Ministers from countries around the world gathered 5-6 October in Malta for the third Our Ocean conference, hosted by the European Commission. They were joined by NGOs, academics and agencies including Seas at Risk and some of our Members.


Our Ocean encourages countries and attendees to make commitments to further ocean conservation and this resulted in some inspiring individual country commitments. The conference also confirms that oceans are firmly on the political agenda. However, the overall outlook for the world’s oceans as described by the numerous speakers remains bleak. As The Nature Conservancy director Maria Damanaki stated, until there is an equivalent to the Paris Agreement for the Oceans, this is likely to continue to be the case.

The Our Ocean conference saw Seas at Risk launching an electronic campaign to Save EU Seas which consisted of a petition, a video animation and a social media campaign using the #emojiocean hashtag. It took off well with the petition receiving over 100,000 signatures in less than four days, the video over 45,000 views and many delegates engaged in the #emojiocean element too. The aim is to highlight that while the EU has a strong Marine Directive, Member States need to do much more to implement it if they are to achieve biologically diverse, clean and healthy seas by 2020. The petition is still open to sign. 

Presentations of note at the conference included Karmenu Vella’s opening speech as the Commissioner responsible for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries when he reminded the audience that it is 50 years since the negotiations on the UN Convention of the Law Of the Sea started, and still we need to address the same issues. HRH The Prince of Wales gave the keynote speech and described the importance of Marine Protected Areas, tackling overfishing and plastic waste. He expressed dismay that “plastics is now on the menu” due to microplastics being found in a broad range of marine species. National geographic explorer-in-residence Dr Enric Sala said only 1.5% of our oceans are fully protected and the director of the European Environment Agency Hans Bruynincks said we shouldn’t dive into blue growth and leave a “social, economic and environmental wasteland”. Meanwhile Kristina Gjerde of the IUCN expressed astonishment that a 15 year exploration license has recently been granted for deep sea mining in areas of unique biodiversity.

The Our Ocean commitments were varied starting with Malta’s Prime Minister to protect 30% of their sea area, followed by New Zealand who committed to ban all wash off microbead products including household and car. From the private sector, an interesting one was a commitment by insurance companies to develop a code of conduct prohibiting coverage for vessels involved in illegal fishing activity. There were also various financial commitments amounting to more than 6 billion Euro in total, some for genuine conservation initiatives and some for blue growth initiatives which we hope are ecologically sustainable. 

The European Commission’s promises included one to phase out all single-use plastic cups in water fountains and vending machines in its buildings. This follows a joint letter sent by Seas At Risk and the Rethink Plastic Alliance calling on the EU institutions to set the example for preventing waste by removing single use plastics from their buildings. While plastic cups are only one small part of the plastic problem, it is an important first step to better public procurement by the Commission.

Aside from the main plenary there were numerous side events. Seas at Risk member France Nature Environment (FNE) held an event on shipping and emissions with Birdlife Malta and NABU. Another Seas at Risk member Project Aware, undertook an underwater dive clean-up. Greenpeace and the global Break Free From Plastic movement conducted a stunt outside the main conference hall with a dragon spewing rubbish from beach clean ups into water. The stunt was part of an action to count the brands that are most commonly polluting beaches around the world. Greenpeace also held an event to announce a new global campaign for Marine Sanctuaries in the Artic and High Seas.

One of the closing speeches was given by John Kerry, who started the Our Ocean series when he was Secretary of State for the US. He wondered: “are we going to move fast enough to do what we’ve got to do?”. He, like Prince Albert II of Monaco in an earlier talk, also called for 30% Marine Protected Areas as a minimum. As well as the need for elimination of  overfishing and illegal fisheries, and action to address marine pollution, the 30% MPA rallying call is like the 2 degrees ceiling in relation to climate and should not be ignored. To reiterate Damanaki’s call: we need a Paris Agreement for the Oceans.

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