Article | 25 Aoû, 2021

Dan Laffoley: Stepping down but not stepping back from ocean protection

Dan Laffoley, IUCN WCPA Marine Vice Chair, is stepping down after sixteen years of dedicated service to the World Commission on Protected Areas and to ocean conservation in general.  IUCN GMPP would like to thank Dan for his remarkable contribution to IUCN’s mission and congratulate him on winning the IUCN Packard Award for services to ocean conservation worldwide.  We have given space below to Dan to reflect on his role as marine Vice Chair.

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Dan Laffoley

Photo: IUCN

I was originally asked to take up the role of Marine Vice Chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas way back at the 2005 1st International Marine Protected Area Congress held in Geelong in Australia. The conference dinner had been delayed and the then Chair of the World Commission Nik Lopoukhine suggested we took a walk outside as he had something to ask me. Surrounded by the somewhat surreal evening entertainment provided by lots of people on stilts and large springs swaying through the air Nic suggested this might be something I would like to take on. I would be following in the footsteps of Bud Ehler from the USA and Graeme Kelleher from Australia. I was honoured to be asked and after some discussions back in the UK decided it would be a great thing to do to try and raise global ocean protection ambition.

I have always had a love and interest in the ocean, being as I was born on a small island – Jersey in the Channel Islands. Back then of course less than 2% of the ocean lay in any form of MPA and we were only just at the very start of the journey of awareness of the toll our daily activities were having on our single life-giving ocean. Of course back then we had only just heard that year of something called ocean acidification and were a decade or more away from realising the wholescale impact our communities were to cause.

In the intervening years I have had the pleasure to meet and work with many amazing people to move the needle on ocean protection. We have worked hard as a global community to change the narrative on how much ocean do we need to protect. Back in 1983 the world had an ambitious plan at the 3rd World Parks Congress in Bali to scale up protection from the few percent then to 10%. On land as we subsequently realised the accelerating losses of biodiversity, and that political target rose to 17%, but in the ocean the political will kept things at that at the 1983 level of 10% until very recently. Now many are voicing the need to fully protect at least 30% of land, freshwater, and ocean. The first impetus for at least 30% came from an amazing group of marine experts we gathered at the 2014 Sydney World Parks Congress – a global target that was hugely endorsed by IUCN’s global membership at the Hawaii World Conservation Congress two years later. We now know as science and planetary damage proceed at a pace that the ‘at least 30-%’ is now the very minimum needed. Indeed when I asked how much should be protect I now say we need to better protect the whole ocean. This should be through MPAs, other effective means, and ensuring the wider ocean activities are subject to proper sustainability rules and open public scrutiny. In this day and age the danger of a focus just on MPAs is to displace the problems elsewhere which cause even more problems – the risk of creating islands of hope in a sea if despair.

Along side scaling up the vision of ocean protection I was also deeply involved in scaling up guidance on marine protection and scaling up key programs and actions. When I arrived as marine Vice chair marine was often in my view sidelined in IUCN official technical guidance documents, despite the fact as we know the ocean contains over 90% of the living space for species on the planet and is the regulatory body that keeps conditions just right for life. It is in all our interested to know what we need to do to keep it healthy. I am pleased to say my often early replies to my terrestrial colleagues on the World Commissions – ‘….and the ocean’, were rapidly heeded and we then went on through extensive global processes to provide supplementary marine guidance of the MPA definition and IUCN management categories. Since then marine has been a strong partner in the development of the latest global technical guidance as it had become integrated into the whole – such as our recent advice on implementing ‘other effective area-based measures’ – the so called OECMs. Indeed many of my terrestrial colleagues have taken the ocean cause to heart and have been and are an immense powerhouses helping drive this change. Latterly we all worked together to develop the MPA Standards that gathers together key IUCN-member ratified MPA advice into one short document in English, French and Spanish to help with better implementation.

It has not of course all been about guidance or targets but also about action! In my early days as marine Vice Chair it was never clear how many marine World Heritage sites there were, so we devised a plan to scale up action. Bringing together global experts we devised the Bahrain Action Plan for Marine World Heritage to get the focus these places needed and deserved. I’m not sure if it was that or me suggesting that unless something was done they should be renamed as ‘half the World Heritage Convention’, but that Action Plan paved the way for the amazing work we now see happening on this via UNESCO’s marine World Heritage Program in Paris. Since then I have continued with them and others to push the envelope to have the High Seas included under the Convention, as such status does not evaporate once you travel offshore to distant ocean waters. Such waters hold amazing jewels that deserve the same protect ad recognition as World Heritage in ‘the other half of the world’!

On the theme of distant waters, I was also delighted to not just scheme with leading experts since IMPAC 1 but then to chair the meeting held in WWF’s headquarters in Washington DC to form the High Seas Alliance. Some said it could never be done – how can you get so many NGOs to work as one? But our amazing ocean community of NGOs proved that wrong and now goes from strength to strength to champion the need to protect the High Seas vai and agreement at the United Nations in New York. I still find is strange in 2021 that half our world – the High Seas – still lacks the same framework and regulation that we use to protect nature in inshore waters, freshwater and on land. A strong, practical and progressive framework is long overdue for the ocean and will be the benchmark against which we will judge the actions of countries and parties at the United Nations to make this happen.

My role has taken me across the globe – from challenging situations in places such as Yemen and Nigeria, from capitol Hill to Colombia, from the Arctic to Vanuatu, through to other iconic places such as the Galapagos and the Great Barrier Reef. Wherever I have been I have always been struck by the welcome, and the energy and determination of communities everywhere to do more to protect and better manage the ocean. Their often-urgent calls for greater and better actions are frequently way ahead of the politicians’ ambitions, but the greater the volume of such calls, the greater the pressure on the latter to act, and to act now.

Work has also focussed on championing the new generation of problems our activities are causing to the ocean. Most people have some awareness about the problems around fisheries, pollution, ocean plastic and introduced species, but just simply the vast scale of our greenhouse gas emissions are diving wholescale alterations to the ocean that are increasingly undermining even our best efforts to ameliorate the former set of problems. I’m speaking here of the climate change consequences the ocean is bearing in helping keep our world within habitable limits. Many were not even internet search terms or on the lips of politicians when I took up the Vice Chair role. Working with leading scientists throughout the world I have done all I can to shine a bright light on the scale of the cost the ocean is bearing and the need for far greater urgency and action to retore our world in balance. From ocean acidification that only really become known in 2004/5, though to our landmark reports in 2016 on ocean warming, and in 2019 ocean deoxygenation we have pushed hard to make sure they are not just widely recognised but receive the serious attention they deserve. Before our very eyes we are unravelling the systems that sustain us, and just because it is happening in the ocean must not mean it is out of sight or out of the minds of decision makers. A key part of this is also how we speak about and relate to the ocean and as a continuing part of this science work is has been great to help champion the ocean narrative post COVID 19 and make significant input to the G7 meeting in Cornwall, UK with our ‘listen to the ocean campaign’ for those world leaders.

At the end of the day marine conservation is as much about people as it is about the wildlife we care so much about. Being able to champion the inclusion of young professionals at the highest levels in the work of IUCN and WCPA has been extremely rewarding and a true pleasure. We must find effective ways to ensure that the decision makers and influencers of tomorrow are beside us in todays flight for nature and the planet. This has now proceeded well beyond a desire to make this happen and it has been fantastic to work with such gifted young professionals to produce key films for IMPAC 4, on the MPA Standards, about the work of the World Commission, and more recently at least 30% protection to champion the UK’s ambitions to get a new conservation agreement in place. It was great to bring such work to the heart of the UK Government and have the film narrated by Sting!

Wider awareness of the ocean more broadly has also been a strong theme running through my Vice Chair work. At my very first meeting in Washington DC I recall teaming up with Sylvia Earle to work with Google to transform the then iconic internet feature of Google Earth into one with a digital ocean on it. It took a team of 28 advisors and Google three years, but in 2009 we rolled out the digital ocean to billions of people around the globe. That legacy lives on with the 3D perspective you get whenever you search near the coast on Google Maps, and has spurred many others to develop products for the ocean in a virtual world. We also then helped champion underwater Streetview and the early versions of Global Fishing Watch, shining a bright light on the ‘hidden’ fisheries on the distant High Seas. More recently I have been pushing our community to engage with the next generation of technologies that are coming along above and below the waves, from the vast cuboid satellite constellations that will ultimately see every meter, every hour, every day of the surface of our world, whether it is cloudy or not, through to a new era of ocean exploration and mapping that has the potential to discover much more about the ocean that hitherto we have been about to achieve.

And so as I contemplate my next steps things come full circle with the forthcoming IMPAC5, to be hosted in partnership with IUCN by Canada in Vancouver in 2022. It is heartening to see that so many more people are now engaged with the ocean, but also the problems have also grown. Every voice counts– everyone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something – let’s all act in all the ways we can to better safeguard and protect our single global ocean. And as for me? I feel leave the Vice Chair role in a much stronger position, but with even greater climate and biodiversity challenges ahead. That 1.3% I started with has now grown to nearly 8%, and with a new common language on MPA protection and reporting standards on the horizon, thanks to the MPA Guide, there is really everything to play for. I am only stepping down from the Vice Chair role, and not stepping back please be reassured! The ocean is in my blood, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Commission and many of you in the coming years.

Dan e-sign Dan e-sign Photo: IUCN