Special World Ocean Day Interview with Ambassador Peter Thomson

We were honored to get a few minutes with Ambassador Thomson, the UN Special Envoy for Oceans, to talk about the importance of the day and what lies ahead for ocean conservation.  Here are the highlights.

ODP:  Ambassador Thomson tells us a little about your background?

PT: I come from Fiji, I am a fifth-generation Fijian, my ancestor came there as a master mariner on a sailing ship…I have been connected to the ocean since the day I was born. My parents lived in the outer islands of Fiji…I worked in government as well…I have always felt very connected to the ocean.  When I became President of the General Assembly in 2017 I said the jewel in the crown of my year as President would be the UN Ocean Conference. Why? Because from the Pacific Islands’ point of view — from any island’s point of view — climate change and ocean change are the two great challenges of our time.

ODP:  Issues of equity and human rights are coming to the public’s attention in light of recent events.  One place there are huge problems in ocean governance is human rights of fisheries workers on ships on the high seas.  We have known about these slavery issues for years.  What more will the UN do about these heinous problems?

PT:  There is no doubt that illegal activities at sea – blue crime – is linked to slavery and human rights issues…FAO has the Port States Measures Agreement, which does give the port states the right to check on the crew and the catch. We’ve got the Cape Town Agreement, which looks at the welfare of seamen.  We do have to find better ways of enforcing. I know the UN DC, Drugs and Crime Office, is giving more attention to this.

ODP:  Turning to the next decade, in 2021 the UN will begin the Decade of Ocean Science and Sustainable Development and the COP next year was supposed to have an ocean dialogue. Now that you have had so much success with your virtual ocean dialogue, do you think they can go the next step and carry on your great work here?

PT: I do think we finally got the ocean “through the door” [of the last COP] …We struggle to see why there should be any attempt to keep us out of those climate talks.  I would say that the main drive that I get involved in is to make sure that there is no separation – nobody is working in silos – if you are from the biodiversity community, from the ocean community, from the climate community, we are all in this together.  We have one central problem, which is anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and where we deal with those is primarily at the  UNFCCC COPs.  For the ocean community, if we cannot get those anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions under control, the show is over.  The rates of acidification, deoxygenation, ocean warming, death of coral, rising sea levels, all relate almost entirely to the escalating levels of those greenhouse gas emissions and the same goes for biodiversity…

ODP:  The CBD and many nations have set an ambitious goal of protecting 30 % of the planet – and the ocean included – by 2030.  We know that just under 10% of the ocean is under some protected and only 2% is fully protected from exploitation.  Are you optimistic that we can get to 30% by 2030 and how do you plan to get that 2% number higher?

PT: I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, I am a hard-nosed pragmatist.  I think it is very achievable the 30% figure and I am amazed at how fast the whole movement has snow-balled…I was very proud of my own Prime Minister from Fiji in Madrid in December where he came out very strongly for 30%.  I see new countries every day joining us — Britain and German others all signing up for 30×30….I hope I live long enough to see 50% of the ocean by 2050.

ODP: Is the UN ready to push through the kind of reforms we need to end IUU fishing?

PT:  …I often say that you as consumers have to satisfy yourselves that you are receiving fish that is sustainably caught and legally caught…nobody wants to be receivers of stolen goods…We going to be eating fish until the last human being passes away.  But, I do think there will be alternatives [to fish] — change is a constant.  I believe that the whole consciousness of it is there now that we are damaging the life support systems of this planet is going to make people thinking alot more about what we are putting in our stomachs….My wife and I looked at that beef report and we looked at a picture of our grandchildren and asked ourselves which do we love more, and so we gave up eating meat….

ODP:  How important is ocean exploration and mapping to the sustainable use of all ocean resources?

PT:  We will get from the ocean if we treat it right.  We have to give it the respect it deserves as the producer of every second breath that we take…If we do, and I believe we are turning that corner right now in our thinking, it will be the sustainable blue economy will be what looks after us in the future….that is where our nourishment…then there is medicine, the antibiotic age is coming to an end…the medicines of the future will come from the high seas…so we have to protect it. 

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