Our Ocean One Future Leadership Summit: A First-Hand Reflection

by Andrew Ireland, MSFS '18

I have known that I want to spend my career protecting and conserving the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources for almost as long as I remember, but for the past couple of years have been unsure as to how best to do that. During the application process for grad school, I was at a loss as to what type of program I should pursue that would best allow me to achieve my goal of working to solve global environmental problems. As an undergraduate, I majored in biology – should I continue on the science track, and make my mark by providing policymakers and the public with the facts they need to make informed environmental decisions? Or should I shift gears and focus on policy, designing and implementing actions that lead to better conservation outcomes? Clearly, I chose the latter path, and I am happy to say that this past week’s Our Ocean One Future Leadership Summit validated that choice. The summit, which was held at Georgetown as a parallel event to the third annual Our Ocean conference hosted by the State Department, invited 150 university students from around the world to collaborate with each other and hear from a variety of speakers about potential strategies and actions that will help to solve some of the ocean’s most pressing problems: climate change, marine pollution, and overfishing.

As one of the students accepted to take part in the summit, I had the opportunity to hear from a variety of speakers, including Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques Cousteau); legendary Dr. Sylvia Earle; U.S. climate envoy John Pershing; and Secretary of State John Kerry. All of these speeches were passionate and inspiring, but I think I gained the most from the two small group sessions I attended, where we engaged with practitioners in a more intimate setting. The main takeaway of the first breakout session was to bring a can-do entrepreneurial attitude to solving the problems the oceans face; to not let a lack of knowledge about what we are doing stop us from getting started; and to not wait for permission from others to get working on our solutions. The most impactful action one can take is to have a promising idea and work towards making it a reality. The second session focused on the necessity of making science accessible and useful to policymakers, and encouraging the adoption of science-based decision-making tools. This was music to my ears, and it reminded me that my science background naturally inclines me towards putting science at the forefront of policy implementation. In many ways, the choice I agonized over last year was a false one – conservation action requires both science and policy to maximize results.

From an MSFS perspective, two themes stood out. The first was how technological innovations, particularly remote sensing, are making enforcement of international laws and agreements simpler and more effective. Through the Safe Ocean Network, satellites and similar technologies are enabling governments and civil society to do things like monitor commercial fishing vessels and locate illegal fishing activities in marine protected areas, bringing remote areas of the open ocean further out of a “Wild West” status and into the purview of national and international law enforcement. This is an exciting development that places pressure on governments to rethink turning a blind eye towards illegal activities occurring in their waters and ports, and will allow the global community to measure how each attendee of the Our Ocean conference lives up to its formal commitments.

The second theme was a potent reminder that caring about our oceans is not just a secondary concern to be categorized under the “environmental” label. Maintaining the long-term sustainability of the world’s oceans and life in them is vital to national and international security, a fact reflected in the State Department’s sponsorship of both the summit and the conference. As Secretary Kerry emphasized at both events, the oceans employ 12% of the world’s workforce and feed the 50% of the world population that is dependent on its fisheries. If climate change, pollution, and overfishing lead to the widespread collapse of fisheries and the industries dependent on them, the results will likely be grim. Poverty will increase and more people will go hungry, the world will be less stable as unemployed communities become restive, and a major source of the world’s wealth will be degraded.

So for the others in my program, no matter what concentration you pick – international development, global politics & security, or global business & finance – what happens to the oceans should matter to you, and will affect the work you do after graduation. Luckily, as the list of commitments on the Our Ocean website illustrates, world leaders are starting to recognize this fact and get serious about making sure human activities on the planet do not result in the complete degradation of the world’s oceans and, ultimately, our own way of life. And with our MSFS education, we will be well-prepared to do our part to support these efforts and ensure the oceans are supplying oxygen, food, employment, recreation and wonder for generations to come.