The CEO of Washington-based ocean advocacy group, Oceana has a message that he wants to share with the international community before the 27th UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt.
Andrew Sharpless is holding a report entitled Beyond Expectations: Ocean Solutions to Prevent Climate Catastrophe— released days in advance of the inception of negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh— that he says contains critical data to inform global policy-making with respect to offshore oil and gas drilling.
According to the publication, applying the breaks to the expansion of offshore drilling— while promoting global policies that protect marine habitats, safeguard climate-friendly seafood, improve shipping efficiency, replace fossil fuel power with renewable sources, and improve catch efficiency and fuel use in fishing— could reduce emissions by 6.3 billion metric tons a year, by 2050. This would take the total ocean contribution to nearly 40% of the emission reductions needed to keep the planet from warming a catastrophic 2 degrees— or in non-scientific terms, it would have the same effect as removing 1.4 billion cars from the road.
Oceana believes that a ban on offshore drilling— the source of nearly 30% of all oil and gas— has the potential to reduce emissions more than any other ocean-based solution.
But despite the overwhelming evidence, Sharpless’ is approaching COP27 with guarded optimism.
“These international convenings are helpful but have not so far delivered the changes we need to protect and restore an abundant and healthy ocean everywhere in the world,” he says.
While commending country-level pledges, commitments and advances, Sharpless has been in the business of the environment long enough to have become a bit of a cynic— after all, leaders have typically fallen short of their targets and promises.
As he wraps up his second decade at the helm of one of the most well-known ocean conservation organizations in the world, the outspoken CEO tells me about all that he’s learned, what the world needs to do now— and what he wants you to know.
Daphne Ewing-Chow: What are the two most pressing issues facing the oceans today and from the perspective of humanity, who stands to lose the most from these?
Andrew Sharpless: In my opinion, there are actually three.
The climate crisis is here, and it will only get worse until we take sufficient action. Our oceans have provided us with an invaluable service, absorbing 90% of the extra heat created from human-induced carbon emissions, but this has made them warmer and more acidic. Climate change is disrupting marine life and entire ecosystems, from coral bleaching to slower reproductive rates. Not only does this impact marine species but it greatly affects millions of people around the world whose livelihoods and nutrition depend on healthy, abundant oceans.
Similarly, over fishing is depleting our oceans and causing great harm to artisanal fishers and the nearly 3 billion people who rely on seafood for a substantial portion of their animal-sourced protein. Large distant water-fleets are catching massive amounts of fish near the coasts of other countries (where most of the fish live), often leaving little remaining for local artisanal fishers and their families.
Our oceans are also being polluted. We have all seen the destruction that results from oil spills, which wreak havoc on marine life, coastal ecosystems, and economies with long-lasting effects. In recent years, the world has seen major oil spills in Peru, the Mediterranean, the United States, and elsewhere.
Single-use plastics are also a major source of marine pollution. The equivalent of two garbage trucks worth of plastic is being dumped into the ocean every minute. The results are devasting for marine ecosystems and animals, like sea turtles, which often mistake plastic for food.
Daphne Ewing-Chow: You’ve headed up Oceana since 2003. What are some most critical changes (both positive and negative) that you’ve seen in the world with respect to ocean conservation?
Andrew Sharpless: Oceana was founded out of necessity. At the time, there was no organization working exclusively to protect and restore the oceans on a global scale.
Some of the most negative changes I have seen during this period are to the world’s coral reefs. More than a quarter of the world’s live coral cover has been lost in the last three decades. Increased ocean acidification weakens corals and warming temperatures have caused coral bleaching, which can result in mass mortalities.
Where Oceana has found the most success is by campaigning to change policies in countries that play an outsized role in the overall health of the world’s oceans. Coastal zones are under exclusive national jurisdiction. These areas – all the way out to 200 nautical miles off the coast – are home to most of the world’s marine fish catch. Almost 90% of the world’s marine fish are caught by just 29 countries and the European Union. This means that global scale ocean conservation impacts can be achieved on a country-by-country basis.
Over the last two decades, Oceana and our allies have used this approach to win more than 225 victories that stop over fishing, protect habitat, increase transparency, and stop the killing of threatened species.
Critical policy changes have helped rebuild depleted fisheries around the world. It’s proven that when proper science-based measures are put into place to manage fisheries, the fish come back. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) in the United States, for instance, has undergone many changes in its 42-year history and has reversed the decline of many fisheries and helped rebuild dozens of fish stocks. In the U.S., more than 47 fisheries have been rebuilt since 2000.
In 2006, a rebuilding plan and commercial quota for the black sea bass in the U.S. South Atlantic was established. Biomass of the stock doubled from 2006 to 2012 and the fishery was declared rebuilt by 2013.
In 2013, the European Union reformed the Common Fisheries Policy and set a legally binding commitment to fish all EU stocks within responsible (maximum sustainable yield) levels. Since then, over 100 stocks in the Northeast Atlantic have seen signs of recovery. For example, the formerly overfished European hake in the northern Bay of Biscay, Celtic Seas, and Greater North Sea are now thriving under a strong fisheries management plan. With sound management and proper enforcement, fisheries rebuilding works.
Daphne Ewing-Chow: With 2022 being declared the Super Year of the Ocean, with promises to ‘blue the Paris Agreement,’ and of course, with governments around the world making their typical promises to scale up actions towards ocean conservation in the lead up to COP27, given that you’ve played a central role in this space for at least two decades, do these developments make you optimistic or are you tired of all of the lip service?
Andrew Sharpless: International promises can only make an impact if they deliver results. Sadly, effective and truly global scale action for ocean conservation has been rare to the point of invisibility.
“These international convenings are helpful but have not so far delivered the changes we need to protect and restore an abundant and healthy ocean everywhere in the world.”
That’s why it’s important to take a country-by-country view of ocean conservation. At that level we see real, and big, positive policy outcomes for ocean recovery. This year in Canada, the government set new legal safeguards that require fish stocks to be rebuilt. Last year, Brazil made its commercial fishing fleet publicly trackable on the Global Fishing Watch map, which allows anyone in the world to monitor the activities of fishing vessels in real-time for free. Chile recently passed an ambitious law reducing single-use plastic pollution in the food and beverage industries. Those are just three really important examples of ocean conservation wins at the national level. Happily, with our allies, we have won many more.
Historically, world leaders have used COP as a platform to announce new pledges and commitments. Every little step helps, but experience sadly shows we should be prepared to forcefully call out the ways this COP likely will fall short of what the world needs to protect our oceans and the climate of our planet.
Daphne Ewing-Chow: What message do you want to send to the world’s decision-makers in time for COP27?
Andrew Sharpless: Nearly 30% of the world’s oil and gas comes from offshore drilling, a dirty and dangerous practice that threatens marine life and coastal communities, all while exacerbating the climate crisis. Oceana released a new analysis this week that calculates the benefit of halting new offshore oil and gas drilling worldwide. We found that stopping the expansion of offshore drilling – combined with the phasedown of existing production driven by reduced fossil fuel demand as clean energy comes online – would deliver up to 13% of the annual greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis. In total, this could reduce emissions by 6.3 billion metric tons a year by 2050, which is equivalent to the annual emissions we would save by removing 1.4 billion cars from the road.
When combined with other ocean-based solutions, such as protecting marine habitats, safeguarding climate-friendly seafood, and replacing fossil fuel power with ocean-based renewables, we could provide nearly 40% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 to keep the planet from warming a catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius.
We believe the logical place to start is with the countries that produce the most offshore oil and gas. Today, just 10 countries produce about 65% of all the offshore oil and gas. They are Saudi Arabia, Norway, Qatar, Iran, Brazil, United States, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and Angola.
“We are calling on these countries and other world leaders at COP27 to take action against fossil fuels now by stopping new offshore drilling and moving toward clean, renewable energy sources like offshore wind.”
We know this is possible because some governments are already taking action. In recent years, we have seen countries like Australia, Belize, Costa Rica, Demark, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, and the United States enact policies that prevent the expansion of offshore drilling. Now it’s time for others to follow suit.
Daphne Ewing-Chow: If you had to send one message that could get everyone on every corner of the earth, what would it be?
Andrew Sharpless: Our oceans are resilient. And if we protect them from threats like climate change, overfishing, and pollution, they can help feed 1 billion people a healthy seafood meal every day, forever. Since livestock production is a big driver of climate change, and wild seafood is not, this is also a big win in the battle against climate change.
In short, saving our oceans can help feed the world AND save the planet.