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Give the ocean a chance – our message from the UN Ocean Conference

I'm looking out over the River Tejo in Lisbon, Portugal, reflecting on the astounding resilience of nature. It's the end of a motivating and exhausting five days at the second UN Ocean Conference (UNOC).

Before the conference started, I went out on the river with Astrid Fuchs and Bianca König (colleagues from WDC Germany) and a local marine biologist, hoping to see common dolphins. And we found them, or rather they found us, a pod of them, including babies, some only a few days old.

It was incredible to learn that after decades away, the dolphins had returned to the river. Until recently they had remained out in the Atlantic because of the noise and traffic in the river. But during the pandemic, when everything got quieter, they sensed an opportunity and returned. Who knows how long they will stay as the city returns to pre-pandemic levels of activity.

This little pod is telling us that they just need to be given a chance.

Dolphins returned to the river because we gave them a chance
Dolphins returned to the river because we gave them a chance

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Time for change

That's what we need to do for the ocean - give it a chance. We can't continue to treat the ocean like a limitless vending machine and rubbish bin. It is counterproductive madness to fund and create new industries like deep-sea mining that will wreak havoc on deep sea ecosystems and release carbon that is stored away safely at depth.

It was heartening to hear French President Emmanuel Macron call for a ban on deep-sea mining, and I hope that when France and Costa Rica host the next conference in 2025, rapid progress has been made. The ocean doesn't need additional pressures and whales and dolphins don't need more noise, activity, and chemical pollution in their home.

The WDC team (left to right): Bianca König, me, Vanesa Tossenberger and Astrid Fuchs
The WDC team (left to right): Bianca König, me, Vanesa Tossenberger and Astrid Fuchs

Making connections

The amazingly dedicated team we had in Lisbon was completed on the first day of the conference by our policy director Vanesa Tossenberger (from WDC Argentina) and campaigner Katrin Matthes (from WDC Germany). Together, we planned and delivered two successful side events. Everyone looks to the declarations and commitments made by countries at these conferences, but I find the real progress happens at side events - making connections, reaffirming relationships, and generating new plans with amazing people. Our first event was an interactive quiz on everything from whale poo to dolphin culture, and the queen of whale poo research Dr Asha De Vos came along, so other participants didn't really stand a chance at winning!


I'm on the left, whale poo expert Dr. Asha de Vos is in the middle and my WDC colleague Astrid Fuchs is on the right.
I'm on the left, whale poo expert Dr. Asha de Vos is in the middle and my WDC colleague Astrid Fuchs is on the right.

Our second event was our official UNOC event with an array of incredible government partners, long term ocean advocates and folk doing amazing things to scale up ocean conservation. The room was packed and spurred many conversations and new connections. At the same time, Katrin and Bianca were part of the 500-strong march of ocean champions marching towards the Altice Arena to deliver an urgent message on ocean action to world leaders.

Amazing support

Over the course of the conference, we were repeatedly stopped by people saying things like: 'You're the whale and dolphin guys, right? You are amazing, keep up the great work!' An incredibly motivating experience and something that wouldn't be possible without our fantastic base of supporters, helping us spread our Climate Giants message.

WDC on the march
WDC on the march

What we need to do

At the end of the week, following deliberations across global government delegations, the final political declaration was released. WDC is very proud to have been able to input and comment on the text of the declaration. Entitled 'Our Ocean, Our Future, Our Responsibility', it states that we cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean and demands immediate action to restore it.

The declaration calls for rapid increases in science and understanding, as we are at WDC through our research projects. It demands a huge upscaling in funding for ocean solutions, just as we did at COP26 in Glasgow with our ocean climate finance report, 'A Drop in the Ocean'. And it makes a plea for the elimination of marine litter and the cleaning up of the ocean, as we did with our partners BRITA in 'Message in a bottle', our report into the impact of plastics on whales and dolphins.

We must also tackle ocean acidification, reduce impacts from shipping, restore fish populations and protect huge swathes of the ocean. We know some countries, particularly Small Island Developing States are up to the task and have been acting for decades already. They refer to themselves as Big Ocean Nations, as protecting 30% of their waters can protect proportionately enormous areas of ocean. For example, the Seychelles have protected 30% of their waters, an area equivalent to the size of Germany. We're looking forward to collaborating further with these nations that are already suffering the impacts of climate change harder than anyone else.

We need to give whales the chance to thrive ? Christopher Swann
We need to give whales the chance to thrive ? Christopher Swann

Look to the future

One of the most powerful things I heard over the week was from the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson. He told of dreaming he was on a on a beach when an urgent tsunami warning sounded. Everyone escaped to high ground, everyone except all the children and grandchildren, who got left behind. His nightmare sums up it up. The generation who can influence change will not suffer the consequences of inaction anywhere near the extent to which the next generations will.

The array of drastic actions required is overwhelming and can cause people to shut off from it. But I was given hope by the positivity, innovation and passion of the 6,500 people who came to Lisbon. We know the problems and we know the solutions. We know that nature will return, just as the dolphins have to the River Tejo.

The time for discussion is over, the time for action is here and we won't be stopping until we have a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free. After all, there really is no Planet B.

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