by Frederico Füllgraf, Santiago de Chile, for Mundus maris

The second conference “Our Ocean - Nuestro Océano” took place from 4 to 5 October 2015 in Valparaíso, Chile.

The inaugural conference of this initiative of John Kerry's US State Department, held in Washington DC in June 2014, marked the go-ahead for this governmental high-level initiative. The State Department got together senior politicians and experts in the fields of maritime law, fisheries, marine ecology and marine protection complete with a few NGOs and community representatives. Participants from altogether 90 countries exchanged experiences and developed recommendations with the aim of joint action for the ocean. Borne out of concern about the gravity of ocean acidification, overfishing and marine pollution the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the "eighth Continent" with an area of the size of Central Europe requires action. It was not to be another talk show, but a gathering where partners, committed publicly to take concrete remedial action.

These efforts culminated in the signing of partnerships and the provision of US$800 million from various sources for financing marine and coastal protection projects supposed to cover 4 million km2 of marine waters - a good step towards the 32 million km2 mandated as Aichi goal No. 11. Many more new marine protected areas (MPAs) are needed to meet this goal of protecting 10% of the world's oceans by 2020. It was agreed in 2010 by the Conference of the Parties (COP10) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Given poor progress so far and the many paper MPAs without effective protection, the opinion of various experts invites cautious use of the new commitments.

At the 2014 conference, John Kerry interpreted the negotiated voluntary agreements as a platform of a "global maritime policy" which should, in the medium term lead to a "global governance" under US auspices. A word of caution seems in order as the agreements and decisions are not binding in either domestic or international law. While the ocean needs urgent protection, the initiative is not as straight forward as it might seem.

Chile is in a hurry

Why did Chile offer itself to organise the follow-up conference? Heraldo Muñoz, Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister and Chair of Our Ocean II, made reference to the 6,000 km coastline of the country, 4,000 km of which are on the mainland. He said that Chile was alarmed by climate change, illegal fishing and marine pollution.

Political observers recognise the Chilean worries, but believe the country's role as host to the second conference has a lot to do with regional dynamics, particularly with regard to the recent territorial and marine disputes with its neighbours Peru and Bolivia. Bolivia was successful with its claims brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2013, arguing that it needs an access to the sea, which it lost to Chile in the Salpeter War (1879 –1883).

Moreover, in a curious coincidence after six long years of negotiations, Muñoz had the Chilean chief negotiator sign in Atlanta, on the same 5 October, the free trade agreement with eleven Pacific Rim countries led by the US. This Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP for short, is to be complementary to the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TTIP).

This is controversial. Back in December 2013, 34 Chilean MPs and 15 senators had pleaded with the then President Sebastian Piñera to cancel the negotiations of TPP, ongoing since 2009. Before anything else, they wanted the draft contents to be available to the Parliament and the public. They published an 8-point plan in the leading newspaper El Mercurio asking for transparency. As their plea went unheard, a host of social movements, individual media and parliamentarians of the current center-left government consider this as a "signature behind the backs of the public" and object to "sign away national sovereignty".

The Agenda of the Conference

The motto of the second Our Ocean Conference was "Global Ocean Governance". It was attended by 500 official participants from 56 countries.

In continuation of the agenda established in Washington, the topics of marine protected areas, ocean acidification and marine pollution were the thematic focus. This time, the agenda also foresaw a strategic discussion forum titled "Law of the Sea Governance" (Political Law of the Sea - control system), among others, with the participation of the German lawyer Gabriele Goettsche, Director of the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) of the United Nations.

Industrial and illegal fisheries

In a lively, trenchant speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern about growing international fish consumption and the 600 million people, who were engaged in the global fisheries. His appeal was directed primarily against illegal fishing in foreign waters.

Kerry warned particularly against the deployment of bottom trawls, which were already in the 1990s the target of prohibition requests of the US Senate in vast coastal areas of the USA.

The US Secretary of State thus echoed the alert voiced for decades by numerous scientists and countless artisanal fishermen in different parts of the world: Between half and two thirds of the animals caught in trawls are considered undesirable bycatch and thrown overboard, dead or dying. Each year, up to 30 million tonnes of marine creatures are criminally wasted. As if this was not enough, the typical damage inflicted by bottom trawls are notorious: destruction of the sea bottom, coral reefs, breeding grounds etc. turning their path over time into a muddy wasteland.

The ironic twist: During Kerry's speech, Chile's Foreign Minister Muñoz turned temporarily aside. How will he have felt, given that Chile still allows bottom trawling - despite requests by artisanal fishers for many years to ban the practice. But then the fishing industry in the country is dominated by seven powerful companies.

In less than 20 years, schools of Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphy) were decimated by 90% on the Pacific coast of South America, due to overfishing. In Chilean-Peruvian coastal waters anchoveta (Engraulis ringens), sardine or Araucanian herring (Clupea bentincki), South Pacific hake (Merluccius gayi gayi) and skates are on the list of collapsing species. At the global scale the scenario is no less daunting: 90% of all fish stocks are exploited fully or excessively; nearly one-third are in acute danger.

Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that fully one-fifth of world catches are estimated to be so-called IUU catches: "Illegal, unreported and unregulated". The annual damage provoked by IUU fishing adds up to more than US$9.0 billion (Department for International Development, London, 2005).

It is particularly criminal - as evidenced by the FAO e.g. for several West African countries - that the illegal fishing deprives the poorest of the poor of a food source. Already back in 1998, FAO warned that the global industrial fishing fleet is "two and a half times greater than necessary" (Assessing Fishing Capacity of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Fleet of Skipjack Tuna - Ernesto A. Chávez).

Questions of the investigative reporter:

  • How strong is the involvement of European trawlers operating illegally along the West African coast, that is next to Chinese, Russian vessels and those with flags of convenience? And ...

  • What is the comparative harm of the legal industrial bottom trawl fishing?

European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, did not answer directly. Instead, he stressed that the annual turnover of the European maritime economy is a dizzying US$560 billion. The European seafood market was the largest in the world. At least 70% is imported produce.

Unfortunately, in 2013, the European Parliament failed by a narrow margin to adopt a demersal trawl ban. Insiders say, it was because of last minute changes in voting sequence of the draft bills in the reform package of the European Common Fisheries Policy that confused some MEPs.

Several other reform decisions put on their way by Vella's predecessor, Maria Damanaki, were adopted, such as the new legislation making overfishing illegal. She has meanwhile taken up the post of Global Managing Director for Oceans at The Nature Conservancy and monitors the implementation of the reform in EU member states.

At the end of the Our Ocean conference, Chile, Norway, New Zealand and Palau, as well as the FAO and some civil society organsiations joined John Kerry's Initiative "Sea Scout". It is a concerted action to fight the illegal fishing more effectively worldwide.

During an official visit in Beijing later in October, Karmenu Vella discussed similar steps with Qu Dongyu, Vice Minister of Agriculture, and Wang Hong, Director of China's Maritime Administration. Together, the EU and China want to improve the governance of regional fisheries-organisations through a joint fight against illegal fishing.

This fits well with a fresh initiative on transparency in the fisheries of Mauritania, a West African country internationally attractive for its still rich marine resources. This is initiative is supported by German development cooperation. Chinese companies have a massive presence in Mauritania. They operate sometimes legally and at other times illegally, a characteristic of many global actors in the fishing industry these days.

Fishers and genuine community representatives: The big absentees

The invitation, composition and decisions of the Conference did not make major stakeholders in Chile happy. Fishermen and coastal communities struggle to accept this as a basis for consensus.

The Easter Islander Rafael Tuki Tepano, elected on Rapa Nui with votes of his community to serve as advisor of the Chilean Corporation of Native Indian Development Tasks (CONADI), called on President Michelle Bachelet and the Chilean government to "support the internal coordination of the Easter Islanders respecting their worldview and the protection of their resources without regard to concerns of foreign powers".

The veterinary and Director of the internationally recognised Chilean NGO Ecocéanos, Juan Carlos Cárdenas, commented: "In this first stage, the set up of the conference is fixed to the last detail from the outset. There are no questions, or they will not be answered.

A propos salmon farms: in 2010 the film directors from Bremen, Wilfried Huisman and Arno Schumann, shot the WDR documentary "Salmon Fever" on the salmon production of the Norwegian company Marine Harvest and their disastrous impact on the environment in southern Chile. Marine Harvest is owned by John Fredriksen, called the "The Great Wolf", owner of the largest tanker fleet in the world. As the largest in the salmon business, the Norwegian company markets 100 million salmon annually to the world.

Only the National Confederation of Chilean Artisanal Fishermen (Conapach) was invited to the conference as spokesperson for the small-scale fishermen.

But Chile's Artesanales are since about ten years politically divided into Conapach, which is rather friendly with industrial fishing, and the National Council founded by the majority of small-scale fishermen's unions for the protection of fishing heritage (Condepp). Condepp fights relentlessly against the Fisheries Act, which has "privatised the Chilean sea" in the opinion of Condepp since it entered into force in 2012.

"How is it possible that a Conference on the Protection of the ocean takes place in Chile, whose fishing industry has ransacked the country's marine resources? We really need a law that promotes an authentic sustainable fishing!" Protested Miguel Angel Hernandez, Managing Director of the Artisanal Fishermen's Association "Nuevo Amanecer", speaking on Radio Valentin Letelier” of the Valparaíso University.

"Discuss illegal fishing?" asked an upset Pascual Aguilera talking to the same radio station. According to the speaker of the artisanal fishers of the northern region of Coquimbo, the conference participants should be aware that the Chilean industrial fishing fleet hides 7,000 tons fishmeal from illegal fishing, namely the unauthorised exploitation of the already collapsed Chilean jack mackerel.


The financial and technical results of Our Ocean II exceed those of the founding conference in Washington almost threefold. Pledged resources amounted to about EUR 1.8 billion - of which EUR 600 million of the European Union to promote sustainable fisheries. They should provide for 80 new project initiatives. The obligation of the States and organisations present for the protection of about 1,900,000 km2 marine waters was the centre piece - especially the marine park Rapa Nui announced by President Michelle Bachelet solemnly at conference opening. Rapa Nui is situated around the 4,000 km from the mainland around the remote Easter Island, in Chilean territorial waters. With an extension of 720,000 km2, this is the third largest marine park in the world, next to the Greenland National Park and the Phoenix Islands of Kiribati.

Other voluntary commitments include Costa Rica's bid for ocean-going garbage disposal - a project that the US and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) should extend to the Caribbean. Prince Albert II of Monaco, promised moreover to provide the Forum with the results of scientific research into ocean acidification by carbon dioxide entry he is supporting.

In the "Monaco Declaration" in October 2008 (Second International Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World) Prince Albert and his scientists had already warned of the imminent danger of collapsing seas. Further increasing the acidity, it said, was threatening the widespread biological collapse of entire marine ecosystems.

Two months prior to the December 2015 UN Climate Change Summit (COP21) in Paris, the government representatives expressed the hope that marine pollution will get finally more attention as an acute problem.

What to take home?

The ocean does need urgent protection. Many of the intiatives point in the right direction and are, actually, long overdue follow-up to earlier international commitments.

But many issues remain, particularly concerning the legitimacy of the process. It is inevitable that some people's short-term interests may suffer for longer-term improvements. But the overall result will hinge on a just repartition of who pays the bill and who benefits. That has a lot to do with countering further marginalisation of the small-scale fishers and coastal dwellers and bringing transparency into the often opaque operation of the industry.

All photos are by the author.