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At first UN Ocean Conference, island nations plead for help

Posted June 7

If they were making another movie sequel, this planet-threatening adventure would be called "Oceans Attack."

For small island countries, the ocean can be an imposing and valuable friend, but increasingly, because of climate change, pollution and overfishing, humans have transformed the gigantic oceans of the planet into rising, junk-filled threats.

This week the United Nations is hosting its first large-scale conference devoted to protecting and saving the oceans. The Ocean Conference co-chairwoman, deputy Prime Minister of Sweden Isabella Lovin, said, "We know the ocean is broken. We now need to sit together the next five days and make the long to-do list we all need to be ticking off, together, in order to fix it."

Ministers from tiny island states such as Palau, Fiji and Tuvalu, some in business suits, others in native island shirts, arrived to make the case that the lives of their citizens, thousands of miles away, are more at risk than ever.

"Time is running out to save our seas and oceans," said Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. He told the United Nations gathering that the Pacific Ocean runs through his blood. But "it pains me deeply to have witnessed the rapid deterioration during my own lifetime of this precious resource, the economic lifeblood of our people."

Fishing is what keeps island residents alive. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said, "For us the ocean is both a shared resource and a source of isolation."

But climate change, trawlers poaching in their waters, and overfishing of large predatory fish stocks has placed the islands at risk. Seychelles Vice-President Vincent Meriton said, "It's a matter of survival."

The President of Palau said he was a fisherman like his family before him. President Tommy Remengesau said, "Unfortunately, in an expanding world economy, the industrialized world, in its quest for wealth forgot that we must protect the goose that laid the golden eggs."

Palau has set aside 193,000 square miles of ocean, 80% of its maritime territory, as a "no take" marine territory. The leader of the United Nations and its 193 countries didn't need convincing. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, "The health of our oceans and seas requires us to put aside short-term national gain to avoid long-term global catastrophe."

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US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris global climate change agreement last week gave a boost in one area: media attention to the oceans talkathon.

But the more urgent problem remains: The effect of climate change.

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UN Ambassador from the Seychelles Ronald Jumeau told reporters, "How can you worry about someone who is not in the room?"

The President of Micronesia concluded his speech with an appeal to President Trump. President Peter Christian said, "I ask the United States to do what it can afford to do, what it can as a nation, about climate change and for our oceans, if not the Micronesians, but for the sake of the United States and Americans."

Whatever their feelings about Trump and his climate pact withdrawal, many small island states face a real-life large enemy: the Pacific Ocean. Global climate change, according to most scientists, causes oceans to keep rising, temperatures on land to get hotter, and the waters to turn more acidic, disturbing fish life.

You're making this island disappear

Guterres cited a study that predicted plastics could outweigh fish in our seas by 2050.

The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga, said his country could be the most "fisher dependent" nation on Earth. The contrast in size between island and ocean is stark.

Sopoaga said Tuvalu, a group of South Pacific atolls, is 24 square kilometers in land size in contrast to 27 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. He blamed illegal and unregulated fishing for stealing an estimated 26 million tons of fish from the ocean annually. Tuvalu called for human solutions to the ocean problems. "We are all accountable as co-owners and co-inhabitants on this planet of whose blood is blue."

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Nauru's President Baron Waqa said his country, with just 10,000 people, is the smallest member of the United Nations. He said his country is 99.99% ocean. But tuna has made his tiny nation an economic player. Nauru and other small island neighbors have agreed to a tuna sustainability agreement to improve regulation of the valuable fishstock.

However, the Nauru leader appealed for international assistance to police the 300,000 kilometers of a special economic exclusion zone established to protest tuna stocks. Waqa said, "We dont have the people, the boats or the technology" to apprehend illegal fishing ships and police the zone.

Low-lying islands face rising seas and beach erosion. The countries meeting at the United Nations promise to establish a "call to action," and dozens of voluntary commitments to help the island countries and others who co-exist with oceans.

Peter Thomson, from Fiji and the current president of the UN General Assembly, said, "This is not just about UN bureaucrats or government officials or taking action. This is about, all of us, are in this."

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