Photo: Marjukka Porvari and the youngest conference participants, Carter and Olivia Ries, who established the environmental non-profit One More Generation already seven years ago, at the ages of nine and seven.
I must admit: as a veteran of Baltic Sea protection, I am still slightly in emotional turmoil. From 15 to 16 September 2016, I participated as an invited guest in the Our Ocean conference, organised by the leaders of the United States: at the event, I was the only speaker representing the Baltic Sea region. Seeing the passionate and personal commitment of John Kerry, Secretary of State, who has truly adopted the issue, alongside President Obama – the leaders of the most powerful country in the world – brought tears to my eyes.
Like the majority of our supporters, John Kerry is an avid sailor. When his father introduced his young son to the wheel of a sailboat, a love for adventure and the frothing, ever-changing ocean was born and would go on to last a lifetime. Our relationship with the sea and our need to protect it, he reminded us, is, however, much more than the desire to protect something beautiful that we admire: it is an existential relationship for humankind and a part of our heritage as beings who have, in the dawn of time, originated in the sea. President Obama, who was born on Hawaii, also shared experiences from his childhood spent in the middle of a vast ocean, and explained that environmental protection was one of the key reasons for him to seek the role of president.
From my vantage point, seated in between the ministers from the Bahamas and Australia, it was enthralling to listen to the US leaders. To witness a political leader speaking about environmental protection in this way, not focusing on endless strategies, plans, and projects, but emphasizing that the sea is vitally important to mankind and this planet, and an essential part of our culture and our humanity.
And they were not just pretty words: at the conference, President Obama announced that he will establish the world’s largest marine protection area in Hawaii, which, combined with marine areas protected previously by the US, will mean the combined protected area will now be over 4 million square kilometres. Alan Duncan, the UK Minister of State, had to admit that with Obama’s announcement, the Americans were now in the lead in the race for the largest protected marine area, as the UK Government’s announcement to protect ‘only 4 million square kilometres of sea’ around its overseas territories now had to take second place. I found this to be a wonderful and useful form of one-upmanship among great powers. Other states, too, announced the establishment of major new marine protection areas, and more than five billion dollars were committed to marine protection during the conference.
For someone who has worked for the Baltic Sea for over a decade, it was very inspiring and instructive to see your own work within a global context – protecting the Baltic Sea has, during the years, focused mainly on our own area and on ways of thinking that are familiar to us. It was also great to feel how people from all over the planet, be it from the cold northern seas or the exotic island nations of the Caribbean, share the experience of the sea as part of their culture and of themselves, and feel a great desire to save it. In the words of Nainoa Thompson, who represents the Polynesian Voyaging Society and sails around the world on a traditional reed boat, a great wave of saving the sea has now been set in motion, and it is a wave we need to ride.
In addition to pollution, burning global marine protection issues include overfishing, a decline in diversity, and rising temperatures, caused by climate change, which lead to e.g. the destruction of coral reefs and the meltdown of arctic ice. When it comes to waste ending up in the sea, the rest of the world is far behind the Nordic model, which comes with well-organised waste disposal and adequate financial incentives for recycling. This is why estimates indicate that in 2050, at the current rate, there will be more plastic waste than fish in the oceans of the world!
Illegal fishing is also not such a big problem in the Baltic Sea region as it is in the developing countries, where poaching is connected to brutal phenomena such as arms trading and human trafficking. Illegal fishing takes a major share of the GDP of poor nations, and poses a threat to many fish stocks and species. At the event, a satellite-based fishing monitoring and information system, the Safe Ocean Network, was released, and many countries plan to deploy it.
What, then, about the case of the Baltic Sea and my presentation? When, jetlagged and after many nights of not much sleep, I followed the excellences and ministers to the stage, my stage fright was considerably mitigated by the thought that had only grown stronger during the two days of the conference: nowhere on the planet can they present such a major success in reducing pollution in a marine area. The miracle of the Gulf of Finland, brought about by us – and, based on current information, involving a reduction of up to 85% in the usable phosphorus load in only ten years – is a feat that is unique also globally. It is also worth sharing how the media, researchers, private sector and public authorities of a small country have here all worked towards a shared goal. It is a story that one can proudly share in the company of presidents, royalty, and Hollywood stars. Take note: we Finns are the world champions of marine protection!
The story of the Gulf of Finland is also of great interest and inspiration to people, as success stories generally are: after my presentation, many took me by the arm, congratulated me, and wanted to learn more. So, to conclude, here is my two cents’ worth to all the people who are wondering how to polish the public image of Finland in various image, brand, and ‘make Finland grow’ working groups: tell the story of the Gulf of Finland! Once upon a time, there was a marine area in the Baltic Sea that was hit the worst by eutrophication, but as a nation we decided to take action, and also convince our neighbours of the importance of this cause. The rest is history, and clear waters.
See Marjukka’s presentation on YouTube
Marjukka Porvari spoke at the conference panel ‘Stemming the Tide of Ocean Pollution’ on Friday, 16 September. Find out more about the conference here http://ourocean2016.org/