National Geographic News
Guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat.

Guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat.

Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic

Brian Clark Howard in Rio de Janeiro

For National Geographic News

Published June 22, 2012

In an email to National Geographic News from Rio de Janeiro, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle said of the ongoing UN Conference on Sustainable Development, "Concerning oceans, there is reason to suggest that the outcomes could be characterized as Rio+20 minus 40." (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

Earle's words sum up the buzz in the halls of Riocentro—the massive suburban conference center that has hosted tens of thousands of delegates, activists, and journalists this week—as well as among the thousands of protesters that have taken the streets around the Marvelous City.

Still, Earle pointed out, "It is not all bad news, just discouraging to hear the French ambassador say that the will of 183 countries concerning developing a framework for governance of the high seas had come unglued owing to opposition from a small number of powerful countries."

Earle is referring to the United States, Russia, Canada, and Venezuela in particular, who, according to reports, moved to block specific rulemaking on environmental protections in international waters during late-night, closed-door negotiations earlier this week.

(See "Rio+20 Brings Hope and Solutions Despite Weak Talks")

Expressing his disappointment, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, told the Guardian, "What kept Greenpeace in the [Rio+20 negotiations] was that it looked like we could get a decent deal on the oceans, but we have now got a really watered-down text that has very little teeth."

Earle said she believes the U.S. government is resistant to start negotiations on a new international oceans treaty, since there has been recent movement to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international agreement that went into effect in 1994 but counts the U.S. as one of a handful of holdout countries. The Law of the Sea Treaty does include some environmental guidelines, but not as many specific protections as Earle would like.

Earle added that the U.S. also has concerns about fishing interests and is worried about the United Nations gaining authority over U.S. interests, although, she said, the aim of Rio+20 talks was not to put the high seas under UN jurisdiction, but to establish a framework for international governance.

"Presently the High Seas, nearly half the planet, is like the Wild West, and a few industrial fishers from a few countries are wrecking entire ecosystems and depleting species already in serious trouble," said Earle. "In my remarks [at a Rio+20 panel discussion] yesterday, I used [IUCN marine protected areas expert] Dan Laffoley's comment that we should call this a 'Half the Earth summit,' since the blue half—the high seas—are being seriously neglected."

Also speaking to National Geographic News from Rio, Susan Lieberman, deputy director of international policy for Pew Environment Group, said, "We came to Rio with high expectations for action to address the ocean crisis. For a once-in-a-decade meeting where so much was at stake, Rio was a far cry from a resounding success. The lack of progress on managing the high seas, which can and will only be addressed through international action, is discouraging and should have been dealt with here and now.

"It is frankly astonishing that world leaders all agreed this is a major problem needing an international, coordinated solution and then deferred any decision on action for another two and a half years. The future of life in the sea does not need more bureaucratic infighting," said Lieberman.

Some Progress Made

Still, Lieberman saw some positive developments in Rio. "The final-outcome document contains good recommendations on ending overfishing, taking action to stop illegal fishing, phasing out harmful subsidies, eliminating destructive fishing practices, and protecting vulnerable marine ecosystems," she said.

Lieberman added that there was a decision to make regulating the catch of commercial species like tuna more transparent, although it will be up to governments to put those regulations into place.

National Geographic's Earle said, "The good news is that the Rio+20 conference may be more important for the enhanced exposure given to ocean issues and other topics not covered 20 years ago," during the first Earth Summit in Rio. "Meetings over coffee, on the transport buses, and in hallways, bars, and beaches are likely to be more meaningful concerning policies that will endure than all of the exquisitely orchestrated formalities."

Earle pointed to major commitments from the Maldives and Australia for large protected areas within their exclusive economic zones.

She also pointed to the high amount of public participation in Rio+20, including the fact that people from 163 countries submitted nearly a million and a half votes online about environmental issues they wanted to see discussed.

(See more about sustainable oceans.)

"The conference has been a celebration of knowing that nature matters—for business, industry, health, security, and every breath we take, every drop of water we drink," said Earle. "Whether the political leaders endorse what the people are saying or not is not as important as the lift this conference has given to the growing awareness that the planet has limits."

Earle added that 20 years ago scientists did not have nearly as much data or insight about the environment. She called the current moment a "sweet spot," and warned that it will soon be too late to take action to reverse the increase of carbon dioxide, ocean acidification, ocean dead zones, deforestation, plastic pollution, mass extinctions, and so on.

"Too Big to Fail"

Earle said a highlight of the dialogues on oceans she participated in this week in Rio was when one panelist said, "We have to get over the idea that the ocean is 'too big to fail'"—that it will survive and thrive no matter what.

She added that ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau said there are just three things that will save the ocean and ourselves: "Education, education, education!"

One panelist, concerned that fishing interests were under-represented, asked anyone in the audience who made their living as a fishermen to stand up.

No one did. But then Earle asked all of the fish in the audience to please stand up. "We were determining their fate, after all, but I didn't see them at the table.  Only on the table," Earle reflected.

Pew's Lieberman told National Geographic News, "I wouldn't call Rio a total failure, because a large number of countries recognize the need for international management of the sea, and there were commitments to deal with some of the key issues that are accelerating the deterioration of the marine environment."

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