U.N. Members Agree on an Ocean Sustainable Development Goal

Priorities for marine protections to be formally adopted in September

After more than two years of discussion and debate, on Aug. 2, 2015, the United Nations’ 193 Member States reached agreement on a global outcome document for sustainable development to be adopted Sept. 25-27 at the Sustainable Development Summit in New York.

The framework includes 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that aim to end poverty and promote prosperity and the well-being of people everywhere while protecting the environment. Most significantly, they include a stand-alone goal for the ocean and seas—SDG 14—further acknowledging that protecting marine ecosystems is a critical component of sustainable development.

The U.N. is now set to commit all members to a series of focus areas for sustainably managing and protecting ocean ecosystems, all of which are to be accomplished by 2020. Among the commitments are:

  • Sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse effects;
  • End illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices;
  • Adhere to science-based fisheries management plans; and
  • Conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas.

The SDG 14 goal, and the priorities it reflects, are no accident: As science continues to demonstrate threats to the oceans and their importance to economic and food security, the U.N. has increased its focus on protecting and conserving the seas and fisheries. In June, members adopted a resolution to begin negotiating a treaty to safeguard ocean biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, also known as the high seas. Adopting the ocean SDG will help countries better use and manage their ocean resources for the global commons.

While SDG 14 and the beginning of high seas treaty negotiations are positive developments, the U.N. and its members need to act quickly and focus on accomplishing these set goals. As climate change and our ability to access far-off parts of the ocean for fishing and extraction continue to advance, protecting biodiversity is becoming increasingly urgent.

The upcoming Sustainable Development Summit and new SDGs will replace the U.N.’s well-known Millennium Development Goals, set to expire this year. Their success should not make world leaders complacent. When more than 150 decision-makers assemble in September to formally adopt the new priorities for the ocean, effective follow-up and implementation must be on the agenda. While committing to the sustainable management of ocean resources is one important step, demonstrable follow-through and action are critical to keep momentum strong and ensure that ocean health becomes, and remains, a long-term global priority.

Elizabeth Wilson directs Pew’s international ocean policy work.

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