Celebrating the 20th Maritime Boundaries Session


Dr Stuart Minchin, Director General, Pacific Community (SPC), Opening Remarks at the Pacific Maritime Boundaries High Level Dialogue.

Firstly, I would like to recognise the presence of

-          His Excellency, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, Mr David W. Panuelo

-          Dr Manu Tupou Roosen, DG Forum Fisheries Agency

-          Dr Filimon Manoni, Deputy SG, Pacific Islands Forum

-          Excellencies, officials, and delegations representing Pacific member states

-          Pacific Island Maritime Boundary Consortium Partners

-          Invited guests, SPC colleagues, and friends

On behalf of SPC, welcome to the first high-level dialogue on Pacific Maritime Boundaries. This meeting marks the close of the 20th Pacific Maritime Boundaries Working Session.

It is unusual in our region to be celebrating 20 years of a project. Some might even call it a failure. What is taking so long? Is SPC just creating more work for themselves?

But if you haven’t already gathered from the speakers before me, I hope many of you are beginning to understand the scale and gravity of this task.

Finalising the maritime zones in our region is not administrative busy work. We’re not simply ticking a box by implementing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or scoring brownie points for achieving a Sustainable Development Goal Target.

This is existential. Concluded maritime zones provide the legal foothold, ensuring that Pacific Islands retain sovereign rights to these zones long into the future.

Rights to fish and sell fishing licenses, rights to explore minerals and generate energy, rights to establish marine protected areas, and to enforce laws.

For a millennium, Pacific Islanders have been the custodians of this ocean space, and thanks to your stewardship, the Pacific waters and fish stocks are among the healthiest in the world.

When we finalise our maritime zones, we draw up the blueprint to secure these areas for future generations. In the face of climate change uncertainty, there is no more urgent priority.

Today, it is my great honour to lead this community-- first in celebrating 20 years of progress on Pacific Maritime Boundaries, and then in recognising some of the champions who have driven this change.

Every story has a beginning, and the beginning of this story certainly precedes my arrival at SPC. In fact, it precedes SPC’s involvement altogether, as the Maritime Boundary Delimitation Project was initially transferred from the Forum Fisheries Agency to SOPAC in 2001.

As you’ve heard, the project was established in the 1990s to assist Pacific Island countries to obtain greater certainty on the limits of their exclusive economic zones in support of fisheries management and enforcement.

Recognising the significant outstanding work required to survey basepoints and delimit zones using specialised equipment, SOPAC was best positioned to assist the countries with these technical tasks.

If we were to travel back in time 20 years to 2001, this was the regional situation. Only 9 out of 48 shared boundaries were under treaty, and of these, only 3 were formally ratified.

Please raise your virtual hands if you were working in your national governments in 2001.

Now raise your hands if you were involved in the project in these early days?

Everyone, please, have a look around. These individuals are our founding mothers and fathers – they have had a hand in drawing the map of the Blue Pacific, and they have priceless institutional knowledge and experiences to share.  Please join me in virtual applause for these leaders.

Now, the project’s early days focused on data acquisition, data management, and targeted training, usually one-on-one or with just a few countries at time.

The Pacific Regional Maritime Boundaries Working Session didn’t begin until 2005, and it was born out of necessity.

At that time, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf or the CLCS, introduced a deadline of May 2009 for all countries around the world to submit their extended continental shelf claims.

There was a need to gather and assess seafloor data available across the Pacific to support ECS claims and to collaboratively determine what claims could be made. In many cases, countries worked together to submit joint claims.

And through this collective effort, 10 Pacific Island countries were able to make 17 submissions to the CLCS.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the success of the Regional Working Session model in developing joint CLCS claims spilled over and fostered continued progress on maritime boundaries between respective states.

And so the working sessions continued.

Over more than a decade, a community of practice has developed, and we’ve seen a rapid increase in concluding maritime boundaries.

From 2010-2020, 15 maritime boundary treaties were signed between states—more than in any previous decade since the Law of the Sea was adopted.

The practices of sharing data and lessons learnt, the opportunities for closed-door bilateral meetings, and the trust built amongst negotiating teams contributed to these successes.

And frequent interaction with the Pacific Maritime Boundaries Consortium of Partners has facilitated technical and legal progress, while also building capacity across the region.

Coordinated by SPC, this consortium has grown to include individuals and teams with technical, scientific, legal, and policy expertise from across the CROP agencies, regional and international specialist departments, and a range of donors.

If we return to the image of the region in 2001… and then fast-forward to 2021

… we see a very different picture.

And it’s worth taking a moment to recognise that these processes didn’t happen over the span of a 3–5-year project. This has been 20 years of consistent effort, driven by national priorities, and supported by a range of committed partners and donors.

In some countries, people’s entire careers have been dedicated to this work. And we know that in the Pacific, everyone wears many hats, so this progress is truly outstanding.

We’ll talk more later today about the work that remains to be done, but first I want to recognise and celebrate some of the milestone achievements of the past 20 maritime boundary sessions, since 2005.

To date, 35 out of 48 shared boundaries in the Pacific have been negotiated and placed under treaty– the Pacific is leading the world in this respect, as the global average is 60%.

Of the 17 Pacific Island ECS submissions, the first of these was recommended in 2017- the Ontong Java Plateau joint submission between FSM, PNG and the Solomon Islands. The Cook Islands, Tonga, and Palau are also progressing with the defence of their submissions to the CLCS.

Over the last 2 years, authoritative maritime boundaries data has been ingested into the FFA Vessel Monitoring System, strengthening fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance around the region.

Eight countries across the region have established ocean policies, strategies, or frameworks, all of which link back to maritime zones.

Two countries, the FSM and the Cook Islands have completed the deposits of their EEZ limits.

Countries like the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Palau, Niue, RMI, and Fiji have established or committed to establish marine protected areas- the coordinates of which are underpinned by accurate maritime zones.

And over 20 regional working sessions, and the establishment of the Pacific Geospatial and Surveying Council or PGSC in 2014, more than 600 Pacific Islanders have received training on technical or legal skills supporting maritime boundaries delimitation.

Ranging from surveying and hydrography, drone operation, GIS and mapping to legal drafting and negotiations, national capacity has significantly increased across our region in the past 2 decades.

We are also seeing increasing numbers of women in this arena—both on legal and technical ends of the spectrum. The last in-person working session was 43% female representation, and the current chair and vice-chair of the PGSC are both women.

The scope of the Pacific Maritime Boundaries project has thus evolved logically over the past two decades from the initial focus on establishing territorial sea baselines, EEZ limits and submissions to the CLCS…

…to now assisting Pacific Island States to negotiate maritime boundary treaties, review and update their maritime zones legislation, and declare their outer limits.

Even more, through one of our newest projects, Resilient Boundaries for the Blue Pacific, we are working with partners and countries to better understand potential changes to baselines and critical features, and to prepare physical and legal solutions to address these risks.

So yes… this is a long-running project. But not because it hasn’t been well-managed.

Rather, this is a project that has evolved with the needs of the region. It is one that has drawn increasing attention in recent years because it is just so critical for the future.

And it is one that SPC is committed to continue and to see through for as long as it takes to secure our region for future generations.

In closing, I’d like to recognise the broader team that has made this work possible. From the consortium of partners across Pacific agencies including:

the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, and the Forum Fisheries Agency,

to our regional experts at Geoscience Australia, the University of Sydney, the Commonwealth Secretariat and GRID Arendal,

and donors including the Government of Australia, Government of New Zealand, Government of Papua New Guinea, UK Government through the British High Commission in Suva, and the European Union and Sweden through the Pacific European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) Programme.

We are very grateful for your support, your gifts and energies in contributing to this regional priority effort.

Most of all, I’d like to recognise those from across our member states who have taken up and driven this work at the national level. Where there have been successes, it is because of you and your dedication.

We know that some of the work that remains is the most challenging. But we also know that the people in this virtual room are the ones who can make that change.

And on that note, it is my pleasure to introduce the next segment of our program—Recognising Pacific Maritime Boundaries Champions

To begin, I’d like to return first to the group photo of the 1st Session in 2005.

I was captured by this photo when I realised that it foreshadows many of today’s regional leaders in ocean, maritime, geospatial, and environmental management.

Here we find

Mr Kosi Latu outgoing Director General of SPREP

Ms Rosamond Bing CEO of the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources in Tonga, and the Chair of the Pacific Geospatial and Surveying Council or PGSC

Mr Paserio Samisoni of Fiji, now retired but the first Vice-Chair of the PGSC

Mr Toney Tevi of Vanuatu, now Commissioner of Vanuatu Maritime and Ocean Affairs Division

Mr Mathew Chigyal, Deputy Director of National Oceanic Resource Management Authority (NORMA) in the Federated States of Micronesia

Ms Masio Nidung of Papua New Guinea, and long-time coordinator of the PNG Maritime Boundaries Delimitation Project

This photo also illustrates the continuity of many of our regional and international supporters.

Our colleagues from UNDOALOS, Robert Sandev and Vladimir Jares who is now Director of DOALOS, and Emily Cikamatana, who for more than a decade, led the geospatial aspects of this work at SPC before joining DOALOS

From the Consortium we see Elaine Baker of the University of Sydney and Phil Symonds of Geoscience Australia.

And from SPC the steadfast Andrick Lal.

So often in development, we focus on the outcomes, on the deliverables. The hospitals built, the policies enacted, the SDGs achieved, the tangible changes.

But in so doing, we mustn’t forget it is people who drive these changes. The influencers, the hustlers, the quiet but determined forces behind the scenes.

In committing to something larger than themselves, these individuals’ lives are forever changed, and that is something we have still not found a way to measure with any metrics I know of.

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