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Economic Riddle of the Ocean: A consideration of the World Ocean Summit

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By Angee Doerr - Posted on 06 March 2014

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of attending and participating in the second World Ocean Summit, a collection of business, political, financial, and scientific leaders hosted by The Economist. (Not that I am counting myself as any of those; I simply had the great luck and fortune of getting a comped registration through a member of the Switzer Foundation). From the beginning, this Summit was unlike any other (read: scientific) conference I had attended. Valet parking? Luxury watches for sale by the coffee? Not to mention the location, at the beautiful beachfront Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, CA. The day started with an intro by John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, followed by a video message from HRH The Prince of Wales and a live broadcast interview with Secretary John Kerry. All three of these men talked about the “economic riddle” of the oceans, our apparent disregard for the natural capital contained within. John Kerry voiced concern that society was lacking social and financial motivations to make the changes necessary to address threats to the oceans. Their talks were followed by the first Plenary Panel of the Summit, during which Peter Seligmann was one of the first to use what turned out to be a Summit buzzphrase: enlightened self-interest. People will make changes when they realize it is to their benefit to make the change. Part of that solution is changing the economic conversation, but there was general agreement that economics were not enough. Regulations are almost certainly going to be part of the solutions, as are education, outreach, and better communications in general. And as the former President of Costa Rica, José María Figueres, put it, at the end of the day there is no option to do nothing. “There is no planet B.”

The talks throughout day one were fascinating, and a lot of good ideas were tossed around for follow up during the next days Working Groups. However, one of the absolute highlights of the Summit was that evening’s presentation by Paul Nicklen, a photographer for National Geographic Society. There are few things more compelling, when discussing the need to save our oceans, then visual reminders of the wonders and the beauty contained within. If you do not know Paul Nicklen, I highly recommend you look him up. His photos are breathtaking (e.g. http://www.paulnicklen.com/bkppoev27eikjojdq9xus174qrbmfq). Of course, his work also reminds us that the ocean cannot truly be separated from the land, and if we want to save one, we cannot discount the other.

During the opening for day two, we heard from Rachel Kyte, Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change at The World Bank. Ms. Kyte reminded us that conserving the oceans was about more than protecting habitat; with the extremely high dependency on fish as a protein source, especially in developing regions, oceans are vital to improving the welfare of the world’s poorest. Food is yet another of the multitude of services the oceans provide, and it impacts people even far removed from the ocean’s edges. Shortly thereafter, we broke into working groups. I chose to join the one on “Natural Capital and the Ocean Economy.” As with the rest of the Summit, I knew immediately that this working group experience would be unique. Mark Spalding, Senior Marine Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team, was seated directly to my left. An official from the Royal Norwegian Embassy was to my right. And seated around the small round table were industry leaders, investors, a representative from the UN, directors of NGOs, and members of academia. Luckily, I am not easily intimidated, and I knew I couldn’t pass up on opportunity to engage with a group like this. Our task was to identify why natural capital was not being reflected in current markets, and how to rectify this, beginning with three actionable items. Easy, right? Our table, along with the other five in the room, got down to business. Some of the issues were immediately obvious: 1) valuation of ecosystem services is difficult, and there are a lot of people doing it a lot of different ways, making comparisons across valuations difficult; 2) the natural capital investment framework will not be the same for the developing world and the developed, or for the long-term and the short-term; 3) there are inequities in the distribution of costs and benefits across systems. Luckily, at least one of our solutions seems to promise job security for me – improved valuation systems, using agreed-upon metrics and better sharing of data. As a scientist and resource economist, that seems like a great place to start. But the issue is more complicated than that. Investors need to get in on the action, integrating these valuations into their business model (just don’t ask me how – I am not an investor!). And standards and regulations need to be used to create a level playing field for investors and consumers alike.

Mid-afternoon, members of the various working groups reconvened, and all had clearly had in-depth and difficult discussions. In the end, there were some excellent suggestions for starting places, which will hopefully be brought back and acted on by politicians, The World Bank, NGOs, and heads of industry. The debrief from the working groups lasted quite some time (and you’re more than welcome to contact me for more details!), but it really all boiled down to three takeaways. Three C’s. We need to Catalyze action, improve Communication, and focus on international Cooperation. None of the other suggestions will have any traction without these three items. Individuals must feel the need to take action, research and conservation activities need to be easily and readily shared, and we need to cross industry/national/political boundaries in order to achieve effective change. I agree entirely, although I also agree with the closing speaker, Portuguese Republic President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, that we have all the catalysts we should need if we just start paying attention. We know about ocean acidification. We know about overfishing. We know about the high concentration of plastics and other pollutants in our waters. We know about the wholesale destruction of marine resources. But we do not act. And as President Silva asked us, “How do we explain to future generations that we knew, but did not act?”
Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that.