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International affairs… from the comfort/confines of home

By: Victoria Luu,
Knauss Marine Policy Fellow,
NOAA Office of International Affairs


A quick Google search reveals no shortage of articles and blog posts describing 2020 as what, at the end of 2019, many hoped and believed would be a “Super Year” for the ocean. Several important political events and high-level negotiations were set to take place: the United Nations Ocean Conference in June, the global Our Ocean Conference in August, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in October, and many more region-specific and technical events. However, with the travel bans and limits on in-person gatherings imposed in the wake of COVID-19, most of these international meetings have been postponed. 


Where does that leave someone working in NOAA’s Office of International Affairs?  


When I first interviewed with NOAA’s Office of International Affairs for my Knauss Fellowship placement, I was immediately enthralled by the welcoming team environment and the impressive work that staff members were able to accomplish. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was regaled with enthusiastic accounts of exciting but intense multilateral negotiations, as well as the sometimes-hectic-but-always-rewarding experience of attending or hosting a successful meeting. As the Fellow for this office, I would have responsibilities of supporting NOAA’s regional work in the Arctic, Cuba, and the Sargasso Sea, as well as some of the major ocean conferences. 



To me, this was sheer perfection (please read that in Mary Berry’s voice). The portfolio was almost the policy analogue of my academic work from undergraduate through graduate school over the past ten years – from my first research internship in Arctic Alaska, to the six months I spent doing research, taking classes, and teaching middle school science in Latin America, to my ten field expeditions in the Sargasso Sea region. As I worked toward completing my Ph.D. dissertation, I was incredibly excited to begin building the bridge from my academic expertise to science policy applications–and this position seemed like a natural first step.


My very first week of work was every bit of travel-filled excitement I was promised. On Day 1, I boarded a plane to Oslo, Norway to join the U.S. delegation for one of the biannual meetings of the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group. The Arctic Council is the “leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic” and allows for cooperation and discussion even at times of tense geopolitics because it explicitly excludes the topic of military security. 


It was an exhilarating experience to watch my Knauss host chair various sessions of the meeting and tactfully negotiate on behalf of the United States. My fingers deftly flew across the keyboard taking diligent notes for hours on end (unbeknownst to me, this would be a harbinger of the times to come, as my fingers now seem perpetually connected to the keyboard day after day). However, what surprised me most was the magic that happened in between the formal sessions, from connections made over mutual struggles with operating the fancy Norwegian coffee machines, to “socialization” of project proposal ideas while waiting in line for lunch. It’s unfortunate that our current standard of virtual meetings takes some of these things away. But while the COVID-19 pandemic has brought our physical presence at multilateral fora to a screeching halt, I can assure you that it has done nothing to stem the flow of work through NOAA’s Office of International Affairs. 


In my portfolio alone, multinational engagement has been incredibly active. While sequestered in my office (aka my bedroom), I have borne witness to 26 two-hour-long calls with other Arctic States to negotiate the development of a Regional Action Plan (RAP) to combat marine litter in the Arctic. We expect the RAP to result in over 40 strategic actions that will guide the future work of the Arctic Council, Arctic States, communities, and others to successfully address this problem. Going through the text line by line, we delicately finessed the language to strike a balance between specificity and flexibility. 


Also through PAME, NOAA is co-leading the development of a series of fact sheets, including “Marine Protected Areas in a Changing Arctic” and “Food Security in the Arctic – Implications of a Changing Ocean”. These fact sheets leverage and synthesize factual information from the Arctic Council’s work to communicate to decision-makers and the public. Taking point on the Food Security fact sheet, I have had the opportunity to lead a number of discussions with Indigenous representatives of the Arctic Council Permanent Participants in the development process. This September, I was able to present this project at PAME’s second biannual meeting of the year, which moved very gracefully into a virtual format. 


Our work in the Arctic is just one example of the arenas I cover that have continued work through this time. In the normalization of virtual meetings, the State Signatories of the Hamilton Declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea have met more frequently now than they have ever managed to before. And while the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress has just been postponed for a second time, NOAA is still hard at work providing input to the Department of State on for the upcoming online voting process for a series of IUCN Motions, the mechanism by which IUCN Members guide the policy and Programme of IUCN.


What was once the “Ocean Super Year” has now been deemed a year in disarray due to the coronavirus crisis. But seeing the continued dedication to working on ocean issues across all levels of NOAA, as well as the enthusiasm that continues in the virtual world, I still have hope that we will be prepared to jump back into larger negotiations processes when we can. And I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to still be there behind the United States placard when we do.


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