8 June 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE to mark first observance of world oceans day


Today’s observance of the first World Oceans Day provided an opportunity to highlight the challenges of protecting the oceans, safeguarding their resources and preventing criminal acts at sea, a panel of ocean experts said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.


Speaking on the theme for the Day, “Our oceans, our responsibility”, were Hasjim Djalal, Senior Adviser to the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia, and David Freestone, Professor at George Washington University Law School and Visiting Professor at the United Nations University.  The panel was sponsored by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs.


Presenting an overview of the main issues associated with world oceans today, Mr. Djalal said that ever since the formulation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, the struggle for resources and exercise of State power over the oceans had been the focus of attention.  However, while covered by the Convention, environmental aspects associated with the ocean, the protection of marine resources and the prevention of criminal acts at sea had not received sufficient attention, and World Oceans Day presented an opportunity to recognize them.


Mr. Djalal said the panel would discuss rising sea levels, the warming world climate, disappearing coral reefs and the depletion of fish stocks, among others.  According to the May issue of National Geographic, the Earth’s icecaps shrunk by almost half over the past 27 years.  In addition, without mitigation or adaptation efforts, Indonesia could lose as many as 2,000 small islands by 2030.  With many other countries severely affected by similar problems, everyone should be concerned.


Recalling that the Government of Indonesia had hosted the World Ocean Conference last month, he said the event, which had drawn participants from 70 countries and a dozen international organizations, was aimed at increasing cooperation on managing marine resources in the context of climate change, and raising understanding of the role of oceans in regulating global climate.  Among Indonesia’s main challenges were illegal fishing, which cost the country up to $3.5 million a year; and preserving the coral reef, which contained some 76 per cent of the world’s coral species.


Indonesia was encouraging regional organizations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to address those issues, he continued.  Having ratified the United Nations fish stocks agreement and joined the international Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, Indonesia hoped also to become a member of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization in the near future.  In an effort to protect the ocean environment, the country sought to establish 20 million hectares of marine protected areas in its territorial waters.


Mr. Freestone pointed out that while the Convention on the Law of the Sea was a far-sighted and comprehensive treaty sometimes characterized as the constitution of the oceans, it had not envisaged such new challenges as climate change and the depletion of deep-sea biodiversity.  As a result, there was no institutional structure to respond to those new challenges.  For instance, the treaty had set a sophisticated regime for seabed mining, but that applied only to non-living resources, whereas the ocean’s living resources, which included “some amazing life forms”, were also extremely valuable.  The impacts of deep-sea trawling and other unsustainable forms of fishing had a serious impact on them.


He went on to state that, according to some sources, there might be “another million species to actually discover”.  Since some sea organisms were carbon-based, up to 30 per cent of the carbon processing worldwide took place in the oceans.  However, with as many as 50 per cent of smaller marine organisms already destroyed by pollution and warming of the waters, the ability of the oceans to process carbon was being compromised.  In that connection, there was a need to include oceans in the climate change debate, particularly in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  There was some pressure to put the issue on the table, but the question was whether the parties were prepared to take it aboard at this point, or whether they wished to look at it “further down the line”.


While lauding regional fisheries organizations, he said they were not ocean-management bodies, but welcomed the fact that organizations like the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission had recently directed itself much more towards examining issues of sustainable ocean management, being one of the pioneers in setting up protected areas, for example.  Among other issues deserving more attention were “environmental refugees” forced to move by rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.


Responding to several questions about the role of the United States in relation to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Mr. Freestone said that, while many agencies in that country were in favour of the treaty, the Government was still to ratify it.  It was understood that no American President had been known to oppose the instrument, but some Senators disagreed with it.  However, the United States rigorously followed the Convention’s rules and had played a very positive role in reforming some fisheries organizations, for example.  From reading the papers, it was possible that the Government was more likely to join the Convention under the new Administration than it had previously been.


Mr. Djalal added that the United States was very active in the work of such bodies as the International Seabed Authority, but only as a non-member.  Its only objection to the Convention related to seabed mining issues and hopefully the country would see it to be in its own interest to cooperate with the rest of the world on all the issues governed by the Convention.


Regarding the latest session of the Seabed Authority, Mr. Djalal said it had made substantial progress on several issues, having completed work on nodules, and had signed eight exploration contracts.  Only a few points remained in the work on the issue of sulfites, such as the question of possible overlapping claims.  The Seabed Authority was also turning its attention to the metal crust.


The Seabed Authority governed areas beyond national jurisdiction in terms of mineral exploitation of the seabed, Mr. Freestone added, noting, however, that no comprehensive international governance regime governed other areas.  Of course, fisheries conventions and the Paris Commission dealt with environmental issues, but they were by no means comprehensive.  There was no international body with the responsibility to designate protected areas for biodiversity reasons, for example.  Given the lacunae in ocean governance, one proposal under discussion was a complement to the Convention, which would interpret the treaty in relation to the emerging issues.


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For information media • not an official record