We need to slow down and reconnect with our Ocean for the future of the planet

Noumea

By Stuart Minchin, Director-General Pacific Community (SPC)

COVID19 has brought the world to a halt. The devastating impact of the global pandemic on people’s lives and the world’s economy is a jarring and historic turning point for all of us but it is also an opportunity to re-think many of our practices. 

As we mark World Oceans Day, the current global slowdown may be the reset our Ocean needs and the Pacific region is asking the world to reflect on our past to inform innovation for our future.

COVID has disrupted the global transport sector massively, and the increasing reliance on global shipping as flights are grounded presents both challenges and opportunities for the safety and livelihoods of the Pacific region.

More than 16,000 Pacific people work in the Maritime sector, many of whom remain stranded in foreign countries or on vessels as a result of COVID19. Across the Pacific, local restrictions have severely curtailed access to supplies like fuel for local fishing boats, bringing to the fore the issue of food security and the need for longer term, sustainable solutions.

As we mark World Oceans Day this year, we should challenge ourselves to find the opportunities inherent in this crisis to improve our ocean management and stewardship.  This can only be accomplished by shifting the status quo and the current global slowdown may be just the reset our Ocean needs.

Our Blue Pacific region is 98 per cent ocean and Pacific Islanders are custodians of 20 per cent of the world’s exclusive economic zones with the healthiest tuna stocks globally. This is not by coincidence, as thousands of years of wise and careful stewardship has contributed to the Pacific’s current status as one of the healthiest regions of our global ocean. The world has much to learn from the traditional knowledge developed over time in the Pacific.

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Reef fish are a critical protein for many Pacific communities and populations. Fish such as parrotfish, snappers and emperors shown here for sale in Suva markets in Fiji.

As we grapple with the slow degradation of our oceans globally, and recognise the critical importance the ocean plays in driving global weather patterns, addressing climate change and supplying food and protein to the world’s population, we should reflect on how combining traditional knowledge and science can lead us to find effective solutions.

Now more than ever, we need to harness the opportunities within our ocean, not only for economic benefit, but for the sustainable future of our Blue Continent.

Innovation for Sustainable & Safe Maritime Transport

The majority of islands across the Pacific are remote, accessible only by ships or boats.  As I write, 75 per cent of all the bulk fuel imported across the Pacific is used for either road or maritime transport. Finding effective ways to transition from the reliance on fossil fuels to cleaner and more effective technology is critical for the development of the region’s blue economy. There are innovative approaches, both in terms of technologies and using aspects of traditional practices, which are already being implemented by countries and partners working towards the protection of our ocean.  

In Vanuatu for example, a cargo ferry was fitted with a solar marine system last year (2019). The instalment of this system is now projected to save the ship operator AU$62,000 per year in fuel costs, and results in a 32 per cent reduction in emissions at anchorage. The year before, the Solomon Islands transitioned lighting systems through a ‘Green Ports’ initiative saving the Solomon Islands Ports Authority AU$180,000 annually with a 160-tonne reduction in emissions and a 13% reduction on overall energy consumption. This example increased the safety of ships docking at night, led to the reduction of operational costs and resulted in increased productivity with a significant reduction in carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuel.

Camakau or outrigger traditional canoe in Moturiki thanks to a partnership with the  Uto Ni Yalo Trust
Camakau or outrigger traditional canoe in Moturiki thanks to a partnership with the Uto Ni Yalo Trust.

In Fiji, traditional boatbuilding is making a resurgence as some communities are discovering the benefits of wind-powered canoes over outboard engines for inter-island transport over short distances. Due to COVID19 the communities of Moturiki relied on wind-powered transport to provide food and to access the local health centre as they were unable to access fuel supplies during the lockdown period.

The agreement by the governments of Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu to be part of the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership should be commended. They are setting themselves a target of a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, and full decarbonisation by 2050.

At SPC, our Pacific Community Centre for Ocean Science (PCCOS) is one arm of the broader effort driving evidence and science-based understanding of our ocean. A better understanding informs targeted and effective decision-making around our oceans and all that lies within it. It is an opportunity to ensure that the action we take contributes directly to the low carbon transition that is so vital for the health of our ocean, our climate and a new, sustainable relationship between humankind and the natural world.

This Oceans Day is a time for us to reflect on the mix of science, innovation and traditional practices we need for stewardship of the Ocean we want. The Pacific region is not just made up of small islands, rather we are large ocean states and we have much to contribute to the global efforts for sustainable management of our Oceans.

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Stuart Minchin

Director-General (Noumea)

Before he joined the Pacific Community (SPC) on 23 January 2020, Dr Minchin previously served as Chief of the Environmental Geoscience Division of Geoscience Australia, a centre of expertise in the Australian Government for environmental earth science issues and the custodian of national environmental geoscience data, information and knowledge. He has represented Australia in key international forums and has been the Principal Delegate to both the UN Global Geospatial Information Management Group of Experts (UNGGIM) and the Intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO).