The UN chief is speaking at a summit taking place in parallel to the Ocean Race taking place in Cape Verde, encouraging participants to win the race to save the oceans

Guterres: Let's become the champions the ocean needs

photo_camera ONU/Mark Garten - Panoramic view of Santo Antão, the westernmost island of Cape Verde

At the opening of the Ocean Summit in Cape Verde, which coincides with the end of the first leg of the Ocean Race round the world yacht race in the country, the UN Secretary-General said that "ending the ocean emergency is a race we must all win".

"Working together as one, it is a race that can be won. Let us all become the champions the ocean needs. Let us end the ocean emergency and preserve this precious blue gift for our children and grandchildren," said António Guterres, on the last day of his visit to Cape Verde.

The Secretary-General was speaking from the Mindelo Ocean Science Centre in São Vicente, a state-of-the-art facility that houses large marine scientific equipment such as deep-sea robots, electronics workshops and state-of-the-art laboratories.

On Monday morning, when the building opened its doors to Summit participants, the facility proved to be a visible manifestation of the commitment Cape Verde is making to boost the archipelago's blue economy.

Looking through the huge doors overlooking the harbour, the same harbour that allowed many Cape Verdeans to leave in search of a better life, the prime minister observed how the ocean often portrayed a sense of longing and melancholy.

Ulisses Correia e Silva explained that today that same ocean "represents tourism, desalinated water, the blue economy, submarine fibre optic cables, clean energy, biotechnology, aquaculture, the canning industry for export, and a centre for nautical competitions and events such as the Ocean Race"

The ocean is a matter of survival

Speaking to UN News, UN Special Adviser for Africa Cristina Duarte pointed out that 99.3 per cent of the nation's territory is water.

Duarte, who is Cape Verdean, was the country's Minister of Finance, Planning and Public Administration between 2006 and 2016. "We may be more creatures of the ocean than of the land," she said. "For Cape Verde, the ocean is a matter of survival."

Therefore, "its conservation [must be done] in a context of managing a natural resource, because we have to take from it what Cape Verde needs to develop. Persevere with it, but without forgetting that, for Cape Verde, it is an economic resource," Duarte explained.

Racing for the Ocean

The Ocean Race first began in 1973, taking sailors around the world every three to four years.

For the past four decades, as campaigner Danni Washington pointed out today at the Summit, sailors would see these islands in the distance, or race through the middle of them. Sometimes they were even rescued by Cape Verdeans, but the race had never stopped in the archipelago.

On Friday night, the country became the first West African nation in the history of the race to host a stopover.

Addressing the Summit, race chairman Richard Brisius assured the UN Secretary General of the participants' commitment to the cause of the oceans.

"You have all of us and all the crew in the ocean race," he said. "We are ocean people; we care about the ocean, and we do it with passion."

For his part, Guterres praised "the inspiring courage of the women and men who sail this gruelling six-month race around the world".

He said it was "also inspiring" to know that each boat carries special equipment to collect scientific data to help ensure a healthy ocean for the future.

A key resource at risk

For the UN Secretary-General, the Summit was also a way of sounding the alarm: "The ocean is life. The ocean is sustenance. And the ocean is in trouble".

Guterres explained that some 35% of the world's fish stocks are overexploited, global warming is raising ocean temperatures to new lows, fuelling more frequent and intense storms, rising sea levels and salinisation of coastal land and aquifers.

"Meanwhile, toxic chemicals and millions of tons of plastic waste flood coastal ecosystems, killing or injuring fish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, entering the food chain and ultimately being consumed by us," Guterres explained.

According to UN estimates, by 2050 there could be more plastic in the sea than fish.                     

From super year to super action

Against this backdrop, the UN chief believes the world took some important steps to correct course last year.

These included a "historic agreement" in Nairobi to negotiate a globally binding treaty to control plastic pollution, the UN Oceans Conference in Lisbon, where countries made hundreds of new voluntary commitments and pledges, and the UN Conference on Biodiversity in Montreal, which ended with countries agreeing on a target to protect 30 per cent of terrestrial, aquatic, coastal and marine ecosystems by 2030.

"Some have called 2022 the 'super year' of the oceans. But the race is far from over. We need to make 2023 a year of 'super action', so that we can end the ocean emergency once and for all," said Guterres.

For the UN Secretary-General, the world needs to act urgently on four key areas:

  • building sustainable maritime industries
  • providing massive support to developing countries
  • winning the race against a changing climate
  • deploying science, technology and innovation on an unprecedented scale.

Turning to the financial sector, Guterres said that "developing countries are victims of a morally bankrupt global financial system, designed by rich countries to benefit rich countries".

"The system is biased. It systematically denies developing countries - particularly vulnerable middle-income countries and small island developing states like Cape Verde - the concessional finance and debt relief they need," he argued.

To combat climate change, Guterres called on ocean industries to follow the example of the Ocean Race and limit their carbon footprint. As an example, he said the shipping sector should commit to achieving zero net emissions by 2050, and present credible plans to implement this.

To close the event, the international diplomat took part in a Relay4Nature ceremony, where he received a baton that began travelling the world in May 2021 to call on world leaders to radically increase their ambitions to protect the seas.

The initiative started with the UN Secretary-General's special envoy for the oceans, Peter Thomson, then moved on to politicians like French President Emmanuel Macron, celebrities like Jason Momoa, and reached Cape Verde by boat, all the way from Alicante in Spain, in the hands of Boris Hermann, the skipper of Team Malizia.

As he held the iconic baton, the Secretary-General said it represented "a generation that has largely failed the oceans".

Before handing it to Odara dos Santos Brito, a student at the Liceo Jorge Barbosa high school in São Vicente, Guterres said he was "very, very grateful" to be able to give it to a generation he trusts to "reverse the mistakes we made, in rescuing the oceans, in defeating climate change, in rescuing the planet and rescuing all of us".

In accepting the baton, the young Cape Verdean did not hesitate: "We accept this commitment," she said.