By Dana Gilliland and Alan AtKisson

By the close of the United Nations Ocean Conference last Friday, 193 nations—all the UN’s member states—had unanimously agreed to a “Call to Action” intended to reverse the decline of ocean health.

That outcome document, together with over 1,300 voluntary commitments to action made by governments, companies, NGOs, cities, and multi-stakeholder partnerships — not to mention hundreds of thousands of social media postings using the hashtag #SaveOurOcean — capped off the world’s first high-level UN conference on the dire problems facing our seas.

The world now knows what it needs to do. What happens next?

The short answer is, or should be, action. But the first thing to realize about the official Call to Action, which covers topics such as reducing pollution from single-use and micro-plastic, protecting blue carbon ecosystems, and enhancing fisheries management, is that it cannot be left to governments alone. The Call to Action is itself voluntary.

It is also considerably weaker than many people were hoping for, because the official text lacks the language of actual commitment. Even the European Union said it accepted the final negotiated text of the Call “with a heavy heart.”

But the official negotiations and Call to Action were really a small part of the process. By most reports, the general mood of the conference was buoyant. Many people spoke or wrote of feeling that the ocean had finally arrived as an issue. That from now on, ocean sustainability would get the attention it deserves.

Some of the stand-out initiatives announced at the conference included many new marine protected areas (MPAs), leading to a combined increase of 4.4 percent for MPAs worldwide. This brings the goal of protecting over 10 percent of the ocean by 2020 into sight. Others put new money on the table: the “Blue Action Fund” commits €24 million (USD 26.9 million) for non-governmental organizations working with ocean and coastline conservation, to promote biodiversity and MPAs, along with sustainable aquaculture and tourism.

But while the partnerships discussed were many, the voluntary commitments more numerous than expected, and the proposed solutions comprehensive and wide-ranging, the question remains: How will action be monitored, measured and reported?

Many are looking to the next major oceans conference to help answer that question, and as it’s less than four months away, they won’t have to wait long.

Conferences are not in themselves action. But they are important milestones for building momentum and continuing the dialogue. Conferences also act as a kind of accountability mechanism, by providing global stakeholders the opportunity to compare and document their progress. The EU’s “Our Oceans” conference, a major international event to be held in Malta in early October, will provide such a venue for reporting on and reviewing commitments made earlier in the year.

Malta won’t be the only venue where stakeholders can work on transforming the “Call to Action” into on-the-ground action: There are over 50 other ocean-related events scheduled in 2017 alone, many of them annual gatherings that give participants opportunities to reassess and align existing commitments and partnerships. Some of these meetings include:

Many regional conferences, such as October’s Arctic Circle gathering in Iceland, also have a predominantly (though not exclusively) maritime theme, simply because regions are often defined by a common body of water.

Finally, at the close of the 2017 UN Ocean Conference, co-president Isabella Lövin of Sweden welcomed Kenya and Portugal’s offer to host the next UN Ocean Conference in 2020. Lövin also urged the UN to continue showing leadership in the implementation of SDG 14. Better mechanisms for accountability are certainly in order; however, the promise of another global, high-level conference in 2020 creates goalposts for many of the commitments made in 2017 to become reality, and for establishing better follow-up processes.

But the most important answer to “what happens next?” may be this: that all of us continue working to change laws, rules, policies, habits, processes and technologies. That we increase those efforts, and expand the number of people working on this critically important global issue.

The United Nations may have retired the special hashtag connected to this 2017 conference, but it will remain relevant for a long time to come: #SaveOurOcean.

Photo: Participants in the 4 June 2017 Ocean March in New York City, one day before the opening of the UN Ocean Conference, marched in support of protecting the oceans and achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, “Life Below Water.” Credit: UNDP / Freya Morales/ flickr