Policy ForumOcean Governance

From voluntary commitments to ocean sustainability

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Science  04 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6422, pp. 35-36
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5727

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Commitments have been made to improve tracking of products from tuna (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) from vessel to final buyer.


Voluntary commitments by states, governmental or nongovernmental organizations, and other actors, aiming to deliver outcome-oriented activities, have become a well-recognized mechanism in international sustainability policy (13). For ocean governance, the calling for and pledging of voluntary commitments could become a game changer, with two major international processes harnessing such voluntary contributions in recent years: the Our Ocean conferences, an annual high-level series initiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014, and the United Nations (UN) Ocean Conference, which took place for the first time in June 2017. Such calls and commitments provide opportunities to raise awareness, promote engagement, and catalyze political will for action on the part of states as well as public and private sectors. However, without effective and transparent review systems, it is difficult to link pledged commitments to actual implementation. Quality control and ensuring that commitments are effective and impactful will be difficult to achieve. A uniform global process is required to register and assess commitments, including consistent reporting and monitoring systems with clear targets, baselines, and review systems.


The UN Ocean Conference had encouraged state and nonstate actors to submit commitments to advance implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 and associated targets (4). Part of a comprehensive framework of 17 interlinked goals under the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (5), SDG 14 calls on states and the global community to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” It is underpinned by 10 specific targets addressing marine pollution, conservation, ocean acidification, fisheries, benefits for Small Island Developing States, small-scale fisheries, scientific knowledge and marine research, and international law.

More than 1300 voluntary commitments for ocean action, such as measures for combating marine pollution or strengthening capacity for marine research, were made at the UN Ocean Conference by governments, the UN system, civil society organizations, academia, the scientific community, and the private sector (6). Despite the open call for contributions, the majority of commitments registered were still made by governmental actors and civil-society organizations (7). But they also include innovative initiatives from the private sector and philanthropic organizations such as the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration or the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) platform, which seek change both through collective action and indirect appeals to countries or intergovernmental bodies to adopt ocean governance reforms. By November 2018, the number of contributions registered through the UN's registry of voluntary commitments (8), a web-based site that remains open for new registrations and updating on progress, had grown to 1478.

The pledging of voluntary commitments across government, civil society, and the private sector also stands at the heart of the Our Ocean conferences. Although not directly linked to the 2030 Agenda, the Our Ocean Conference series is complementing efforts of the UN process and has a strong topical relationship to SDG 14 (9). In total, 305 commitments for action were announced at the 2018 conference, covering six topical strands: marine protected areas, climate change, sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, sustainable blue economy, and maritime security (10). At the Our Ocean Conference 2017, hosted by the European Union in Malta, 437 announcements for “tangible and measurable commitments” had been made toward ocean health and sustainability (9, 11), including a large number from the private sector. Although smaller in the number of commitments than the UN process, the Our Ocean conferences succeed particularly in mobilizing financial resources or pledges for creation of new marine protected areas.


Though not replacing state measures to implement legally binding agreements, we believe that voluntary commitments hold great additional potential for driving transformative change for the ocean. They mobilize actions and means for improving ocean health, support the creation of new partnerships across different sectors and actor groups, and facilitate learning processes and exchange of innovative practice. By lowering barriers to address complex cross-cutting problems, the nonbinding nature of voluntary commitments also helps to overcome established but problematic sectorial approaches in ocean governance. Voluntary commitments also create normative pressure (1, 12) and increase expectations to play an active role in improving ocean health.

However, central oversight is needed to ensure that promises are kept. Without a transparent and rigorous pledge and review system for all ocean-related commitments, there is a risk of double-announcing in various forums or creating a flurry of low-impact or short-term activities that do not deliver progress on targets. Other critical challenges associated with voluntary commitment processes are accountability, enforcement, effectiveness, and progress accounting (2, 13).

The pledging processes under the UN Ocean Conference and the Our Ocean series seek to address these challenges to a certain extent through their individual registrations procedures that request the formulation of commitments along defined criteria. Our Ocean 2018, for the first time, published a report seeking to describe progress on commitments made under previous Our Ocean conferences (14), and the UN's registry of voluntary commitments invites pledging entities to provide updates on progress through their website (8). But the two registry systems are neither harmonized in terms of the data gathered nor in the standards for acceptance and registration of commitments. This lack of robust and consistent tracking and reporting processes, and missing links to existing environmental baseline data, impede assessments of transformative effects and overall progress toward goals.

A centralized registry, however, is needed to learn whether voluntary commitments produce desired outcomes on the ground, to identify trends, and to facilitate adjustments of policies. If kept separately, a competition between pledging systems with diverging objectives, different standards, and a general lack of monitoring and accountability may obscure their potential for improving ocean health and governance.


As 5 of 10 SDG 14 targets mature in 2020 and—possibly with the exception of the target to conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas (7)— will most likely not be achieved by then, the coming years will be critical for achieving the ocean goal. A credible post-2020 strategy is therefore needed to support the implementation of SDG 14, ideally harmonized with the post-2020 biodiversity framework currently developed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). One of the key building blocks for such a strategy could be a unified and comprehensive global registry for voluntary commitments. The existing pledging schemes and registries of voluntary commitments under the UN Ocean and the Our Ocean conferences would lend themselves as strong starting points to developing such a global registry and reporting mechanism.

The role of this new system would be to take stock of voluntary commitments; report on progress on implementation; provide transparency and independent verification; provide joint quality criteria for voluntary commitments; identify trends and highlight thematic and geographical gaps; and analyze distance and progress to SDG 14 and other ocean-related SDGs and targets.

To identify trends and to measure distance and progress to targets, this global registry should be linked to baseline data in existing databases and assessment processes on the state of the marine environment. For example, the World Database on Protected Areas, which is run by the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the UN's World Ocean Assessment, or the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's world fishery and aquaculture statistics could provide the necessary information.

In addition, independent scientific data and assessments such as the Ocean Health Index (15) or the MPAtlas of the Marine Conservation Institute could be taken into account. The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021 to 2030), an upcoming global effort to boost international cooperation in ocean sciences, could help to further strengthen the knowledge base of the review process.

Under the proposed strategy and a central registry, pledging of voluntary commitments could take place throughout the year and be highlighted on an annual basis at the Our Ocean conferences or other high-level meetings of states and relevant actors such as the UN Environment Assembly. Comparability of commitments and assessment of impact and progress would be facilitated through common reporting formats. The registry would be evaluated and commitments assessed every 3 years at the UN Ocean Conference, providing an accountability moment for the global community. This would also aid the steering of calls for action into directions where topical or geographical gaps have been identified, and the aligning of actions on international, regional, and national scales. Bringing together these different types of data and information, such a common pledge and review system could determine whether the global community is on track to achieve the goals set for the ocean and help to orchestrate further action.

The registry should be hosted by an international body and be maintained and updated regularly in close cooperation with competent global and regional organizations, ensuring transparent access to data and information. This could be supplemented by independent reviews from scientific institutions and nongovernmental organizations. The registry would provide grounds for developing and applying indicators and analytical frameworks for monitoring and evaluating performance and impacts, and assist in sharing of good practices.

Regular assessments of the pledge and review process for voluntary ocean commitments should be reported to and assessed by the UN's High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and reflected in the Global Sustainable Development Report. The registry should also seek synergies with reporting systems for other goal-based policy frameworks such as the UN Paris Agreement on climate change.

Both the UN Ocean Conference process and the Our Ocean series will continue to collect voluntary commitments toward the next UN Ocean Conference planned for 2020 and the upcoming Our Ocean conferences in Norway (2019) and Palau (2020). And there have been first discussions of possible coordination of the two commitment systems, a promising prospect for developing an orchestrated post-2020 strategy for ocean sustainability with a uniform global pledge and review system for voluntary ocean commitments.

References and Notes

Acknowledgments: We thank participants of the 2017 Potsdam Ocean Governance Workshop for their contributions on the topic, and are grateful to the following experts for their input and reflections: M. Caldwell, J. Hammersland, D. Herr, M. Knigge, M. Kobayashi, A. Mondré, H. Schopmans, and T. Thiele. We thank L. von Pogrell, J. Pütz, and S. Heinecke for support in researching data. This work is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) through its Research for Sustainable Development program (FONA), and the Federal State of Brandenburg.
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