Saturday, 30 June 2012

Sink or Swim? The Oceans in our Veins at Rio+20

  • by Julie Melrose - following Oceans debate at Rio+20 

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship, 
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 

Australians have a deep connection with the ocean. It is of great importance to our identity, prosperity, lifestyle, culture and security. I have a personal passion and connection with oceans, and I found myself taking an interest in the oceans debate at Rio+20 after Australia started taking a leadership role in the negotiations.

I had the special privilege of growing up living right on the beach in a surfing town called Cronulla to the south of Sydney, in the same house that my great-grandmother, grandmother and father grew up in, and spending all my spare time doing something that involved the ocean. I played water polo in the ocean pools, competed in ocean swimming and surf life saving, went surfing, helped my next door neighbour who was a marine biologist collect and tag soldier crabs on the sand flat outside our house and attended protests about jet skis tearing up the seagrass in the bay. Sand was a welcome visitor to our house, and we always had healing oyster cuts, itchy sea lice or jellyfish stings. But this is the way of life that creates the special beach/ocean culture of Australia's coastal communities. The ocean is a kind of bio-sensitivity that is my frame of reference to the world. It is where I feel at home.

The Great Blue Hole, Belize Barrier Reef, Central America
In 2009 I spent a year working as a PADI Divemaster in Belize, in the Caribbean sea, leading divers to the magnificent 'Blue Hole'. When you are under water, diving, breathing air from a tank, completely dependent on your equipment for survival, you realise how much we do not know about the ocean that supports us, how misunderstood it remains in society, and how frightening that is in the face of its destruction. While some parts of the ocean are managed or protected at a national level in Australia, they are far from adequately protected on an international level or to the same extent at a national level in other countries around the world.

Divers in the Blue Hole

I attended an Official Rio+20 Side Event run by the Marine Reserves Coalition (Pew Environment Institute and Zoological Society of London). Oceans are one of the 7 critical issues being discussed and debated at Rio+20. Currently under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), countries are committed to a 10% target of all oceans being protected at some level by 2020. In reality, we are very very far from even having a chance of meeting that target, which is too weak to make a difference anyway.

State of the world's oceans

The problems that our oceans face are so incredibly immense and at times immeasurable that it is hard to comprehend or accept. But it is important to understand the sheer scale of some of these challenges so as to gain an appreciation of the solutions needed.

As Susan Leiberman, Director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group explained, oceans cover 71% of the Earth's surface, contain half of all species, 80% of fisheries, and are the primary source of protein for 1 billion people. Yet, less than 1% of oceans are fully protected. Oceans are faced with a myriad of threats from oil and gas spills, over-fishing, waste, climate change, acidification, debris..the list goes on and on. We have reached a critical tipping point. This is dramatically illustrated by an amazing resource which details the protected areas of the world - you can see just how little of the ocean is coloured in on the map.

According to the most recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture Report 2010, 85% of our oceans are either over-exploited, exploited, or depleting. And the FAO's new report to be released soon is predicted to increase that figure. 90% of the populations of large fish globally, such as sharks, tuna and swordfish have disappeared in the last few decades. For example, we are literally eating the Bluefin Tuna to death with over 80% of populations disappeared since 1970. A shocking video by Time Magazine provides an insight into how things have changed in the Philippine port of General Santos City from overfishing: The Trouble with Tuna. 

The 'trash vortex' of the North Pacific Ocean, commonly called the "pacific gyre", is a vast expanse of rubbish the size of the American state of Texas. It is estimated that there are 6 kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton there. The very thing that makes plastic useful to us as human consumers - their durability and stability - is the very thing that makes them a nightmare for oceans. Greenpeace International has a great explanation of how the world's rubbish ends up in these horrid ocean tips by ocean currents. And this is just one of the threats that oceans face.

There are now more problems that have arisen since the Joburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI). These include increased nutrient over-enrichment contributing to habitat degradation, lack of ocean-based renewable energy use, continuing threats to coral reefs, the existence of vast areas of marine debris in the form of plastics, and a lack of systemic data exchange across nations. 

History of ocean management 

2012 is the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 1982, almost ten years after the debate on a global oceans treaty bean, a conference ended and agreed to a new UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - an unprecedented attempt by the world to regulate the oceans and bring a stable order to mankind's very source of life. A treaty was drafted and covered issues like navigation rights, maritime zones, continental shelf, deep sea mining, protection of marine environment, scientific research, binding procedure for settling disputes - the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Watch this UN video on the history of oceans management before and after UNCLOS. UNCLOS was a very significant move to recognise the oceans as a common heritage of mankind, rather than as a free resource to be pillaged and fished as nations saw fit. But it is still not enough.

Ocean management and protection is still inadequate 

There exist 21 international treaties dealing with the protection of the oceans under the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), but so far we have had little luck in successfully implementing them so as to see real and effective results in the protection and sustainable management of the oceans. The commitment to maintain or restore depleted fish stocks to levels that can produce their maximum yields has not been met, deterrence of illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing is almost non-existent, and marine pollution remains a very serious issue. We are also yet to meet commitments made regarding biodiversity conservation and establishment of Marine Protected Areas - the 10% by 2020 target under the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. Thus, one thing we need to do as a starting point is to have renewed political commitment to implementing existing treaty obligations. 

Australia's Leadership on Oceans at Rio+20

In Australia, oceans have a special place not only in our culture but for our economy. They directly support jobs in commercial and recreational/charter fishing and indirectly through supporting businesses and communities along the coastline. Marine tourism contributes over $11 billion per year to the Australian economy and economic activity in the marine environment has been found to contribute more than $44 billion per year (over 4% of GDP). 
Australia's Network of Marine Protected Area
Here in Rio, Australia is considered a leader in the oceans debate after they announced a large addition to our National Marine Protected Areas, the Coral Sea Marine Reserve. Australia now has the largest network of ocean reserves in the world. Prior to the announcement, Australia only had 9% of waters protected in some way (through zoning and licensing) and only 4% fully protected (no-take areas). Now, Australia leads the world in having 38% of our waters protected, and 14% fully protected. The Coral Sea reserve enjoys a sprawling no-take zone a little under the size of Spain. Yet there is still a huge amount of opposition to marine reserves in Australia and around the world.

What Rio+20 achieved for oceans - Will we sink or swim?

The final text that came out of Rio+20 basically recognises and notes a lot of important and pressing issues, without going far enough to actually agree on solutions and put in place practical measures to implement them. In international conferences, the first word in each of the paragraphs of the text agreed usually tells you enough about the depth and impact of the agreement or commitment reached. "Recognise" and "note" usually mean that they agree something is a problem but don't have consensus so couldn't put in place any solutions. "Supported" or "reaffirm" usually means status quo - what they are doing just needs to continue. "Call upon" "call for" and "urge" is getting a bit stronger, but is just a political tool to try and garner support from countries to initiatives, and falls short of a commitment. "Commit"is the only word that means consensus has been reached and a process will be put in place to honour that commitment. 

In the final oceans text decided at Rio+20, only 2 out of 20 paragraphs started with the word "commit". Ocean law expert Kristina Gjerde of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has criticised the text for failing to create a binding international legal framework for Marine Protected Areas, and much of the text relies on voluntary and small scale contributions from "coalitions of the willing". However, some positive points that provide some hope are: 
  • Strengthened wording on overfishing that specified actions - including fishing bans - that governments must take to protect fish stocks and biodiversity; 
  • Specific actions for eliminating illegal fishing such as better monitoring of ports and assistance for authorities in developing countries; 
  • A commitment to transparent and accountable marine management within regional fisheries through the use of publicly available independent assessments that authorities commit to implementing; 
  • Specific actions to eliminate harmful substances - such as fuel subsidies - for the fishing industry. 

The question is - is this enough? Is this going to happen fast enough? Will it simply become more hot air and empty promises? We must start to take the probems with our oceans very seriously, before we reach a tipping point of no return. We must continue to raise awareness about the crucial importance of effective oceans management both at a national, regional and international level. We must not become as 'idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean'. 


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