From September 15-16, John Kerry and the US State Department hosted this year’s “Our Ocean” conference in Washington, DC, where participants (including, of course, the ever-present Leonardo DiCaprio) put forward 136 new initiatives that they claim will contribute $5.24 billion toward protecting the world’s oceans. Among the developments at the conference was a vow from the US and 12 other countries to negotiate an agreement on fishing subsidies that contribute to excessive and illegal fishing. New commitments were also made to establish marine protection of areas encompassing more than 1.5 million square miles.
Those numbers sound great — until you delve a little deeper and look at how all the feel-good talk of the Global North does precious little for the Global South, where most of these endangered areas actually are.
Indeed, while the Global North has the resources and capacity to declare marine wildlife preserves and enforce those new rules with forces like the US Coast Guard, the Global South is left grasping for straws. In what appears to be a pretty transparent legacy-making move, Obama’s administration expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i, which now totals 582,578 square miles of land and sea and is the biggest environmental protection zone in the world. Most commercial fishing and mining activities have been banned to preserve the area’s thriving ecosystem.
Moves like expanding Papahānaumokuākea sound great, until you realize that the nations of the Global South (sub-Saharan Africa chief among them) can barely scrape together the resources to fish or develop their own waters, let alone protect them or set them apart as nature preserves. These countries are instead at the mercy of destructive illegal overfishing, piracy and environmental devastation until rich countries decide to step in. If they were hoping for the Our Ocean conference to give them a hand, they are likely sorely disappointed: The US will be putting together a grand total of $1.25 million in grants to “build capacity to create, effectively manage, and enforce marine protected areas” in East Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. The EU, for its part, will be putting up €1 million euros to set up protected areas in Europe, Africa and the Americas.