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Ocean Conservation and Climate Change in the Americas

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cooperation in social protection: exchanging experiences, expanding opportunities

Furthering the theme on Sustainable Development after its recent Ministerial Meeting, the OAS co-hosted an international discussion entitled “Our Shared Treasure: Oceans and Climate Change” on October 26 in Washington DC. The 67th OAS Policy Roundtable, sponsored by the Principality of Monaco and National Geographic, gathered expert panelists to discuss challenges and successful practices for ocean conservation.

The Principality of Monaco was represented by its Ambassador to the United States, Maguy Maccario Doyle, who stressed her country’s long legacy of environmental stewardship and welcomed the OAS forum as “the first ever to be dedicated to the subject of oceans and climate change together.”

In his opening remarks, OAS Assistant Secretary General, Néstor Méndez indicated that “The Oceans cover 70% of the surface and 99% of the living space by volume of the planet. Yet, we are only beginning to understand the goods and services the oceans provide in terms of economic and ecological benefits. The value of the ocean in absorbing pollution, cycling carbon, regulating climate, harboring biodiversity and providing basic life support to our planet remains to be quantified.”

The speakers addressed a myriad of actions needed to promote ocean integrity and productivity, but noted that given the inter-linked ecosystems of the ocean, this remains an enormous challenge. Experts underscored that a lucid understanding of the existing international and national initiatives and mechanisms related to ocean conservation will be essential to make progress.

In this light, the discussions at the Roundtable centered on successful practices, policies and mechanisms that promote ocean conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. By bringing governments, experts and specialized organizations together, the Roundtable helped lay the foundation to facilitate cooperation and a constructive dialogue towards the strengthening of sustainable development conditions and the protection of the environment.

RoundtableAn issue that became central to the discussion, illustrating the types of threats facing the region, was that of Sargassum seaweed. In recent years, huge mats of Sargassum have been washing up on Caribbean beaches, accumulating as high as 3 to 4 feet on some beaches. Although this “floating rainforest of the ocean” is a native and important ecological part of the Caribbean Sea, quantities of this magnitude have never been seen before, and experts believe climate change is at the root of the problem. The negative ecological, economic, and health impacts of these levels of Sargassum to local populations is a current concern to many governments. Its unsightliness and suffocating smell is affecting tourism revenue and triggering inland-migration of people living in some coastal communities. Fauna is also being impacted. Sea Turtles, for example, have trouble nesting on beaches and their offspring become tangled in the seaweed trying to reach the sea after hatching. Furthermore, the livelihoods of fisher-folk have been affected as they are unable to bring their catches ashore.

The Organization is well positioned to support countries in addressing this and other related challenges. Under its ReefFix Project, the OAS Department of Sustainable Development recently provided 15 small grants to support the effective management of coastal and marine resources in CARICOM Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Through ReefFix, participating countries developed cost-effective techniques that can be replicated throughout the wider Caribbean to mitigate marine health deterioration. On the issue at hand, for example, resulting ReefFix case studies provide collaborative research and encourage actions that could diminish problems such as Sargassum outbreaks.

Importantly, the 67th Policy Roundtable on Oceans and Climate Change encouraged the formation of an “Inter-American Task Force for the Oceans”, an initiative of great interest to OAS Member States. If it becomes operational, the Task Force could serve to strengthen the capacity of Member States to meet commitments made under international agreements, such as the Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI) – by which countries pledged toconserve 20% of their marine resources by 2020– and complement the collaborative research initiated under the OAS ReefFix Project.

This article was originally published in the SEDI newsletter.