The United Nations Ocean Conference (UNOC), co-hosted in Lisbon by the Governments of Portugal and Kenya, provided a high-level forum for delegates to discuss the most pressing ocean challenges to our generation and enable international cooperation towards evidence-based solutions. 

With 24 Heads of State in attendance, along with thousands of representatives from government, inter-governmental organisations, and civil society, UNOC resulted in hundreds of voluntary commitments to balance environmental conservation, sustainable economic growth, and equitable outcomes. 

The Australian delegation included Minister for Environment, Hon. Tanya Plibersek, and the Prime Minister’s representative for the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, Dr Russel Reichelt. The conference explored intertwined themes across sustainable ocean development, including ecosystem restoration, blue carbon, plastic pollution, and ocean governance. 

Global Water Institute

UNSW was represented by three PhD students: Jordan Gacutan, Charlotte Page and Aaron Eger.

Jordan Gacutan, who also represented the Global Ocean Accounts Partnership Secretariat, said that the UN Ocean Conference was incredible for networking.

“I was able to build new contacts and strengthen existing partnerships through organising a side-event on ‘Beyond GDP’ alongside members from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (US) and several other country partners within the main venue,” said Jordan.

Charlotte Page is conducting her PhD within the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) where she researches water quality impacts on coral ecosystem health. She noted that linkages between land and ocean were highlighted by numerous side events and at high-level symposiums, and that there was a lot of action-oriented discussion. 

“Plastics, sewage and other pollution into the marine environment were discussed by governments, NGOs and private businesses working directly on clean-up solutions,” said Charlotte.

“Stakeholders shared experiences and the potential for positive impacts of partnerships across multiple sectors was evident.”

Charlotte was also encouraged by dialogue on the need for equity and diversity that was raised both in the opening plenary to UNOC and throughout the conference.

“A message of how crucial equity is in solving these big problems and meeting targets by 2030 was clear,” said Charlotte. 

“Several panel events during the conference discussed issues towards empowering women and increasing gender diversity in ocean science and policy. There was also a focus in all cases on increasing representation from the Global South, where there were calls to reduce parachute science and move towards inclusion of local stakeholders in management of their ocean systems.”

Global Water Institute

Aaron Eger, who also represented the newly formed Kelp Forest Alliance, had a close eye on ecosystem restoration throughout the event. He found it a “promising first step” in the drive to restore marine ecosystems, saying, “There was some exciting activity about restoration, but there is a need for a lot more growth in the area and stronger governmental and inter-governmental commitments.” 

“The significance of ecosystem restoration is also represented by the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration and will become an increasingly important part of the global dialogue,” said Aaron.

A highlight of the conference for Aaron was the Forgotten Forests side event.

“We organised this event with the local Cascais municipality, who are leading by example and working with scientists and artists to restore kelp forests in their marine backyard and help re-connect people to the ocean”. 

To round out her experience Charlotte said, “The ocean connects us all, and really can become a model for how we manage shared resources into the future.”

“I am hopeful we will begin to see the fruits of these discussions play out leading up to 2030.”