High Hopes for High Seas!
Meg Taylor, Pacific Ocean Commissioner and Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum
When I took on the role of Pacific Ocean Commissioner in December last year, I was humbled and somewhat daunted at the prospect — being a highlander from Papua New Guinea growing up far from the sea. However, the ocean is central to everything we do. It is our culture, our livelihood, our economy and, for many, the ocean is the mother of all things.
The centrality of the ocean in our lives was underscored at our inaugural Pacific Ocean Alliance meeting held in Suva, Fiji, 25-27 May 2015. As Pacific Ocean Commissioner, it is my job to facilitate this multi-stakeholder alliance of national, regional and international partners.
It was thrilling to share the sheer depth of feeling and passion for the ocean displayed by more than 120 participants, as well as their determination to ensure our aquatic home is protected and its dwindling resources managed sustainably.
More than 70% of the planet is covered by water and almost a third of the globe, more than 155 million square miles is covered by the mighty Pacific Ocean, so its benefits range far beyond Pacific Island States, which makes it essential that there be agreement on regional and global approaches to ocean management.
Agreements between countries are important but local and national efforts are key, as some issues are best addressed by communities and their national governments, such as coastal-zone management and land-based pollution.
However, effective and sustainable management of ocean activities within our sovereign areas must be matched by management of high-seas areas, which currently sees far too much international friction. Our approaches must be consistent and integrated, because the stakes are high as these contested high-seas parts of the ocean contain much of the world’s fish, which provides a declining source of protein for the planet’s growing population.
Our Alliance defined the huge value, cultural as well as economic, of the high seas to our region. At the meeting, we started to build networks, to increase understanding of the issues, and to prepare for engagement in the upcoming international negotiations on a new implementing agreement for biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
We Pacific islanders are physically separated by the large ocean we inhabit, so this meeting enabled the conversations, the exchange of technical expertise, traditional knowledge and an open forum for the discussion of new ideas, as well as the incorporation of our role as stewards of the ocean into the process.
The outcomes of the Alliance meeting and subsequent technical discussions will be incorporated into a technical options paper and presented to Pacific Island States for their consideration. My hope is these discussions and the options paper will build a regional position that will generate support of Pacific interests at the global level.
Yes, we are small-island nations, but we also see ourselves as large ocean states with a responsibility as stewards of the ocean to protect not only what is rightfully ours by supporting our Pacific Island States proclaiming their maritime boundaries, but also ensure the sustainable development of high-seas resources for the common good. Proclaiming our maritime boundaries is especially important when negotiating new arrangements for areas beyond national jurisdiction, as it will define where those areas begin.
Closer to home, in celebration of World Oceans Day, I hosted an event at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, where my staff and partners of the Alliance exchanged stories of our direct linkages to the ocean and the need to protect it. The vast expanses of ocean are our aquatic highways, which connects us as Pacific Island nations, as well as to other lands bordering the ocean.
Unfortunately, marine debris dumped by faraway lands, as well as some dumped by islands with dwindling amounts of usable land, threatens our livelihoods, our culture and our economies. The rubbish in our bays and harbours at low tide we can deal with through community action and municipal support, but the plastic islands and other garbage discarded by large nations will require the help of those richer countries to manage.
This year’s theme, “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” encourages coastal clean-ups by Alliance partners throughout the Pacific region. Through our Alliance partners we promote the use of data sheets for use by local, regional and international organisations to strengthen understanding and to identify and address the sources of pollution directly. These initiatives highlight regional solidarity on the need to focus on local action on a global problem.
My hope is the Pacific Ocean Alliance will grow to be the key ocean-policy coordination and implementation platform for our region, which, with its technical expertise and its multi-stakeholder support, will be a compelling voice for cooperation for the high seas, as well as in supporting national ocean-governance processes.
We are small islands, but as stewards of the ocean, we handle big issues for the rest of the planet, and we look forward to working with all of you to promote the sustainable development, management and conservation of our ocean and its resources.