UN chief warns oceans are 'under threat as never before'

A plastic bottle lies among other debris washed ashore on the beach.
A plastic bottle lies among other debris washed ashore on the Indian Ocean beach in Uswetakeiyawa, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug. 13, 2015.
Gemunu Amarasinghe | AP 2015

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the first U.N. conference on oceans Monday with a warning that the seas are "under threat as never before," noting one recent study warns that discarded plastic garbage could outweigh fish by 2050 if nothing is done.

The U.N. chief told presidents, ministers, diplomats and environmental activists from nearly 200 countries that oceans — "the lifeblood of our planet" — are being severely damaged by pollution, garbage, overfishing and the effects of climate change.

The five-day conference, which began on World Environment Day, is the first major event to focus on climate since President Trump announced Thursday that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — a decision criticized by Bolivian President Evo Morales and other speakers Monday.

Guterres said the aim of the conference is "to turn the tide" and solve the problems that "we created."

He said competing interests over territory and natural resources have blocked progress for too long in cleaning up and restoring to health the world's oceans, which cover two-thirds of the planet.

"We must put aside short-term national gain to prevent long-term global catastrophe," Guterres said. "Conserving our oceans and using them sustainably is preserving life itself."

General Assembly President Peter Thomson, a Fijian diplomat, said, "The time has come for us to correct our wrongful ways."

"We have unleashed a plague of plastic upon the ocean that is defiling nature in so many tragic ways," he said. "It is inexcusable that humanity tips the equivalent of a large garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day."

Guterres cited a 2016 World Economic Forum report on "The New Plastics Economy," which said the best research estimates there are over 150 million tons of plastics in the ocean.

"In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight)," the report said.

Thomson also warned that illegal and destructive fishing practices and harmful subsidies for fisheries "are driving our fish stocks to tipping points of collapse." And, he said, the increasing human-caused carbon emissions tied to climate change are causing rising sea levels by warning the oceans and harming marine life by making the seas more acidic with less oxygen.

Thomson said the conference probably represents the best opportunity ever "to reverse the cycle of decline that human activity has brought upon the ocean" and spur action to meet the U.N. goal for 2030 to conserve and manage the ocean's resources.

The conference asked governments, U.N. bodies, and civil society groups to make voluntary commitments to take action to improve the health of the oceans. So far, over 730 commitments have been received, most on managing protected areas, conference spokesperson Damian Cardona said.

Gabon's president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, announced the creation of Africa's largest marine protected area, a network of nine new marine parks and 11 aquatic reserves. It extends the Mayumba National Park to the 200 nautical mile limit of Gabon's exclusive economic zone, which experts say will protect a large area of habitats and marine life.

At the end of the conference Friday, nearly 200 countries will issue a "call for action" addressing marine issues, which Cardona said has already been agreed.

It urges nations to implement long-term and robust measures to reduce the use of plastics, including plastic bags, and counteract sea-level rise that threatens many island nations as well as rising ocean temperatures and increasing ocean acidity.

Micronesian President Peter Christian said Pacific islanders are concerned that the ocean has been "left to heal itself" after being used as "a dumping ground for industrial waste" and a weapons testing ground, and being polluted by humans on shores and ships at sea.

Stressing the importance of all countries being part of the Paris agreement, Christian said in an apparent reference to Trump's decision: "While some may continue to deny man's culpability for the damaging effects of climate change on islands and islanders ... no man, no island, no village and no nation can deny that trash in our oceans is of man's own doing."

"And for this, man must clean up his mess," he said.

Bolivia's Morales was more direct, telling the conference that the government of the United States, one of the world's "main polluters," decided to leave the Paris agreement, "denying science, turning your backs on multilateralism and attempting to deny a future to upcoming generations."

This "has made it the main threat to mother Earth and life itself," Morales said.

Baron Waqa, president of Nauru, the smallest U.N. member with just over 10,000 people and a single island of just 21 square kilometers, said the nation's exclusive economic zone is over 15,000 times larger and its economic survival depends on tuna.

While Nauru and seven neighboring islands have taken action "to sustainably manage our tuna," Waqa said tuna fishing is still threatened by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing which he said "is a criminal act, akin to piracy, and must be addressed with urgency."

Waqa urged governments, businesses and civil society to support the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration to ensure that all tuna products can be tracked from the vessel where the fish is caught to the final buyer.