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Oceans in grave peril - but we have solutions

Monday, 10 April 2017 14:30 GMT

In this 2013 file photo, Kaibakia Pinata holds the fish he caught in his nets off Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati. REUTERS/David Gray

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Oceans, and the future of Pacific island peoples, are in grave peril, but we have tried and tested solutions

Talks here in New York ahead of the first ever United Nations conference about the world's oceans have turned to debating policy specifics as negotiators look to strike a balance between the need to derive economic benefits from marine resources and ensure their sustainability for future generations.

Last month, I joined a number of leaders from Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), a group of 11 island nations, to discuss steps our region can take to advance the same goal.

Typically, heads of state do not get involved in international talks this early in the process. Rather, they send diplomats and experts to study the issue and present them with options for a decision later.

But when it comes to marine health, Pacific leaders pay very close attention. "We are ocean people," as my president said at the meeting.

Indeed. The marine environment forms the foundation of nearly every aspect of our lives. Beginning some 3,000 years ago, our ancestors settled this vast region using only sailing canoes and celestial navigation; our culture and identity are tied to the ocean; and we continue to rely on it for food and income, tourism and travel.

It is no exaggeration to say that the ocean is inextricably tied to our past, present, and future. Or that all of it is in grave peril.

The threats are many and, in many cases, familiar. Report after report documents problems like overfishing, illegal and undocumented fishing, pollution from plastics, nuclear contamination, and sunken warships, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and climate change, to name a few.

What we don’t hear nearly enough about, however, are solutions.

The U.N. Oceans Conference in June is where we can change that. It will bring global leaders, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, and other stakeholders together to discuss these problems and others, and what can be done to address them.

More specifically, it will give a much-needed boost to U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14 – a set of internationally agreed targets designed to help “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

Many of the strategies it articulates have been proven to restore and conserve essential habitats, such as improving ocean monitoring systems, cutting land-based pollution, clamping down on illegal fishing, promoting resilience in reefs, and establishing marine protected areas.

These steps will be critical to developing a holistic approach to solving the crisis. I enthusiastically endorse the actions and urge our partners around the world to deliver on long-standing commitments to finance these and other programmes.

But just as important - and I suspect why so many Pacific leaders have taken such a keen interest in the talks - will be to invest in people and institutions from our region.

Not only are we the ones who witness dramatic environmental changes before our eyes, we possess essential knowledge for effective fisheries management, such as information about the abundance and distribution of key species.

In fact, we already have a strong track record in marine resource management. The Parties to the Nauru Agreement, comprising eight Pacific SIDS members, manages the world's largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery.

The system prevents overfishing by limiting the number of days vessels are allowed to go to sea, based on the best available science about stock health. It is not perfect and we continue to refine limits based on new research, but its achievements demonstrate how economic incentives can be developed to promote conservation. Moving forward, we would also like to see countries go further by voluntarily eliminating subsidies that promote overfishing.

Perhaps no region has assumed a greater economic burden to protect the ocean than the Pacific. We are proud of our role as stewards, but it is only fair that we strengthen access for our small scale and artisanal fishers who have used sustainable fishing practices for centuries. Similarly, we would like to see fishing nations that benefit from our conservation efforts help us invest in marine-based enterprises that don’t put any pressure on stocks.

As we continue this dialogue ahead of the Oceans Conference, we would do well to consider the role islanders can play in ensuring sustainability for the long term. We have been doing just that for thousands of years.

Marlene Moses is Nauru’s ambassador to the United Nations and chair of the Pacific Small Island Developing States.