'We have not done nearly enough': N.S. oceanographer says protecting oceans is key in climate fight

Scientists and marine researchers from 120 countries are gathering at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Portugal this week to discuss the connection between the world’s oceans and climate change.

Halifax's Anya Waite, the CEO of Ocean Frontier, is attending the conference. She says more attention to oceans is needed in order to reach climate goals.

"Without taking care of the ocean, without understanding them better, and without taking care of them better than before -- we will not be able to reach our climate goals, and we are in a climate crisis for which we have not done nearly enough yet," said Waite during an interview with CTV News.

However, there are no international rules to ensure ocean sustainability. Waite says climate change should be the highest priority, but it often isn’t, as policymakers and citizens have other motivations.

"We have industries that need to undertake activities in the ocean and we're not always careful about what we do, and that needs to change," she said.

Waite and others are pushing for an international ocean observatory as a way for nations to come together and implement changes to ocean observation to better understand how to protect the world’s oceans.

"That really hasn't been front and centre until really just the last year or so, I think we're really recognizing that now, and many nations are claiming that message and agreeing to step up and do something," said Waite.

Although we have less knowledge about the impact of climate change on the ocean, compared to its impact on land, Waite says it’s clear there is a connection. She says we also need to do a better job of measuring our carbon sinks, as the ocean has absorbed about 40 per cent of fossil fuel emissions.

"That absorption is likely to change, it’s likely to decline, but we don't know how fast, and it could have a catastrophic failure, in which case we could be at the point of having all our great work on land, moving ourselves to net zero, swamped by ocean carbon release, and that’s something that no one in the world can afford.”

As for Canada’s role, Waite points out that it has one of the longest coastlines in the world.

"In a sense that comes with a big responsibility to take charge of some of the big ocean issues, our understanding of deep sea biodiversity … illegal fishing, all these issues are extremely important and in Canada we're seeing a lot of movement," said Waite.

The recent ban on single-use plastics was also highlighted at the conference. Waite says it is a move in the right direction as scientists and researchers further understand how reducing marine litter, and where it travels, can impact the ocean.

"So that's a great outcome and we're seeing ourselves very well-aligned with the international conversation,” she said.

The five-day United Nations Ocean Conference wraps up Friday.