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Ocean Action in Washington – But High Seas Ignored

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, clearly cares about the ocean. He grew up with the sea and backed many progressive ocean policies while in the US Senate. You could feel that emotional connection at the OurOcean conference, which he hosted over the last two days in Washington, D.C. Unlike most political conferences I have been to, there was a tight agenda, and there was – by the standard of political conferences, anyway – a lot of action:

The United States announced a significant extension of the Pacific Marine Sanctuary and actions to stop illegal fishing in US waters; the Bahamas committed to making 20% of their oceans ocean sanctuaries by 2020 (and 10% already this year) and put forward $200 million to improve the management of their protected areas; Palau and Kiribati both declared huge new areas off limits to commercial fishing in order to help (especially) tuna stocks to recover; Norway will invest $150 million in sustainable fisheries research; Togo pledged to join Senegal and fight illegal fishing of their coasts – a move that could have significant positive impacts for local fisher communities; the list goes on. The devil with many of these announcements will be in the detail – just because good words were spoken in Washington does not yet mean that there will be real change out on the ocean. Still, in a situation where less than 2% of the oceans are currently protected and fishstocks are being overexploited everywhere, this list is heartening. And Chile committed to host a follow up meeting next year to check whether the words have indeed resulted in action.

Kerry's approach was refreshing. His speeches were engaging and forceful – reminding us all that without the ocean there can be no security or development in future. He also freely admitted that there was not enough being done yet. He even called on the audience to create a global mass movement to force politicians to take ocean protection (more) seriously. We definitely want to be part of that!

But oddly enough, at the very same time Kerry ignored the strong movement that already exists to protect the High Seas! OurOcean shamefully ignored the tens of thousands of you who called for urgent protection of 64% of the ocean – the High Seas. It's not that the need to protect the High Seas wasn't mentioned. Leonardo di Caprio called for an urgent end to the "Wild West" exploitation of the High Seas and said that people want to see governments taking action. But on the twitter feed in the conference hall, not a single one of the over 10,000 tweets calling for High Seas protection ever showed up! And while John Kerry called for a "global political plan for the Ocean" – he failed to mention the High Seas even once.

It's easy to see why. If Kerry had talked about the High Seas he would have revealed a giant contradiction in the US position on ocean protection; because while OurOcean was happening in Washington, global negotiations to create a rescue plan for the High Seas are ongoing not so far away, at the United Nations in New York. And while Kerry was rightly proud of the actions he could announce in Washington, his own negotiation team is shamefully failing to back ocean action at the United Nations. That's pretty untenable, and has left many of us, including my boss, Kumi Naidoo, very confused indeed.

After the last two days, and despite the infuriating censorship of the issue, I am inclined to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt. Kerry may have ignored and buried the High Seas issue because he is indeed embarrassed by the inconsistency of his government's approach. So, we will give him a little bit more time to change the United States position on the High Seas Biodiversity Agreement we so urgently need. But I'd like to see him apply the same efficiency and passion with which he and his team delivered the OurOcean conference, towards fixing the US's position on the High Seas. If he does not, the very ocean movement, which he called a "hard ass group of folks" will come back to haunt him (and his behind).

It's obvious that we can never protect our Ocean if we ignore 64% of it. So let's take John Kerry at his word and help build a movement he cannot ignore. Join our call for Ocean Sanctuaries now!

Daniel Mittler

Daniel Mittler is political director of Greenpeace International. Follow him on Twitter: @danielmittler

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