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Blue Pacific at oceans forum

Dame Meg Taylor
Friday, June 02, 2017

PACIFIC voyagers had been navigating their way across the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years before their European counterparts began to venture into it.

It is still with a sense of wonder that academics and researchers consider these voyages which covered great distances, in outrigger canoes and only for stars and weather patterns as guides. Traces of South American sweet potato cultivation indicate just how far out Pacific navigators ventured.

Pacific people have, without a doubt, a special affinity to the ocean. A large part of island communities' value and belief systems trace their progeny to the ocean. Individuals have land and sea totems which identify their lineage, not necessarily a province or region as we know it today.

Becoming stewards of the ocean that is home to our island nations was inevitable. The Oceania community has evolved into a binary of the traditional and the modern, as individuals and as nations; the latter continuing to struggle for recognition and influence within the global village and its systems.

This coming week of June 5-9 (2017), in New York (US) at the United Nations (UN) Oceans Conference will be another one for careful navigation for Pacific leaders, who aim to return with firm commitments by UN member states to conserve, manage and develop the oceans, seas, and marine resources sustainably.

The ocean is the single most significant geographical feature on planet earth. It covers more than 70 per cent of the planet's surface and is divided into five basins; the Atlantic, the Indian, the Arctic, the Southern, and our home, the Pacific Ocean.

In 2015, when global leaders signed on to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, Pacific leaders were particularly delighted because their concerns around the ocean, both as a heritage and as a source of livelihood, was encapsulated in SDG 14; Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

For the first time, there is now worldwide commitment dedicated to the life systems within our waters and this New York meeting will be the first global gathering to discuss how we can collectively manage and care for this vital resource.

The international community has agreed to three elements the conference hopes to affirm: A call to action; agreement on a list of voluntary commitments; and securing partnerships for the implementation of SDG 14.

At the Pacific regional level, three main areas have been identified by Pacific Islands Forum members as priorities:

* Pollution, biodiversity and conservation of ecosystem services;

* Climate change and ocean acidification; and

* Fisheries, fisheries subsidies and elements of the blue economy.

This conference will be a defining one for our region and a critical test for Pacific leadership. While the ocean represents a prodigious food source and an economic base that points to addressing social ills like poverty, such intentions must be mutually beneficial and governed equitably and responsibly.

An ocean-based economy, also referred to as the "blue economy" would, ideally, promote economic growth, environmental sustainability, social inclusion and the strengthening of marine ecosystems simultaneously.

Globally-speaking, the oceans economy is subject to a multilayer regulatory framework under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other national, regional and multilateral as well as sectorial governance regimes.

The blue economy has potential to address economic and environmental vulnerability, including those associated with remoteness by fostering cooperation and management of this vast resource.

The economic opportunities represented in the concept of blue economy however also means increased challenges for sectors like sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, renewable marine energy, marine bio-prospecting, maritime transport and marine and coastal tourism.

Fisheries represent a significant and expanding portion of economic output of the Pacific. Its governance has to be considerate of our children, mindful of responsible and smart management implicit in expanding economic interests.

There are issues such as pollutants, acidification, boundaries and resource ownership questions which will have to be addressed before we can make true our intentions for a sustainable blue economy.

The Pacific Ocean, for example, is exposed to a range of harmful and potentially deadly contaminants and pollutants like remnants of nuclear waste in the Marshall Islands, relics from World War II and shipwrecks dotted around the region.

Among other voluntary commitments, Pacific Island countries are committing to fast-tracking the removal of plastic bags from our lives. However a sizable volume enters the region from other land and ocean systems beyond our control: herein lies a classic example of why global action is vital for an effective implementation of SDG14.

The journey since our seafaring forefathers' first landing in the region has been arduous. However considering that Pacific people have been negotiating the spaces of their dual existence, as individuals and as infant nations in a sometimes apathetic global village, we must celebrate our resilience.

In my mind the Pacific is a sea of islands, a blue continent. The ocean is referred to by many names in the region — moana, solwara, wasawasa — but at the end of the day, we are one "Blue Pacific". Some say the ocean divides us but I believe it has always and will continue to unite us and strengthen our collective resilience which has been key to our survival in this region thus far.

For centuries the Pacific Ocean has connected us and sustained us, effectively affording us the feeling of being "home" even as we have borders and jurisdictions over portions of it; the Pacific Ocean has been a powerful catalyst for Pacific regionalism.

The Pacific Ocean is at the heart of our cultures and we depend on it for food, income, employment, transport and economic development. We must now ensure it is central to global development planning and resourcing, or we allow its continuing exploitation at the cost of Pacific peoples' survival.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs are an opportunity for the planet to address an urgent need and focus on the health, integrity and durability of our ocean. We need to rethink the way humanity manages, conserves and develops our oceanic resources.

In many ways the Pacific region is a world leader when it comes to weaving our vast knowledge of ocean management into a modern integrated approach. The ocean transcends our national borders and as a result, it impacts many of our shared development aspirations.

SDG14 may have been initiated and fought for by Pacific peoples but its effective implementation depends on global citizenry: it is the least we can do for our children.

* Dame Meg Taylor is the Pacific Ocean commissioner. The views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.

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