UN Ocean Conference Signs Off on "Call for Action" To Protect World’s Marine Resources

15 June 2017

The UN Ocean Conference drew to a close on Friday 9 June, with government leaders and representatives endorsing a “call for action” aimed at supporting international efforts to protect the world’s oceans and their resources – including by tackling fisheries subsidies that exacerbate overfishing and overcapacity.

The 5-9 June event, held at United Nations headquarters in New York, was hailed by many as a landmark gathering, bringing together thousands of participants across different levels of government and other stakeholder groups.

The full name of the event was the UN Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, referring to the goals adopted in the same city nearly two years ago.

Sustainable Development Goal 14 commits governments to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development,” and features various associated targets and indicators geared towards meeting this goal, including reducing marine pollution; tackling overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and banning harmful fisheries subsidies by the year 2020, among others.

“Looking forward, the conservation and sustainable use of oceans can be achieved only if we manage to address effectively the threats that oceans face. This requires collaboration at all levels and across many sectors,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement on 8 June for World Oceans Day, which fell on the penultimate day of the conference.

Call for action

The “call for action” adopted on Friday was developed over several months of consultations, and features over a dozen points that highlight the value of oceans and marine resources for areas ranging from maritime trade to biodiversity – along with the current challenges facing ocean health. (See Bridges Weekly, 4 May 2017)

Officials throughout the event warned that protecting ocean health is critical to protecting individuals and communities that rely on such resources for their livelihoods and food security, with implications for potentially billions of people. At the global level, ocean health also has implications for climate change, given the role oceans play in turning carbon dioxide into oxygen – providing at least half of the world’s oxygen – and taking in excess heat.

“We are committed to halting and reversing the decline in the health and productivity of our ocean and its ecosystems and to protecting and restoring its resilience and ecological integrity. We recognise that the wellbeing of present and future generations is inextricably linked to the health and productivity of the ocean,” leaders said in their political call to action.

On trade, the same document makes a specific reference to acting “decisively” to tackle harmful fisheries subsidies that “contribute to overcapacity and overfishing” and those which facilitate IUU fishing – along with “accelerating” work towards a WTO deal on the subject.

With regards to the latter, this includes “recognising that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of those negotiations,” the document says.

According to media reports, the US and Russia both dissociated themselves from the paragraph related to the WTO talks, citing sensitivities and the need to keep those negotiations independent.

WTO members have been working to negotiate new disciplines on fisheries subsidies for several years, and recent months have seen an uptick in momentum ahead of this year’s eleventh ministerial conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The WTO negotiations on this subject are continuing this week in Geneva, Switzerland, where the global trade body is headquartered.

The commitment outlined in SDG 14 – specifically under SDG 14.6, which sets a 2020 goal for disciplining such subsidies – has been credited by many members with providing an additional push towards advancing such negotiating efforts under the WTO context. (See Bridges Weekly, 24 May 2017)

Along with the UN conference’s main events, which included plenary sessions and partnership dialogues devoted to various themes – such as sustainable fisheries and marine pollution – the UN gathering also featured a host of side events. Among these was a meeting on 5 June on disciplining fisheries subsidies, hosted by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and the Permanent Mission of New Zealand. (Editor’s note: ICTSD is the publisher of Bridges.)

New research released by the University of British Columbia this week at the above-mentioned side event showed that the vast bulk of fisheries subsidies end up going to larger-scale fishing fleets – particularly through the provision of fuel subsidies – as opposed to smaller fisheries, despite data indicating that the latter is responsible for employing approximately 22 million people.


Among the commitments announced in New York last week was a pledge by three UN agencies aimed at facilitating the reduction or eradication of harmful fisheries subsidies. The voluntary commitment was submitted by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

“These SDG 14 targets represent a comprehensive avenue for addressing unsustainable practices in the fisheries sector. Among the targets, the issue of addressing and removing harmful fisheries subsidies has been a complicated and thorny one,” said the three organisations in their joint commitment.

The UN entities outlined four “outcomes” that would form part of this commitment, including removing such subsidies and preventing the introduction of new ones, along with improving notifications of such state aid and supporting the needs of developing nations.

Their efforts will particularly focus on deliverables involving technical assistance and capacity building in this area, with the agencies noting that “trade and trade-policies can facilitate the transition to sustainable ocean-based economies by increasing resource efficiency, improving the environment, enhancing inclusiveness and creating new green business opportunities.”

Voluntary commitments

Along with the UNCTAD-FAO-UNEP pledge, over 1370 voluntary commitments from actors ranging from the international to the public sector spheres had been recorded at press time, with more trickling in even after the conference’s close.

These pledges must meet a series of requirements, such as featuring “means of implementation” aimed at meeting the commitment itself; producing measurable deliverables on a clear timeframe; and supporting SDG 14’s implementation, among others.

Pledges that dealt specifically with target 14.6 on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies also included national commitments from governments such as Argentina and New Zealand, among various others.

For example, New Zealand referred specifically to its negotiating proposals made in the context of the preparations for MC11, while Argentina, as the host of the December WTO event, cited at the broader level its efforts to support this process.

Coming up

Aside from the WTO process, the outcomes of last week’s event are meant to feed into this year’s High-level Political Forum (HLPF), which is scheduled from 10-19 July, with a ministerial-level meeting planned for the HLPF’s last three days.

SDG 14 is among the goals that will be under review at the 2017 HLPF, along with SDGs 1-3, 5, and 9, which address the eradication of poverty and hunger; health and well-being; gender equality and women’s empowerment; and resilient infrastructure.

The HLPF will be held under the overarching theme of “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world,” with the UN platform serving as the key mechanism for the “follow up and review” process established to support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs themselves. This event will include, for example, voluntary national reviews and thematic reviews.

Meanwhile, a separate UN effort is underway to develop an international treaty for protecting marine biodiversity in areas under national jurisdiction.

The next and final set of meetings of the “preparatory committee” tasked with recommending to the UN General Assembly the possible components of a draft text is planned for 10-21 July – two years after the initiative to develop such a treaty under the larger framework of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was approved. (See Biores, 23 June 2015)

ICTSD reporting; “UN Ocean Conference Concludes with Call For Action and 1,300 Commitments,” IISD, 13 June 2017.

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