Proposals for more integrated, sustainable approaches to ocean management are widespread within environmental politics. Although there is broad public support for better marine conservation measures, progress on this issue remains painfully slow, at least partly due to entrenched interests that prevent cooperation at national, regional and global scales. Despite scientific recognition of the central role of the oceans in the planet’s ‘life-support system’, efforts to develop more far-sighted or comprehensive ocean policies continue to become mired in discourses that oppose social or economic priorities to environmental protection.

Efforts to develop more sustainable fishing regimes, for instance, are often frustrated by contentions that there is an imperative – both economic and for human development – to maintain high levels of catch from the sea. Speaking at a TEDx event last year, marine advocate Jackie Savitz agreed that concerns over the future viability of agriculture create a need for the oceans to remain an abundant resource into the next century. Savitz goes on stress that in marine environments there is no dichotomy like that often presented (however erroneously) between producing sufficient levels of food on land and maintaining biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems. In the oceans, protection of biodiversity directly and unambiguously provides support for increased fisheries yields.

Oceans management is in the international spotlight over the next two days.  Today and tomorrow the US Secretary of State John Kerry is convening an ‘Our Ocean’ conference in Washington DC attended by political and academic leaders from across the world. The Washington conference identifies three major streams of focus: sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. These are broad topics, but are arguably the most pressing issues in marine policy, and require candid and transparent discussion. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has an interesting discussion of this conference in the context of the Pacific, particularly regarding the inclusion of representatives from smaller states with pressing marine concerns, such as Kiribati and Palau. These countries have a first-hand appreciation of the severity of ongoing change in marine ecosystems, but their perspectives are too often ignored. CSIS suggests that recent events in many US coastal areas, which echo the experiences of the Pacific Islands, may inform a renewed recognition of small island states in international fora.

Among the most interesting aspects of the ‘Our Ocean’ conference is the inclusion of ocean acidification as a key area of focus.  Although the dynamics and consequences of acidification remain poorly understood, it is becoming clear that globally observed increases in ocean pH will underpin a vast array of other changes to marine environments over the coming century, and to the human social and economic activities that depend on them.  It also dwarfs most other marine problems in the scale of the policy problems it presents, being what may be the most serious result of the global output of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.  This is daunting for scientists and policy-makers alike, and perhaps for this reason acidification has until recently avoided serious official scrutiny or meaningful movement towards solutions.  It is heartening to see it so high on the agenda in Washington, and we will be watching closely for substantive progress on this issue.

Given the renewed and timely global focus on oceans policy, it is important to reflect on the management of New Zealand’s own marine environment, and at the wider role of New Zealand in the Pacific.  While other countries are moving towards a more collaborative and integrated approach to ocean management, marine issues in New Zealand remain fragmented between a variety of government agencies and sectoral interests.  Through our One Ocean project the McGuinness Institute is hoping to help facilitate a conversation around the future of ocean management in this country.  In doing so we intend to assist in clarifying and prioritising the key steps towards a comprehensive and sustainable national oceans management framework, and we welcome input and feedback as we continue this process.