Secretary Kerry holds discussion with Prince Albert II of Monaco at the “Our Ocean” conference in Washington, D.C. in June. Image: US State Department.

Government departments for foreign affairs might not seem the obvious protagonists for ocean science, the sustainable use of marine resources and the need to address climate change. Yet there is strong logic for their involvement: most marine ecosystem services are either delivered by the ‘high seas’ (shared by all nations as common assets); or else directly depend on sound management by others, within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Since any single country, however large, can only make limited progress in tackling marine issues on its own, regional and global policy action becomes essential; for example, to prevent fishery overexploitation and tackling wider issues of ocean health. European and UN bodies clearly play a major role in that regard, yet there is also scope for individual countries to both lead and stimulate commitment and collaborative action.

The US Department of State (equivalent to the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office) has recently risen to that challenge by giving high priority to ocean issues, with strong personal involvement by Secretary of State John Kerry. Originally entitled ‘Oceans under threat’ and scheduled for last October, the ‘Our Ocean’ conference was held on 16–17 June 2014 in Washington, DC—with the change in title recognizing that there is just one, interconnected global ocean, and that its stewardship is a collective responsibility for everyone, everywhere.

Kerry did not limit his attendance to the formal opening (as has been known for senior politicians with busy agendas), but dominated the conference—giving four speeches, as well as remarks at lunchtime and at an evening reception. The conviction of those speeches, exhorting the world’s decision-makers not just to hear the science but to act on it, gives rise to optimism.

Most researchers are very familiar with science conferences and their formats; a few also go to policy-directed events, either at the national or international level. The ‘Our Ocean’ conference was a unique mix of both, based on scientists sharing their knowledge not only with heads of state, ministers and other government representatives from more than 80 countries, but also with around 400 others from industry, philanthropic bodies, non-governmental organizations, universities and intergovernmental organizations. Hundreds more followed a live online broadcast of the event at US embassies around the world, including London, with wider social media coverage of over 6 million1 . Celebrity guest appearances included Ted Danson (No. 2 in US TV star ranking) and Leonardo DiCaprio. The latter was the conference highlight as far as the UK media was concerned, even in the ‘quality’ coverage of the issues, such as by the BBC and the Guardian2.

Speakers at the ocean acidification session: (L to R) Phil Williamson, Yimnang Golbuu, Bill Dewey, Alexis Valauri-Orton, Ove HoeghGuldberg and Carol Turley. Image: Richard Thompson (Plymouth University).

Discussions at the conference focused on three of the most serious problems that threaten the global ocean: over-fishing; pollution; and acidification. From Kerry’s perspective, none of these are intractable problems, yet effective remedial actions require substantive national and international political will: to improve fishery regulation and traceability; keep rubbish out of the seas; and at least make a start on changing energy policy to reduce, and eventually halt, the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and its associated chemical and ecological impacts.

Three UK experts were amongst the twenty scientists invited to speak, each delivering their messages in 5 minutes of non-technical information. Richard Thompson (Plymouth University, UK) discussed the problems of marine plastic litter, whilst the authors of this article explained the chemistry, scale and unprecedented speed of ocean acidification, and the closely-related need for more ocean acidification data on a worldwide basis, to improve understanding, short-term forecasting and long-term projections: ‘what you don’t measure, you can’t manage’. Bill Dewey (Taylor Shellfish Farms, WA) and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (University of Queensland, Australia) also spoke in the ocean acidification session: the former described how ocean acidification impacts, with potentially serious socio-economic consequences, were already underway in the north-west USA; the latter, how it would take ocean chemistry and ecosystems more than 10,000 years to recover from the changes that are currently occurring.

The aspirational headlines from the Action Plan arising from the conference3 were sufficiently generic so that all countries represented would (hopefully) be able to agree on them, without formal sign-up:

  • End overfishing in the ocean
  • Prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing
  • Reduce nutrient pollution to the marine environment
  • Reduce marine debris
  • Stem the increase in ocean acidification
  • Create worldwide capability to monitor ocean acidification
  • Create more marine protected areas
  • Protect coastal ecosystems that provide critical services

Coldwater corals off NW Scotland, a habitat threatened by ocean acidification. Image: UKOA/Changing Oceans expedition, HeriotWatt University.

    The next level down of the policy response—involving specific implementation actions—is, however, of critical importance, since that will determine the extent that current trends can be slowed or reversed. Is it envisaged that there will be legallybinding targets at either the national, regional or international level? How would complementarity be achieved with other ocean health initiatives, such as the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive and associated national commitments to achieve good environmental status? How will conflicts of interest be resolved? Little mention was made of the UN bodies with relevant responsibilities, perhaps because the US has limited influence at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (having recently lost its voting rights there) and has yet to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity.

    At the conference itself, a flurry of announcements and commitments were made, mostly relating to fishery control and enhanced marine protection. Thus, in addition to DiCaprio’s pledge of an extra US $7m for marine conservation projects, Barack Obama announced (by video) additional protection for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument; President Tong of Kiribati and the President Remengesau of Palau declared that commercial fishing would be phased out within most of their countries’ EEZs; and Sir David King, representing the UK Government, reminded the conference of the establishment in 2010 of the Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory) marine protected area, whilst also announcing that protected status around the Pitcairn Islands was now under consideration. In total, increased protection was declared for more than 3 million km2 of ocean—an area roughly the size of India.

    Leonardo DiCaprio delivers remarks at the 2014 “Our Ocean” Conference at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 2014. Image: US State Department.

    All these conservation initiatives are, of course, highly desirable, and are to be warmly welcomed. But what about the more difficult challenge of ocean acidification, closely related to climate change? Policy ‘solutions’ to that problem can be considered on several levels4 , including the need for better scientific understanding and improved monitoring. Yet there is fundamentally only one way to reduce future ocean acidification, and that is by reducing future carbon dioxide emissions. Here is what Kerry had to say on such issues at the conference:

    ‘What’s interesting about the challenges we face, I might add—and it is not just about the ocean—but so many of the challenges that are confounding the world today actually have pretty obvious solutions that are staring us in the face. It’s not as if we’re sitting around scratching our heads saying, “How do we solve the problem?” It’s really a question of “How do we find the political will?” “How do we get people to move—to sometimes move back very vested, powerful interests that like the status quo because change means reinvesting or changing the way you do business, even though in the long run it will save everybody a lot of money and a lot of grief?” It is pretty obvious where we are. The solution to climate change, which is a serious problem with respect to the oceans, as we have all seen, is very simple actually. It’s called energy policy. Energy policy is the solution to climate change’

    The implications of such an approach will, no doubt, take a lot more time and effort to be fully realized. Nevertheless, those views would seem of crucial importance as an indication of US policy intent5 —with particular regard to negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that the US has ratified and within which it plays a pivotal role. In just over a year’s time, all countries will meet in Paris for the 21st UNFCCC Conference of Parties, to negotiate reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions, to come into effect by 2020. As a short-term verdict on the ‘Our Ocean’ conference, we concur with Ambassador David Balton (US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries) that the event ‘exceeded even our greatest expectations’. But the long-term test will be around 2020, when—it is to be hoped—it could be seen as a turning point not just for US ocean policy, but in rescuing the future.

    Phil Williamson (Natural Environment Research Council and University of East Anglia) and Carol Turley (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)—Phil and Carol are the Science and Knowledge Exchange Coordinators of the UK Ocean Acidification (UKOA) research programme, co-funded by NERC, Defra and DECC.



    2. obama-oceans-marine-reserves-leonardo-dicaprio

    3. ‘Our Ocean 2014’, 16–17 June: Conference outcomes (Our Ocean Action Plan and Our Ocean Initiatives). http://

    4. Herr D., Isensee K., Harrould-Kolieb E. and Turley C. (2014) Ocean Acidification: International Policy and Governance Options. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Gland, Switzerland; marine/?16064/ocean-acidification-policy-guidance

    5. US policy implications were further discussed at a round-table meeting in mid-August, involving the US Department of State, the Foreign Service Institute, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (also with UK science representation).


    Phil Williamson and Carol Turley