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Pulitzer Center Update May 31, 2024

Ocean Reporting Fellows Attend the Our Ocean Conference in Athens


Microplastics in the Mediterranean Sea

We’ve seen the photos: the Pacific garbage patch, turtles choking on straws, oil spills visible from...

The ORN fellows on a rooftop in Athens
Ocean Reporting Network Fellows Regin Winther Poulsen, Alexandra Talty, Research Editor Jelter Meers, Fellows Aryn Baker, and Philip Jacobson attended the 2024 Our Ocean Conference in Athens. Image by Jelter Meers.


The Our Ocean Conference (OOC) in Athens started with a traditional daouli player beating his drum in front of images of Ancient Greece. Together with a group of dancers, he created a dramatic opening for the 9th edition of OOC, which is meant to bring together government, academics, NGOs, and industries to discuss the threats and governance of our ocean. 

During the first sessions, heads of state referred to Greece’s marine past, its mythology, and the potential that can be harvested from the ocean. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who initiated the conferences 10 years ago, referred to Diogenes, who called himself a citizen of the world, in the context of the ocean’s role in slowing down climate change. 

After listing some of the successes of the Our Ocean conferences—128 billion USD in funding and 47% of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to date—Kerry moved on to the outstanding challenges. For example, less than 3% of the ocean is protected, 60% of coral reefs are in danger, one third of fish are caught illegally, and new MPAs are in need of enforcement. 

The Pulitzer Center’s Ocean Reporting Network (ORN) went to Athens with four of its Fellows: Aryn Baker, Alexandra Talty, Philip Jacobson, and Regin Winther Poulsen. The network is tackling many of the ocean topics that came to the forefront at the conference: fishing, plastics, the blue economy, pollution, corporate responsibility, and protection. 

Peter Thomson, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, followed up by saying that we need to stop giving “harmful subsidies” to the fisheries sector, referring to how European countries, for example, give public money to companies that deplete fish stocks around the world. The 20-year effort by the World Trade Organization to end these practices was a major breakthrough when it was agreed in 2022, but two years later, more than 30 member states still need to ratify the treaty for it to enter into force. 

"The conference was an excellent opportunity to connect with people who work on some of the world's most pressing issues in European fisheries and the mismanagement of some of the EU’s stocks. I interviewed several people and met experts I hope to keep in touch with for a long time to come,” said Regin Winther Poulsen. 


the stage at the conference in Athens
Image by Jelter Meers.

During a press briefing, Greece’s Minister of Maritime Affairs, Christos Stylianides, reminded journalists that one third of marine mammals and one third of sharks are currently threatened. 

“The more I learn about the global shark trade, the more I’m fascinated about how truly global it is—even here in Greece, I learned during my stay here, there’s a significant level of shark meat consumption, really arising in the past couple decades or so,” said Philip Jacobson/Mongabay, who is investigating the trade as part of his ORN Fellowship. “For me the conference was a great opportunity to interview sources I hadn’t had a chance to connect with yet.” 

The granddaughter of marine exploration pioneer Jaques-Yves Cousteau, Alexandra Cousteau said human actions have led to marine life losing more and more of its biodiversity. We are currently on a “pathway to an outcome we do not want,” she said. Rather than conservation, we need to “restore the abundance in our oceans, a fundamentally different pathway.” Similarly, she referred to a new approach to combating plastic pollution. “The idea that we can recycle our way out of the plastic crisis is naive,” she said, and gave the example of France’s ban on single-use plastics as the right solution. 

The conference took place just a few days before the negotiations for a global treaty to combat plastic pollution convened in Ottawa, Canada. For Aryn Baker, who is reporting on plastic’s impact on ocean communities from Fiji, the Athens meeting provided valuable background to what is at stake. She was able to interview several advocates for clean oceans, including Peter Thomson, the Fijian diplomat who is currently serving as the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean. 

“Thomson spoke about the unique situations that small island developing nations face when they are dealing with plastic waste, while giving me very specific context for Fiji that will help me develop my story,” Baker said. “His was the key interview I needed for this project.” 


Panelists at the ocean conference event
Alexandra Cousteau, Senior Advisor to Oceana (far left), talks about ocean protection during a press briefing at the Our Ocean Conference in Athens. Image by Jelter Meers. Greece, 2024.

Results and commitments 


During the final press briefing, Greek ministers highlighted that there were more than 119 countries present at the conference, that they raised $11.3 billion, and that there were 469 commitments made. 

Among those commitments, Ghana, with marine resources that are under pressure from European and Chinese industrial fishing vessels, announced its first Marine Protected Area. The Dominican Republic announced one of the largest MPAs in the world. 

“We hope that the sanctuary for fish populations in Ghana will boost their numbers over time, reducing the over exploitation of fish species in our waters and benefiting the broader marine ecosystem,” said ORN Fellow Gideon Sarpong, who is reporting on the regulation of fishing in Ghana. “More crucially, our role as journalists is to monitor this commitment and ensure that officials are held accountable.” 


Panelists on stage in Athens
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who initiated the conferences 10 years ago, spoke on the successes and challenges of ocean protection. Image by Jelter Meers. Greece, 2024.

The Seychelles became the first African nation to ratify the High Seas Treaty, which is meant to protect those parts of the ocean that are not protected under any country’s laws. The high seas make up 90 percent of our oceans’ volume. The treaty, formally known as the United Nations Agreement on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), needs 60 countries to ratify it in order for it to be binding. 

Since the treaty was created late last year, the Seychelles has been the fourth country to do so, and 80 countries are signatories but have not ratified it yet. 

During a press briefing, Dr. Filimon Manoni, Pacific Ocean Commissioner from Palau, said that the goal to protect 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030, a target set at the UN Biodiversity COP15 gathering in Kunming-Montreal at the end of 2022, is impossible without this treaty. 

The nonprofit Global Fishing Watch, which collects and provides data about human activity at sea to increase transparency, announced collaborations with Greece, Panama, and the West African Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) to use their technology to track ships and combat illegal fishing. 

Portugal’s President of the Regional Government, José Manuel Bolieiro announced that “the Regional Government, under my leadership, has committed to protecting 30 percent of the Azores sea now.” 


A speaker at the oceans conference in Athens
During panel about halting deep-sea mining, the President of Palau H.E. Surangel S. Whipps Jr. said the "potential consequences are dire," if deep sea mining is not stopped. Image by Jelter Meers. Greece, 2024.

A pressing issue 


One of the last frontiers of our planet, the floor of the deep sea, is being eyed for mining. On the seabed lie rocks that contain valuable minerals like nickel and cobalt, which are used in computers and smart phones and renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and electric vehicle batteries. 

The President of Palau, Surangel S. Whipps Jr., said the conference was a critical opportunity to halt deep sea mining before it can begin at scale. The deep sea makes up 90 percent of the marine environment and it is an important provider of oxygen to our planet, he told the crowd. Palau, along with many other Pacific Island states, are at the forefront of calls for a moratorium that would halt exploration until the impact on the marine environment could be properly measured. 

We need to “stop this insanity,” he said. “The potential consequences are dire.” 

There is still so much we do not know about the deep sea. Member states of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) will meet in Kingston, Jamaica, in July to come up with regulations that would govern mining. Whipps Jr. said this meeting could also provide an opportunity to impose a moratorium. He said the current structure of the ISA favors granting mining licenses and profit-driven interests. 

France’s Secretary of State of the Sea and Biodiversity, Hervé Berville, and Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change Adaptation, Ralph Regenvanu, both said they will be at the ISA meeting in July. The latter noted that this will be the first time his country will be represented, and that they realize the importance of having a presence there.


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