World Oceans Day reflections

8th June 2020

Sue Wells introduces World Oceans Day.

Since 2008, June 8th has been recognised by the UN as World Oceans Day, designed as a rallying point to promote action year-round for the protection and sustainable management of the ocean.  Thousands of events and programmes have taken place, in over 140 countries, under the World Oceans Day umbrella, helping to build the critical mass of support that has helped to draw global attention to this once overlooked, but vital, part of our planet. In 2016, the World Oceans Day Youth Advisory Council was launched and plays a pivotal role in international advocacy – a key member of this is Cambridge’s Rebecca Loy, a student in the Zoology Department and alumna of the CCI Masters in Conservation Leadership MPhil course.

Although not a coastal city (until rising sea levels determine otherwise!), Cambridge has a strong marine connection.  Its long history of marine research ranges from coral reefs (Charles Darwin, Stanley Gardiner and David Stoddart were leaders among many) to the polar oceans (the extensive work of the British Antarctic Survey and Scott Polar Institute), and includes the many aspects of the coastal and marine environment studied in the Departments of Zoology, Geography and other institutes.

Since the 1980s, the environmental organisations that have progressively become established here have played essential roles in developing  our understanding of the threats facing marine life and the interventions needed to protect and manage it. CCI partners’ work in the marine field covers a huge range of species and locations; Birdlife and the RSPB’s work on seabirds and coastal waders, the IUCN Red List’s documentation of threatened marine species, UNEP-WCMC’s databases mapping coastal and marine habitats and protected areas, FFI’s projects to support Marine Protected Areas and coastal community livelihoods, Tropical Biology Association’s training of the next generation of mangrove conservationists, to mention but a few!

Equally importantly the University, other educational bodies and conservation organisations in the city have played a key role in building capacity for marine research and conservation.  Many academics and conservationists in the marine field started out as students and interns here, with a recent increased recognition of the need for such training and education.  In 2019, James Herbert-Reid was appointed as the Zoology Department’s first Claire Barnes University Lecturer in Marine Biology.  The growth in the number of undergraduates interested in the ocean led to the establishment of the first Cambridge University Marine Conservation Society (CUMCS) in 2018.  CCI’s MPhil in Conservation Leadership has seen a steady growth in marine participants, with six this year representing countries around the world that are themselves leaders in ocean conservation.

This year, circumstances have meant that globally World Oceans Day is a largely virtual event, with numerous online activities being planned.  The two-fold theme for 2020 is “innovation for a sustainable ocean”, along with a call to world leaders to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 within marine protected areas.

Although the day is framed as a celebration, this year there is a sombre underlying concern: the ocean, its life and the human communities that depend on it are threatened as never before.  With climate change already a major chronic threat, COVID-19 has added an acute impact: communities have lost livelihoods that depend on tourism and fishing; the financial basis of most marine protected areas has collapsed as tourism has stalled; vital research and monitoring programmes have halted – the list goes on.  On the positive side, hope lies in the knowledge that the ocean is potentially a major component in recovery: for food and job security, financial sustainability and most critically halting and mitigating climate change. This was explored last week (1-5 June) in the World Economic Forum’s Virtual Ocean Dialogues, where a wide range of solutions and case studies were discussed – not all of which everyone will agree with, but which as a whole generate an optimism and energy for the future.

CCFMarine and CUMCS, having held two previous successful World Ocean Day events in the David Attenborough Building, will this year celebrate with a lunchtime online event.  Throughout the week we will promote the marine work of CCI and CCF partners, a key contribution to securing the future health of the ocean and of us all – how ever far we live from the sea, we fundamentally depend on it.


Sue Wells was one of the founders of CCF Marine.  She has worked in marine conservation for many years, for organisations including TRAFFIC, UNEP-WCMC, IUCN and WWF, and is currently a consultant.  She is chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas MPA Management Effectiveness Task Force, and also chair of the International Coral Reef Society’s Conservation Committee.