliverance through market-based solutions — and glib sound bites offered up by Big Green. Panelists exuded exceptionalism, and some even offered up the creation of MPAs in some poor hapless developing nation as environmental offsets (the sandbox for the “natural capital” types) for egregious ocean mining, drilling or dumping operations pursued by developed world corporations.
The Summit’s lack of depth was fully exposed in its fishery discussions. With all the teeth mashing about “overfishing” there was little said about the nature of the problem, where it was prevalent, where steps have been taken to end it (e.g., Europe) and where it has largely ended (e.g., U.S.).
Nothing was said about where funding would come from for ongoing stock assessments and research — the foundation for sustainable fishery management. Nor was there any discussion of the types of international treaties needed to effectively deal with transboundary stocks, nor anything about funding for enforcement or assistance to developing nations.
Even less was said about bycatch, other than a belief by some Summiteers that it could be magically ended through “rights-based” fishing management.
“Bycatch” itself was left ill-defined, with no distinction made between non-marketable fish shoveled over the side dead, or rocks and kelp, to species returned to the sea alive (e.g., females and undersized males in the Dungeness crab fishery, or releases of unmarked fish in “mark-select” salmon fisheries).
IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated) fisheries came up in the discussions, but no examples of where it was being dealt with (e.g., in the North Pacific by the U.S., Canada and Russia) nor any substantive solutions proposed — from international at-sea enforcement to seafood traceability programs.
Summiteers talked at length about governance, but were at a loss about what it would entail, other than somehow involve “financial markets” and eschew regulatory mechanisms.
Fishery subsidies were also a target at the Summit, with calls for their immediate end. No one, however, bothered defining what a “fishery subsidy” was. Was it simply government financial assistance for adding more fishing effort (i.e., building more or larger fishing vessels), which was probably in most minds — or was it fuel subsidies? Or did the term also encompass refitting and/or equipping vessels to be safer at sea, equipping vessels with more selective fishing gear, or equipping vessels or shoreside facilities with better refrigeration and fish preservation equipment to prevent spoilage and waste? Were fishery research and fish stock restoration/supplementation to be included under the term?
And why just fishery subsidies? What about government subsidies of unstainable aquaculture operations? What about subsidies to agriculture that rob freshwater inflow to estuaries or add pollution from runoff? Are not those subsidies equally harmful to oceans?
From Secretary Kerry’s speech to statements from Summiteers, a lot of attention was focused on marine protected areas (MPAs) and, specifically, the angst that so little of the ocean is under MPA designation (estimates ranged from less than 1 percent to 4 percent). MPAs have been offered up as the glib solution for all that ails the ocean by green groups, and that buzzword was glommed onto by Summiteers. MPAs can be a useful conservation tool in some instances — to provide additional protection for resident or spawning fish populations, to protect habitat structure from certain types of fishing gear, to establish areas free of human activity for baseline research, or to create marine parks free of fishing or industrial activity. But they are certainly not an end in themselves.
The success of MPAs, after all, is not defined by what percentage of ocean waters they cover, but in their success in achieving one of the goals outlined above. Successful MPAs require not only clear goals and proper siting, including complimentary fishing regulations and pollution controls, but also a strong monitoring and enforcement component — a cost Summiteers never addressed.
Moreover, despite all Big Green’s blather about providing “resilience,” MPAs are mere “Maginot Lines in the Sea” (i.e., useless) when it comes to pollution and climate change — two huge issues the Summit completely avoided.
The 800 lb. Gorilla
The issue, of course, the Summit sought to avoid was climate change and its effects on ocean waters. But that would have meant a discussion of greenhouse gas emissions — something organizers, The Economist and National Geographic, wanted to avoid lest they alienate advertisers and corporate donors, not to mention some Summit sponsors.
Just a month following the summit, the IPCC issued a large portion of its Fifth Report (www.ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5). There can now be no denying that rapid climate change poses the single greatest threat to the ocean and its fisheries — and the planet. But one would not have known that attending the World Ocean Summit. Summiteers were in their own form of denial.
Let Them Eat Red Herring
The IPCC released its final report on 31 March. Parts of it had been leaked earlier, certainly enough to tell the Summit organizers that climate change impacts on the ocean needed to be front and center, which they were not.
The same day as the IPCC report release, two co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission and former EPA Administrator Carol Browner wrote the Financial Times one of those “tragedy of the commons” letters, acknowledging the IPCC findings, but then going on to complain about overfishing and the need for MPAs.
Sure overfishing is a problem, but in the scheme of things its relatively easy to fix, as is the designation of MPAs where warranted. However, what the letter’s authors did, as did the ocean Summiteers, is focus only on smaller, easier problems — offering up red herrings as distractions from the difficult work ahead curbing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to accelerating climate change, including increasingly acidic oceans.
This is the time to heed the IPCC’s warnings, not stuff ourselves on red herring.
It would be easy to dismiss the World Ocean Summit as just another corporate/professional getaway held in an upscale resort hotel, dressed up as a serious conference to write-off a vacation.
The problem is, shallow as it was, some policy maker is likely to take its recommendations seriously. Secretary Kerry, in his video hook-up talk, said the State Department would be hosting an International Ocean Summit this summer, and another World Ocean Summit is anticipated in about two years.
The fishing community — real fishing men and women — must be at these tables. If the sessions are to have any depth, fishermen have to be present, providing their expertise and representing their interests. Decisions about our oceans cannot be left up to large corporations, corporate green NGOs and lapdog academics and bureaucrats.
The cost of these events is not cheap (the charge for February’s summit was approx. $2,000 for NGOs, $3,000 for everyone else, excluding travel and lodging). However, we should demand that scholarships be provided, particularly for fishing representatives from developing nations as well as our own. If a foundation can sponsor a large luncheon or cocktail reception for its well-heeled and well-fed friends, it can certainly cough up some stipends to ensure meaningful fishing community participation.
Distasteful and disagreeable as these events may be, commercial fishermen are an essential voice when it comes to our oceans and fisheries. They should be heard.
Zeke Grader (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). He can be reached via email or at PCFFA’s San Francisco Office, PO Box 29370, SF, CA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080 x 224.