From 20-22 September, the EU Ocean Governance (OG) project held a Global Conference in the city of Tarragona, Spain. This event brought together over 70 marine protected area (MPA) managers and project partners from more than 30 countries in the Atlantic Ocean, Southeast Asia and beyond. The conference marked the commencement of the final months of the EU-funded project, which ends in December 2023. The conference presented what have been almost four years of successful project activities and showcased their results and impact, bringing voices of the project’s partners and beneficiaries to the fore.
Day 1: political backing, ecosystem restoration and capacity-building in Southeast Asia
The conference’s first day began with a strong display of political support for the Ocean Governance Project and its efforts towards creating a “blue belt” connecting MPA managers worldwide. Stéphane Bijoux, Member of the European Parliament, and Céline Idil, Acting Director of International Ocean Governance and Sustainable Fisheries at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, conveyed their endorsement through video messages. The Spanish Minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, expressed her government’s support, emphasising the importance of international collaboration to tackle ocean challenges. Local representatives, including Tarragona Deputy Mayor Guillermo García and Tarragona Port Authority President Saül Garreta, reaffirmed the city’s commitment to climate and biodiversity goals.
The first day also spotlighted the project’s ecosystem restoration initiatives in Southeast Asia, specifically in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. These efforts, focused on coral reefs and mangroves, have yielded ecosystem recovery and increased fish populations. Community engagement emerged as a key factor for sustaining these restoration sites. Participants stressed the need for sustainable financing, including private sector involvement and blue carbon initiatives, to continue their conservation work. Insights from the Philippines emphasised the selection of species and planting locations as critical factors in mangrove restoration. Additionally, the session highlighted the influential role of youth, with their confidence and technological skills, in driving environmental conservation.
Attendees learned about the project’s capacity-building efforts and cooperation in Southeast Asia. Regional workshops organised in collaboration with the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity and the Coral Triangle Initiative aimed to enhance the capabilities of government ministries responsible for environmental, fisheries and ocean affairs. Transboundary cooperation and understanding conservation measures like Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures (OECMs) and Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) were emphasised by workshop participants who shared their take-aways.
The day concluded with a discussion on the evolving scoping study about the Atlantic Ocean, which is being adapted to changes in the region and expanding its reach. Attendees learned about the Resilience twinning partnership’s self-assessment tool for MPA managers, which has not only identified weaknesses in national frameworks but also supported informed decision-making by managers on questions of resilience.
Day 2: twinning success and knowledge exchange forge strong MPA networks
The second day began with an introduction to the Marine Mammals Twinning and its self-assessment toolkit. The toolkit is designed as a practical checklist for MPAs lacking a management plan adapted to marine mammals and has proved beneficial for managers with limited marine mammal expertise. Users of the toolkit shared how it benefited their management and also offered insights on how to best use it.
Another segment highlighted the Networks Twinning, emphasising its growing reach: originating in specific regions, it has since expanded to encompass networks (almost) worldwide. Members have learned from one another, honing network-building skills, confidence in advocacy, and adaptability across diverse management contexts.
Discussions on knowledge exchange and governance, with a focus on Southeast Asia and the Atlantic, also featured. Governance discussions prompted reflections on community engagement and resource management. Despite geographical and environmental variations, MPAs in both regions face similar challenges and were able to exchange insights on ecosystem adaptations to support the survival of living organisms. The value of sharing experiences with other countries was emphasised, underlining the need for enhanced national-level sharing within respective MPA contexts.
Lastly, attendees recognised the added value of the different components of the Ocean Governance project. These have led to the creation of a global alliance of managers’ networks, which was officially launched during the conference, support for Senegal in its successful bid to host the international IMPAC 6 congress, and facilitated capacity building in Southeast Asia. This has expanded the number of restoration sites covered and stimulated private sector support, with communities taking ownership of the work. The project has strengthened indigenous communities’ capacity and extended management tools to regions beyond the initial scope, such as the South Pacific. Additionally, the twinning partnerships have provided essential support to MPA managers, particularly in challenging political climates, preserving networks and their valuable work.
Day 3: the project’s global impact and Natura 2000 site visit conclude conference
On the last day, the focus was on how the project has contributed to global processes, and how it might continue to do so. It was underscored how the project aligns with the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework targets and international processes, emphasising cooperation and collaboration. Notably, the support of the project has aided the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI-CFF) to work to achieve global targets and spurred interest in developing an MPA network in the region. Jihyun Lee, Director of Science, Society and Sustainable Futures Division at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Environment Programme, concluded: “I must offer my heartfelt congratulations to the European Commission, the Ocean Governance team and the government of Spain, for convening this forum, and the impressive achievements made under Ocean Governance project. Linking the enormous amount of knowledge, guidance and resources available will be key to the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework.
Additionally, José Julio Casas from CMAR shared how the project has helped to advance knowledge about the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor and its proposal for a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve. Furthermore, there were discussions on the ground-breaking BBNJ treaty and the urgency of its implementation to meet global biodiversity targets. Jessica Howley from the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea said that the project’s experience and its engagement of stakeholders were acknowledged as valuable for the practical application of the treaty. The conference ended with an outlook for the future, with the project’s core team members sharing insights into how they aim to carry its achievements into the future and ensure that the outcomes will continue to benefit MPA managers and local communities beyond the project’s end in December 2023. The consensus was that the connections built will endure despite uncertainties. To conclude the conference, participants had the opportunity to enjoy a field visit, which included a guided tour of Punta de la Móra, an EU Natura 2000 site situated just a few kilometres from the city of Tarragona along the Mediterranean coast.
The Global Conference marked a significant milestone as the project approaches its conclusion in December 2023. It served as a valuable platform for learning and exchange among project partners representing diverse strands of the initiative. Throughout the event, we witnessed the commitment of MPA managers, political leaders, and stakeholders from around the world to address ocean conservation challenges. In essence, the conference was an occasion to celebrate achievements, facilitate exchanges and strengthen partnerships, leaving a positive impact on the future of ocean conservation. It was not just a conclusion, but a meaningful step towards a sustainable future for the ocean.