The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched amidst huge fanfare at the UN General Assembly in New York from 25 -27 September 2015, are being heralded as transformational, universal, and indivisible. The groundswell of political will mobilized around the SDGs could help break the deadlocks over climate change and trade disputes that have been stifling progress towards sustainable development for years. But to actually make this happen, these 17 goals will need to trigger a major – and long overdue – disruption of the global status quo, fundamentally shift priorities, and redress entrenched injustices.

The Global Ocean Commission has been actively supporting the efforts of the Pacific Small Islands Developing States and other countries to develop and promote one of the 17 SDGs, which covers more than 70 percent of the planet: the Ocean SDG, also known as SDG 14. In it, States pledge to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development,” which is in many respects the exact opposite of how we use the ocean today. Instead of extracting fish and other resources for short-term profit – often in complete disregard of scientific warnings about the consequences – achieving this goal will require decisions to be taken on the basis of what is fair and responsible, on need rather than greed. SDG 14 should result in management decisions being taken according to how much they benefit the most vulnerable island and coastal communities and the rest of humankind (even if you live far from the ocean, every second breath of air you take comes from it); a profound shift compared to today. Instead of leaving the high seas, the vast 64% of the ocean beyond any national jurisdiction, as a virtual free-for-all (or, at least, free for all those who can afford to access it), SDG 14 will require international law and governance – and its enforcement – to extend right across the ocean.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations summit on September 27, 2015. (Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations summit on September 27, 2015. (Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

High-sounding aspirations agreed to in New York are certainly no guarantee of action on the ground. Decades of broken promises testify to that. Indeed, much of what has just been agreed to in the SDGs sounds almost painfully familiar and many are justifiably cynical about the likelihood of achieving the transformation touted. But, at least for the ocean, the SDGs are a watershed moment.

The ocean has finally made the big time; after being side-lined in the Millennium Development Goals, marine conservation now enjoys equal billing with the traditional big issues like poverty eradication, health, education or climate change. This enhanced visibility can only be a good thing, but the real test will be the degree of influence the new global goal has on other complex negotiations and decisions, at global, regional and state level. Will SDG 14 make the leap from a big splash in New York to become the agent of a genuine sea change?

The good news is that the ocean SDG is a strong one, backed up by a set of seven specific and in many cases time-bound targets that tackle the key threats faced by the ocean, from illegal fishing to ocean acidification..

We need to seize this momentum, and reinforce SDG 14 with measurable and politically relevant indicators able to guide progress towards each of its specific targets. The Global Ocean Commission has put forward proposals for many of these indicators and is working to promote them.

For example, indicators of progress towards target 14.3, to “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification,” could on one hand be ‘increased numbers of research programs dedicated to studying carbon sequestration,’ and on the other – and most immediately and effectively – be a strong outcome at the critical UNFCCC climate summit in Paris in December. If States are serious about minimizing ocean acidification, they must show themselves to be serious about accelerating action to cut CO2 emissions, decarbonize the economy and head toward 100% renewables. A recent report commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission estimates that life in the high seas alone absorbs 500 million tonnes of carbon every year. Unless we reduce our emissions, ocean acidification and ocean warming will inevitably increase. Paris therefore looms as an early, and very tough, test of the real impact of the SDGs.

Another clear indicator of States willingness to action could be to have enough of them coming forward and ratifying the 2009 Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Port States Measures Agreement to permit this vitally important instrument for combatting illegal fishing (which Target 14.4 pledges to end) to finally enter into force. To be truly credible, the SDGs need to be reflected in legally binding instruments like the PSMA.

In the same month as the Paris climate challenge, States will have another opportunity to back up an SDG 14 target, this time number 14.6 to prohibit, by 2020, fisheries subsidies which contribute to over – and illegal fishing. The World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Nairobi is the time to start. About 60% of WTO members are willing to end the huge injustice whereby a handful of rich States subsidize their industrial fishing fleets – to the tune of tens of billions of dollars – to operate far from home at the expense of small-scale artisanal fishers. Eliminating these long-contested distorting subsidies will also help tackle the current chronic mismanagement of the world’s fisheries, which the World Bank estimates costs the global economy $83 billion a year!

New Zealand's newly announced Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary has the second deepest ocean trench in the world, home to a diverse range of species, including deep sea angler fish. (Credit: NOAA Photo Library)

New Zealand’s newly announced Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary has the second deepest ocean trench in the world, home to a diverse range of species, including deep sea angler fish. (Credit: NOAA Photo Library)

Early signs of change are promising. In the days following the launch of the SDGs, the Prime Minister of New Zealand announced the creation of a vast new marine protected area spanning 620,000km2, which will help progress towards Target 14.5 to conserve at least 10% of the ocean. Meanwhile, the Prime Ministers of two of the staunchest supporters of SDG 14, Fiji and Sweden, announced a joint proposal to establish a series of high-level UN Ocean conferences every three years, starting in 2017, to give visibility to and benchmark efforts to implement SDG14 and to maintain and increase political momentum for the ocean. The UN General Assembly will decide in a few weeks whether this proposal goes ahead or not.

The Global Ocean Commission is determined that SDG 14 is not permitted to sink into obscurity. If the ocean goal flounders, there will be little hope of achieving the others: there can be no food security, no reduction in global inequality, and no combatting of climate change without a healthy and resilient ocean.

SDG 14 is a cause for great celebration, but we cannot for a moment rest on our laurels. Reversing ocean decline, and building a strong and just system of ocean governance, is a major undertaking. It will take years of dedicated action. Our ocean deserves nothing less.