Blue Charter fellows to turn the tide on marine plastic

Blue Charter fellows have met in London to show how their research helps develop environment-friendly alternatives to disposable plastic, which will chart a better course for our planet.

They were attending a seminar hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Government of the United Kingdom.

The fellows are awardees of the Blue Charter Fellowships programme, which was created to support emerging Commonwealth scholars to explore solutions on marine pollution such as innovations to clean up the seas, sustainable alternatives to plastic and prevention of waste from entering the oceans.

The fellowship takes its name from the Commonwealth Blue Charter, a collective commitment of the 53 member countries to tackle the world’s shared ocean challenges, agreed by leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April 2018.

During discussions, fellows recognised a communication gap between the policy-makers and scientists on marine ecosystems. They said the findings of their research will bridge this gap and inform policy-making in Commonwealth countries on tackling plastic pollution.

Refilwe Mofokeng, a fellow from South Africa, who now pursues research at the University of Birmingham, described the fellowship as an ‘invaluable opportunity’. She said: “I can now conduct research on microplastic using modern equipment in a world-class lab which was not possible in my home country.”

Fellows from Africa, the Americas and the Asia Pacific regions presented research to officials, scientists and academics. Their solutions focussed on social awareness and technical research. They include:

  • examining the impact of microplastic on fish population;
  • assessing the absorption capacity of microplastic to toxicants such as detergents, hormones, etc.;
  • recycling polythene waste, such as plastic bags and pouches, to produce low-cost polymer-based paving blocks;
  • studying human attitude towards recycling and waste disposal in developing countries; and
  • understanding the impact of plastic clothes leaching out into the oceans.

Opening the seminar, Dr Joanna Newman, Secretary-General of the ACU, welcomed the Blue Charter fellows. She said: “Through our Blue Charter Fellowships, 38 researchers from 31 institutions in 12 countries across the Commonwealth are carrying out collaborative research into marine plastics at ACU member universities.”

Jeff Ardron, who leads the Commonwealth Blue Charter initiative, said: “Commonwealth countries generally share a common language, institutional designs, and legislative, regulatory and administrative processes which makes it easier for us to work together on policy issues such as plastic pollution.”

Both fellows and officials praised the Commonwealth Blue Charter. Julius Piercy, Team Leader at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Areas, gave fellows updates on the action group on plastic pollution, which the UK and Vanuatu are leading.

“The action group on plastic pollution seeks to work with and complement other initiatives for co-operation on the global issues of protecting with world’s oceans. Twenty-four countries have joined it and up to £10m in aid funding has been made available to assist them to achieve their ambitions to target plastic pollutions,” Mr Piercy commented.

Blue Charter action group makes strides toward tackling ocean acidification

The inaugural Blue Charter action group meeting on ocean acidification has brought us a step closer to finding solutions to the detrimental impacts of rising pH levels on ocean life, Commonwealth Head of Oceans and Natural Resources stated.

Nick Hardman-Mountford was speaking at the end of a three-day workshop led by the government of New Zealand, which champions the Ocean Acidification Action Group – part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.  The Charter is a joint commitment by member countries to protect the ocean and sustainably manage its resources.

More than forty-five participants, including experts, scientists and Commonwealth marine officials met in Dunedin, New Zealand, to explore the impacts of ocean acidification and strategies that policymakers can to use to address the growing issue.

“As carbon emissions increase we see a worrying rise in the levels of acidity in our ocean. This poses a serious threat to marine life, particularly shellfish, urchins, corals, plankton and other creatures with calcium carbonate shells and skeletons. The impact on the health of our ocean if we continue on this destructive trajectory is dire,” said Dr Hardman-Mountford.

He added, “I am really pleased that New Zealand and others are taking steps to identify options for effective monitoring and research around ocean acidification, and exploring mitigation, adaptation and resilience strategies.”

The workshop is the latest in a series of activities around the Blue Charter programme. Earlier this month, the Commonwealth along with ocean research institute Nekton and its partners, launched a ground-breaking scientific research expedition into the unexplored depths of the Indian Ocean. The data gathered will help governments and those who make decisions on important ocean governance issues such as conservation, climate change and fishing.

Dr Bronte Tilbrook, a senior principle researcher at Australia’s national research agency and chair of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network, stressed the importance of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

He said, “Ocean acidification is happening and is going to impact  all countries with ocean domains. The Blue Charter is allowing governments and scientists to work together to make informed decisions on actions. There is nothing similar anywhere else.”

Nathan Glassey, a senior official at the New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry, added that the well-attended workshop on ocean acidification showed that countries see real benefit in the Commonwealth’s leadership on the issue.

“People were clearly excited about the opportunity to harness the Commonwealth’s collective power to address the impacts of ocean acidification”.

Mr Glassey said that the next step is to take stock of the practical ideas that emerged during the workshop. “We want to consolidate the Action Group’s membership and turn some of these ideas into reality.”

Extending frontiers of deep sea exploration will improve ocean governance, says Secretary-General

In March this year state-of-the-art submarines will descend to previously unexplored depths of the Indian Ocean on a pioneering research expedition.

First Descent, a collaboration of ocean research institute Nekton, the Commonwealth and 46 other partners, launched the multidisciplinary exploration at the Commonwealth headquarters in London.

The expedition ship, a floating research station, is travelling to Seychelles equipped with cutting-edge subsea technologies, including a submersible capable of descending as deep as 3,000 metres into the ocean, and some of the world’s top scientists on board to test the health of the ocean.

Speaking to Commonwealth high commissioners, media, scientists and ocean specialists at the launch, Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said that extending the frontiers of deep sea exploration will help governments to make more informed decisions about policies to address climate change challenges and govern ocean-based sectors such as fishing and tourism.

The Secretary-General issued a stark warning about the urgency of addressing the global challenge of climate change.

She said, “We face an existential threat as a result of the changes in climate. Unless we map and understand better what is in our oceans, we are doomed to repeat some of the mistakes we made on land.

“Our partnership with Nekton is important because it will assist Commonwealth co-operation and accelerate action by the governments of our member countries to protect the ocean. The data gathered from this exploration enable us to test the ocean’s health, and will guide governments and policy-makers in making informed and effective decisions on ocean governance issues relating to climate change, overfishing and conservation.”

In November the Commonwealth and Nekton signed a memorandum of understanding to boost actions under the Commonwealth Blue Charter – a joint commitment by member countries to protect the ocean and sustainably manage its resources.

CEO of Nekton Foundation, Oliver Steeds, said the ocean research expeditions will be guided by Commonwealth values.

“First Descent is aligned to the principles of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, an agreement by all 53 Commonwealth countries to actively co-operate to solve ocean related problems and meet commitments for sustainable ocean development,” said Mr Steeds.

“Humankind is poised to make the next giant leap into the deep ocean. We need to discover what is there before the ocean’s demise triggers our own. In many ways I think that is why the Commonwealth with Nekton and our partners is launching First Descent today.”

Scientists at the event joined the calls for urgent action.

Oxford Professor Alex Rogers, who is part of the First Decent research team, spoke about the importance of examining the zone between 30 and 3,000 meters in the ocean, where, he explained, there is a peak diversity of species.

“We are in a situation where the ocean is suffering from serious degradation through the damaging effects of overfishing, pollution, and we are all aware of the growing story of marine plastics and the effect of climate change – and that includes ocean warming, ocean acidification and deoxygenation of the ocean. So it’s really critically important that we understand how life is distributed through the ocean now so that we can make decisions that are actually better informed.”

First Descent will kick-off in Seychelles, where Nekton is working on behalf of the Seychelles government and partners. The country has committed to protect 30% of their ocean territory by 2020 and champions the ‘Action Group’ for marine protection under the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

Seychelles High Commissioner, Derick Ally, said, “We also are a leader in the blue economy concept, and with the help of the Commonwealth, which has developed a blue economy roadmap for us, we are taking steps now to make better use of our ocean resources.”

Secretary-General Scotland added that the data gathered from the missions will have applications for the Commonwealth’s 53 countries and will inform progress and development of the Blue Charter and other initiatives.

She said, “We are collating this information to help us better understand what good ocean governance would look like, and then we are creating a series of implementation toolkits; because many countries are saying, we want to do something, but what do we do and how do we do it? We will now be in a better position to give them a blueprint to follow.”