By Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum & Pacific Ocean Commissioner
The Pacific Ocean
The health of our oceans is fundamental to the health of our planet. Ninety-eight percent of the area occupied by Pacific Island countries and territories is ocean. We sometimes refer to ourselves as Big Ocean Stewardship States in recognition of this geography. The Pacific Ocean is at the heart of our cultures and we depend on it for food, income, employment, transport, and economic development.
There are tensions inherent in these relationships. The ocean unites and divides us. It connects and separates us, it sustains us and at the same time can be a threat to our very existence. These tensions have often encouraged us to work together for the good of our people. The ocean has been a catalyst for regionalism.
For decades, we have seen over fishing, the increasing burden of pollution and a warming of water temperatures and a rising of sea levels. These have profound damaging effects on our ocean and its ecosystems. But we also see that the ocean has an incredible ability to adapt and regenerate – if it is given the chance.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDSs) represent the opportunity that is urgently needed to focus on the health, integrity and longevity of our world’s oceans. SDG 14 “life below water” gives us hope that the ocean can sustain and provide for us – as it has always done.
This requires rethinking the way we sustainably manage our oceanic resources. We recognise there must be transformational change in attitude and behaviour. We must come together if we are to succeed – as citizens, communities, governments and countries.
Progress against SDG 14 will be more challenging than almost any of the other goals given that 70% of our planet is ocean and the ecosystems within them are fundamental to life itself. We simply have no choice but to do better.
The Pacific Ocean is in us – it has long been a teacher for our people. For generations we have observed and respected its mana, sharing what we have learned from our ancestors with our children. In saying that, we recognise that our traditional knowledge can be complemented by the science and technologies that offer new approaches to sustainably manage and conserve our ocean, as we adapt to a rapidly changing environment. It is vital that we actively participate in and support the innovations and insights that emerge.
Sustainable Management of our Ocean
Not surprisingly, the Pacific Islands Forum, the premiere political grouping of Pacific island countries and territories, has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to managing our ocean. In fact, the United Nations Law of the Sea was a point of discussion during the historic first meeting of the Forum in 1971.
Through the Forum, the Pacific region already has a collaborative and integrated ocean management system in place. The Pacific Islands Regional Ocean Policy promotes “sustainable development, management and conservation of marine and coastal resources in the Pacific region” through five guiding principles based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Framework for a Pacific Oceanscape, catalyses regional action and initiatives covering an area of approximately 40 million square kilometres of ocean and island ecosystems. It strengthens the Pacific Islands Regional Ocean Policy, particularly through greater provisions in the areas of coordination, resourcing, and implementation. It also aspires to protect, manage and sustain the cultural and natural integrity of the ocean, for present and future generations of the broader global community. At its heart is a desire to build pride, leadership, learning and cooperation across the ocean environment.
More recently Forum Leaders issued the Palau Declaration on ‘The Ocean: Life and Future’ (2014) and the Pohnpei Ocean Statement: A Course to Sustainability (2016). Both statements speak to the interconnectedness of the ocean to the lives of Pacific people and our ongoing commitment to care for it for our wellbeing.
The renewed focus on ocean policy, brought about through the pursuit of SDG 14, gives us a chance to continue to build on these existing guidelines and policy commitments.
The Pacific Ocean Commissioner
The Pacific Islands Forum sees the fundamental role of genuine, appropriate and durable partnerships for moving the ocean agenda forward. Recognising that these partnerships must go beyond governments, the Forum established the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner in 2014.
As the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, my responsibilities include the provision of high level representation and advocacy to Pacific Ocean priorities decisions and processes. My office works to unite Pacific countries and territories through strengthened coordination, collaboration and integration of cross-sectoral ocean issues, such as biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction and zone based management. The office also seeks to raise accountability by developing coordinated approaches to measurement and reporting and undertakes analysis of the linkages between oceans and climate change, to ensure the Pacific region is well placed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
Pacific Ocean Alliance
A key achievement of my time as the Pacific Ocean Commissioner has been to facilitate the establishment of the Pacific Ocean Alliance. The Alliance is a network of private, public and civil sector representatives acting together to advance approaches to integrated ocean management.
It is an open-ended and voluntary information-sharing and coordination partnership between stakeholders with a genuine interest in the sustainable development, management and conservation of the Pacific Ocean and its resources.
The Alliance provides a space and common ground to bring together national government agencies, regional, private sector, research, and civil society organisations, and communities, who were previously not represented in a coordinated way on ocean issues.
The Alliance is a mechanism for inclusive consultation in the development and implementation of ocean policy, coordinating the provision of technical assistance and support as it relates to the sustainable development, management and conservation of the ocean for Pacific Island countries and territories.
Leadership in Ocean Management
I am proud of several noteworthy and demonstrable achievements that have been made in the Pacific through innovation and exemplary leadership. They include the effective, sustainable and economically rewarding strategic initiative of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, a sub-regional grouping that has significantly increased the revenue earned by their member countries, by introducing the Vessel Day Scheme for purse seine fishing across their exclusive economic zones. This innovative fisheries management approach has been particularly successful in shifting the balance of power, control and influence, while demonstrating greater stewardship and sustainability.
The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency oversees a world class regional monitoring, control and surveillance framework for our tuna fisheries. Operating out of the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre in Honiara in the Solomon Islands, the framework has been praised for its combination of tools, programs, assets and activities at the national and regional levels that achieve valuable results for its members.
Another regional example is the approach adopted by local communities to manage and sustainably use their coastal and marine areas over which they have traditional or more recently assigned tenure rights or ownership; this is the mainstay of the work of Locally Managed Marine Area Network and national initiatives such as in Samoa and Tonga. The lessons from these experiences serve as valuable templates for the future sustainable use of ocean resources.
Facing Challenges Together
The ocean is dynamic and transcends borders. As such, it impacts on almost all our development aspirations. In my mind, the Pacific is a blue continent. A sea of islands.
For us, the pursuit of SDG 14 has not just commenced. Decades of investment and learning in integrated ocean management have already taken place and it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that communities share knowledge with their countries, and countries share with their region, and regions share with the world.
We have long known that more can be achieved when we face shared challenges together. The health and wellbeing of our ocean is an existential challenge and it demands regional unity to address it.
As the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare said, “we cannot manage the oceans but instead need to manage the behaviour of people who use the ocean”. This is ancient wisdom for us in the Pacific. I view the renewed focus and energy behind SDG 14 as a gift for teaching the world about the connectivity, complexity and value of the ocean. Everyone must come to understand that their behaviour will ultimately decide the fate of our oceans; for my people of the Pacific, our fate is immutably entwined with the health of our ocean.