Events & Media

June 26, 2014

Bren Professor Speaks at State Department Conference on Ocean Health
Ben Halpern tells the audience that the science for ocean solutions is available now

Ben Halpern
Bren professor Ben Halpern was an invited speaker at the June 16-17 Our Ocean conference in Washington D.C., which significantly raised the Obama administration's commitment to ocean conservation. The two-day event, developed and hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, brought together scientists, heads of state, lawmakers, advocates, fishermen, and representatives from businesses and NGOs to, in Kerry's words, "chart a way forward to protect the ocean."

The conference focused on three main themes related to the health of the world's oceans: sustainable fishing practices, marine pollution, and ocean acidification, a result of increasing atmospheric CO2.

Halpern spoke at a lunch session on the first day. In his talk, "Mapping global ocean health, from cumulative human impacts to the suite of benefits we derive from marine ecosystems," Halpern discussed some of his own work, including the Ocean Health Index project, for which he is the lead scientist.

"The point I made is that my work takes the three main themes of the conference, and all the other issues that affect ocean health, and pulls them together to provide that bigger-picture assessment that policy makers are asking for."

He ended with the message that the science and the tools to address these policy needs exist now, and there are scientists like myself who are eager to engage with policy makers to pursue solutions that will improve ocean health."

Halpern describes the conference as "fundamentally important," saying, "This is an audience that's normally hard to reach. Ministers, heads of state, policy makers from around the world, and leaders from the big NGOs were all together under the mission defined by Kerry to find solutions and pursue actions that will lead to global health."

He says that a couple of things made this conference unique. First, the fact that it was the State Department of the United States and the Secretary of State prioritizing ocean health as a top issue shows a recognition that ocean health "is not just a conservation issue," says Halpern. "It's a saving-humanity issue that includes food security, global security, and the health of our planet.

Kerry's recognition of the issue marks what Halpern describes as a "fundamental shift in the way the Unites States has been approaching ocean issues to date. I think it sends a really strong signal to the world about what the current administration is willing to try to do about ocean issues."

Another distinguishing characteristic was that the mission of the conference was to take action and create pathways to addressing the problem.

"It was action-oriented," says Halpern. "A lot of conferences are about synthesizing or understanding the state of the oceans, and they're important, but you can have too many of those. John Kerry started each day of the conference saying, 'I don't want this to be about ideas; I want it to be about action.'

It seems to have worked, Halpern says, because "By day two countries were standing up and making some pretty bold commitments."

They included the following:

  • The island nation of Kiribiti committed to turning its current marine protected area (MPA) into a fully protected no-take zone.
  • The island nation of Palau will turn all of the waters within its Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 miles out from its shores, into an MPA.
  • The Bahamas committed to increasing its protected areas from 3 percent to 10 percent of its waters by the end of this year.
  • Norway committed more than $1 billion to ocean research and monitoring.
  • President Obama added an additional 730,000 square kilometers of U.S. territorial waters to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, originally established by George Bush, expanding the reserve by nearly ten-fold and making it the largest marine reserve in the world.