"People can make their own behavioral choices in favour of sustainability."Ocean Witness Peter shares his story
“I am really glad that you’re doing this and crowdsourcing it, in a way, because it is not something governments or United Nations or somebody in another planet will do for us. It is what we all do as individuals, and as families and as communities.” Today, Peter shares his Ocean story with us: past, present and future.
We had the chance to speak with Ocean Witness Peter Thomson, at the UN Ocean Conference in New York while he was the President of the United Nations General Assembly. Peter Thomson was born in Suva, Fiji, and served as Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2010 to 2016. He has now been appointed as the first UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Oceans. Peter began his career as a Fiji civil servant in 1972, working in rural development as a District Officer in Navua, Macuata and Taveuni. Since his arrival in New York in 2010, he has contributed greatly to sustainable development initiatives, including the creation of SDG14, the Ocean’s goal. Today, Peter shares his Ocean story with us; past, present and future.
What is your earliest memory of the ocean?
I come from the Fiji, where we have over 300 islands surrounded by the open seas of the Pacific Ocean. I was born in Suva, but at that time my family lived in one of the northern islands of Fiji. So my first trip on a boat was from the nursing home in Suva up to our home in Labasa, traveling in my mother’s arms in a small coastal vessel, for four days through very rough weather. I guess somewhere, very deep in my mind, there is a memory of that first boat trip. Well, for the next forty years of my life, I spent a great deal of my time in small boats traveling from island to island in pursuit of my work.
What does the ocean mean to you today?
The health of the Ocean has become the central vocation of my work. As one of the advocates for the creation of SDG14 [to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development], I feel a deep responsibility for the integrity of its implementation. It is for this reason that we’re all here at The Ocean Conference in New York – to support SDG14’s implementation. This responsibility has consumed much of my thinking and action over the last couple of years and it is wonderful to see that so many people have a similar commitment to the Ocean’s well-being.
What kind of changes that you’re witnessing today are really a concern?
Wherever I go in the world, I find there are less fish. Fishermen complain to me about that, whether I’m in Africa, the Mediterranean or the Pacific Islands. That’s due to IUU fishing, destructive fishing practices, industrial fishing, fisheries subsidies, and to climate change effects like Ocean acidification and warming. And wherever I go, I find plastic pollution in the Ocean, which is just so distressing. I remember what it was like when I was young, diving in Fiji in pristine conditions, in the days before over-fishing, coral bleaching and plastic pollution. So beautiful! Nowadays, all over the work you swim with plastic. Look at the photographs of Henderson Island, one of the most remote islands in the world, where the beaches are covered in plastic. All these changes are distressing, but we have solutions and we will turn the tide back in favour of pristine seas.
So now let’s imagine that it’s 2030 now. What does the ocean look like today?
Well, I’m a pragmatic optimist, and this Ocean Conference is all about reversing the cycle of decline in which the Ocean is caught. By 2030 I see an ocean that is largely free of plastic. I see an Ocean in which fish stocks are being managed at sustainable levels, and I see an Ocean in which shellfish and other species can continue to flourish because we’ve managed to get CO2 emissions under control through responsible Climate Change action.
And how does it look like for Fijians?
Fijians face the same problems that coastal people all over the world are facing, through the effects of Climate Change. This is why Fiji is putting so much resource into Climate action and Ocean action. Fiji will take on the presidency of COP23 later on this year in Germany; and the PM of Fiji and DPM of Sweden will be co-presidents of this Ocean Conference. As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
"I am really glad that you’re doing this and crowdsourcing it, in a way, because it is not something governments or United Nations or somebody in another planet will do for us. It is what we all do as individuals, and as families and as communities."
We are asking people, communities, coastal communities, people who are at the forefront of what we’re trying to do to share their stories. to put their witness statements together as ocean witnesses. What is your message to them?
My message is: I am really glad that we’re having this interview, because I believe that by using the power of connectivity we can crowdsource solutions and communal action. Saving the Ocean cannot be done just through governments or the United Nations. It is what we all do as individuals, as families and as communities, that will be the difference between success or failure. As an example I recently met two young women in Bali, in fact they’re here at the conference in New York. They are here thanks to UNEP and the Indonesian government. They’ve started a campaign to ban plastic bags in Bali and they’re succeeding. That’s what individuals can do. We are going to get rid of the plastic plague in our Ocean, and governments, businesses and individuals will all be key. We have to think about damaging marine pollution from micro-beads in beauty products and about micro-fibers in the synthetic clothing we wear. Individuals can shape remedial action by their consumer choices. I personally no longer purchase a fish meal if the restaurant cannot assure me it’s from a sustainable and legal fish catch. That is something I do as an individual consumer. People can make their own behavioral choices in favour of sustainability, so that is what I would encourage all your witnesses to do: be activists for the conservation and sustainable use of the resources of the Ocean.
Peter is a Fijian diplomat who served as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations from September 2016 until September 2017. He has now been appointed the special position of first UN envoy for the oceans. Peter has been Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations since February 2010.