"No more making decisions about us, without us" - Reflections from the Our Ocean Conference

On the 13-14th April 2022, The Republic of Palau hosted the seventh Our Ocean Conference, marking the first time that this forum was hosted by a small island developing state.


The theme of this year's conference was "Our Ocean, Our People, Our Prosperity," which drew on Palau's rich tradition as an ocean society and focus on islander perspectives and approaches to ensuring the health of our ocean. It marked a key moment for countries, civil society, industry, and youth to commit to concrete and significant actions to protect the ocean.


Emily De Sousa, one of the 18 recipients of the Our Ocean 2022 Scholarship, shares her experiences at the Conference.

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30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean with Mia Kami’s “Rooted” blaring through my headphones, I can’t believe that my time at the 7th Our Ocean Conference in Palau has finally come to a close. 

Earlier this year, I was selected as one of 18 youth delegates to attend the annual conference. Launched by the U.S. State Department in 2016, Our Ocean convenes government, civil society and industry representatives to identify solutions for ocean protection and commit to concrete actions.


The beautiful island of Palau is a tropical archipelago located in the western Pacific, renowned for its island scenery, pristine dive sites, and world-famous natural features, including the Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake. Palau is the first small island developing state (SIDS) to ever host the Our Ocean Conference.

Photo Credit: Palau | Photo: Kurt Cotoaga

Before joining the main conference, we youth delegates participated in our own two-day conference where we participated in discussions on each of the six thematic areas of ocean issues and began crafting our youth commitment. Over the course of the week, we also had the chance to explore beautiful Palau and learn about its world-leading marine sanctuary, its matriarchal society, its cultural practices like taro planting, and its deep commitment to conservation. 


We also got to engage with 30 other amazing young professionals both local and from around the globe who are doing absolutely incredible things to protect our ocean. I have attended many conferences and I have been part of many delegations related to ocean issues, and I can honestly say that this was by far the best group of people that I have ever been part of. I was honoured to share ideas and learn from them all week long. With these thirty on the forefront, I have a renewed sense of hope and optimism for our oceans. I know these folks are capable of just about anything. 


Together as a group, we also created our own commitment to protecting our ocean, on behalf of the youth delegation of the Our Ocean Conference. While it’s typical for the Our Ocean Conferences to encourage ocean commitments from countries, NGOs, and industry, this is the first time that the youth delegation has pledged a commitment at Our Ocean. 


The Youth Delegation Commitment

We propose the formation of a task force of previous Our Ocean youth delegates that facilitates the further integration of young people. This will ensure the continuity and passing of knowledge from conference to conference and youth inclusion in the dialogues and decision-making  processes. This inclusion should be done from the strategic planning stage and should not be tokenistic.


We came to this consensus through our involvement in this 7th Our Ocean Conference, our participation in the plenary, as speakers, and from our experiences as leaders in our communities. Palau has raised the bar and we urge future our ocean conference organizers to continue and improve upon this tradition of youth inclusion.


This commitment was influenced by each of our unique efforts in our home countries, the goals and changes we wish to make in the future, and the things we learned along the way throughout the conference. 


Despite only being a few days long, the Our Ocean Conference was jam-packed with productive conversations and interesting insights. I could write a full-length book about what I learned in Palau, but for the sake of time, here are three main takeaways from Our Ocean 2022 that I believe we need to focus on in order to truly support sustainable and resilient oceans. 


Takeaway 1: We need to approach ocean issues through an intersectional lens

emily our oceans

Palau was the perfect place to speak about intersectionality in the ocean space. The importance of gender equality in ocean solutions was especially pertinent in Palau, where women make up 75% of the informal market. Palau Women Fishery has a long tradition of harvesting invertebrates in mangroves, which is consistent across the Pacific Islands, where women often gather to collect fish to feed their family. 


My new friend David Willima, pointed out the need for more intersectional approaches in the maritime security space, where only one woman sat amongst a panel of men. “This panel is a perfect representation of the maritime security space” and we need to change that.” 


As a woman in the seafood industry, I recognize the overdue need for more intersectional approaches in the ocean space. But so did my colleagues in the youth delegation and most attending the Our Ocean Conference. I was pleasantly surprised by how conversations of ocean solutions were centered around the role of women, Indigenous communities, low-income countries, and other marginalized groups. 


It’s clear that the tide is changing and ocean leaders realize there are no ocean solutions without intersectional approaches that include these voices which have been historically left out of the conversation.

Takeaway 2: We need to follow through on the Our Ocean Commitments

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Over the course of the week we heard a lot of big commitments from governments, NGOs, and industry, but commitments are nothing without action. As Secretary John Kerry said during his closing address, “we can’t keep talking about this, we have to do something.” 


Getting up on a podium to announce your intentions is only the first, and easiest step. What you do next is going to be harder but much more important. And that’s what we’re interested in.


Some of the commitments that have come to fruition from previous Our Ocean’s conferences have resulted in amazing protections for our oceans and capacity building for coastal communities such as the establishment of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary.


We are all leaving Palau with a commitment to do better, and it’s important that we follow through on that commitment. The youth delegation will be keeping ourselves accountable for our commitment as well. Be sure to keep a lookout for these commitments during the 8th Our Ocean Conference in Panama 2023.


Takeaway 3: No more making decisions about us, without us

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Further to the point of meaningful collaboration, Secretary John Kerry called on private industry to work with governments in order to solve the climate crisis, saying that “no government in the world has enough money alone to solve this problem.”

Almost every session at the Our Ocean Conference pointed out the need for more meaningful partnerships and collaborations. This is the only way that we will make progress on ocean issues. 


Palau has set a precedent for meaningful engagement, specifically with youth. This was the first Our Ocean conference where youth had access to the main plenary sessions and were even integrated as panelists. Previously, youth were only able to participate in youth-only side sessions, which is not conducive to breaking out of silos.


In order for future Our Ocean Conferences, or really any type of ocean work to be meaningful, youth need to continue to have a seat at the table. Today’s decision makers are implementing policies and regulations that will affect our future and there can not be any further decisions made about us, without us.



A final note

My first time in Palau and my first time at the Our Ocean Conference was transformational. Palau is the most beautiful place that I have ever been and the youth delegates that I had the pleasure of working with throughout the week are some of the most incredible and inspiring people that I have ever met. I truly feel very humbled to have been in their company and learn from their wide range of experiences. 


Thank you to each and every youth delegate. Each of you taught me something new, welcomed me with open arms, and inspired me to be the best ocean advocate that I can be. I cannot wait to cross paths with all of you superstars again soon. 


And to the entire Our Ocean organizing team, THANK YOU! I have never attended an event so well organized and thoughtfully planned. I cannot express enough how grateful I am for every step above and beyond that you took to make our experiences as incredible as they were. You will all always have a special place in my heart and I can’t wait to see what you do next. 


Also an extra thank you to Kenley and Garsten, who helped me edit this post and make it sound much better than if I had written it alone. 


And finally, thank you to One Young World for the opportunity to attend the 7th Our Ocean Conference.


About the Author


Emily de Sousa

Emily De Sousa is a Portuguese-Canadian sustainable seafood educator and content creator based in Niagara, ON. Her brand, Seaside with Emily, is a unique resource for coastal travellers and seafood lovers. The brand acts as an online education platform, teaching followers about healthy oceans, sustainable seafood, and culinary adventures focused on the rise of 'Pescatourism'.

Emily completed her master's degree at the University of Guelph with a focus on small-scale fisheries in North America and the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on seafood supply chains. She is continuing this work as a Market Expert on Fisheries and Aquaculture Products for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), where she is working to support small-scale fisheries around the world.

Her work in seafood and marine conservation has been recognized globally. In 2017, she spoke at TEDx about the threat of plastic pollution to the oceans. In 2019 she was the recipient of the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s Youth Excellence Award for her policy proposal on ending seafood fraud in Canada. And in 2021, she was featured in Good Morning America as a sustainable seafood expert.

Connect with Emily here