Blue Charter group gears up to protect and restore ‘priceless’ coral reefs

Commonwealth countries devoted to saving the world’s coral reefs met in Townsville, Australia this week to outline immediate and long-term actions they can take to ensure the health of coral reef ecosystems.

Studies show more than half the planet’s coral reefs have suffered significant losses over the last 30 years. This could rise to 90 per cent within the next century, if current trends continue.

This harsh reality – mainly due to climate change – disproportionately affects Commonwealth states whose waters include 42 per cent of the world’s coral reefs.

In response, Australia, Belize and Mauritius are co-championing an action group made up of like-minded members that include Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and Vanuatu.

The action group is part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter – a milestone commitment made by the 53 Commonwealth nations to cooperate on sustainable ocean governance.

Hosted by the Australian Institute of Maritime Science (AIMS) from 9 to 11 July, the meeting looked at how countries could make a difference by co-ordinating national, regional and global actions, building on each other’s experiences, and upscaling solutions for in-water action.

AIMS Chief Executive Officer Paul Hardisty said the enormous economic, social and cultural value of coral reef systems is worth the effort, adding: “It’s great to see all these members of the Commonwealth countries out here with a common purpose.  They are tackling how to turn the shared ambition of the Blue Charter into very specific actionable elements – that’s where the critical path to success lies.

“There are some fantastic ideas being shared, looking at values – not only for ecosystem services and economic value but also the cultural and indigenous values of our communities – to come up with tractable methodologies that everyone can share.”

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for instance, supports 64,000 jobs and generates $6.4 billion each year for the country’s economy through tourism, fishing, recreational and scientific activities.

Globally, more than 500 million people depend directly on coral reefs for food, income and coastal protection. In fact, one square kilometre of healthy, well-managed coral reef can provide more than 15 tonnes of fish and other seafood each year.

Commonwealth Head of Ocean and Natural Resources Nicholas Hardman-Mountford said: “Coral reefs are priceless. They protect our coasts and populations from the devastating impacts of tsunamis and extreme weather disasters, they are home to a quarter of all marine species, and they provide for our livelihoods and well-being.

“For millions of people in the Commonwealth, especially in small island states, coral reefs are integral to their identity and local culture, centred on the ocean. Yet human activities and above all climate change are devastating reefs at unprecedented rates. This is why the work of this action group is vital.”

Delegates discussed ways to improve government policies, build awareness, and empower communities, while also tackling barriers such as lack of funding, limited capacity and weak governance structures.

They highlighted the need for the action group to monitor progress, share information and work with the right partners, including a strategy to engage scientific institutions, governments, private sector and civil society to support coral reef initiatives.

The outcomes of the meeting will contribute to implementing the short, medium and long term goals of the action group.

Sustainability must remain the heart of the blue economy: Commonwealth

The blue economy is about more than making money from the ocean, says the Commonwealth’s Head of Oceans and Natural Resources.

A World Ocean Summit debate on the blue and green economies saw Dr Nicholas Hardman-Mountford stress that the ‘blue economy’ is a far-reaching concept based on sustainability, not limited to any one sector.

He said: “There is a growing perception that the blue economy is only relevant to big sectors like ports, shipping, industrial fisheries, energy and waste management, without addressing issues of sustainability.

“This perception is actually counter to the blue economy concept and needs to be challenged.”

‘Green economy’ and ‘blue economy’, though having very different origins, are both based on principles of sustainability and both have the potential to reduce poverty and sustain livelihoods, according to Dr Hardman-Mountford

He pointed out that neglecting these principles in the past has led to cases of ‘greenwashing’ – labelling inherently unsustainable projects as ‘green’. For example, the ‘green economy’ was relegated as a sub-sector within the mainstream economy, rather than recognising that sustainability cuts across the economy as a whole.

“The term ‘blue economy’ is in danger of falling into the same traps,” he warned.

For Commonwealth countries, where fishing and seafaring often underpin traditional ways of life, the blue economy is already part of the social fabric. Forty-six of the 53 member states have a coastline, with a third of the global waters under national jurisdiction.

In April 2018, leaders agreed on a Commonwealth Blue Charter, setting out a principled approach to stewardship of the ocean, committing countries to work together on tackling ocean-related pressures such as climate change, ocean pollution and overfishing.

This commitment is now being taken forward through a range of country-led action groups, including one focusing on the blue economy, championed by Kenya.

Small enterprises in Kenya are already embracing the blue economy approach. For instance, in fashion some local producers are using fish skin – normally seen as waste – to make fish leather with local clothing and handbag designers. Similarly, in Seychelles, fish heads that previously would have been discarded are now being used to make fish oil.

“Small-scale entrepreneurs across the Commonwealth are sitting on a wealth of innovative ideas on how to move business in a more sustainable direction”, added Dr Hardman-Mountford. “It is essential to make tailored finance available for them to try out new sustainable business models that will build diversity and resilience, both economically and ecologically.”

Dr Hardman-Mountford debated the commonalities of the blue and green economy alongside the president and chief executive of Calvert Impact Capital Jennifer Pryce, SYSTEMIQ co-founder and managing partner Martin Stuchtey, and Waitt Foundation founder and chairman Ted Waitt.

The panel was part of the World Ocean Summit, organised by The Economist magazine from 5-7 March in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

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.”

Ground-breaking deep-sea exploration to boost good ocean governance

Commonwealth governments are set to benefit from a ground-breaking scientific research expedition into the unexplored depths of the Indian Ocean.

First Descent, a collaboration of ocean research institute Nekton, the Commonwealth and other partners will launch a multidisciplinary exploration of never-before-accessed ocean territory.

The expedition ship, a floating research station, will set sail from Seychelles in March equipped with cutting-edge subsea technologies, including a submersible capable of descending hundreds of metres into the ocean, and some of the world’s top scientists on board to test the health of the ocean.

A launch of the initiative will take place at Marlborough House, the Commonwealth headquarters in London, on Wednesday, 6th of February. More than a hundred people, including Commonwealth High Commissioners, media, scientists and ocean specialists are expected to attend to learn more about the mission.

In December, 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.

“This is a mission of world firsts – including the first live subsea TV series and an examination of previously unexplored ocean depths with cutting edge technologies. But what is most important is the insight that this will offer governments and those who make decisions on important ocean governance issues such as conservation, climate change and fishing,” said Commonwealth Director of Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources, Paulo Kautoke.

He continued, “This important partnership with Nekton and governments who recognise the need to take urgent action to protect our ocean will not only support the uptake of new marine science technologies and platforms to improve access to ocean data, it will also facilitate science-based policies and laws, and develop training materials for capacity building.”

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 issue of marine protection in the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has been appointed to an expedition steering committee that will help to plan Nekton expeditions, and take part in training, capacity-building and promotional activities.

CEO of the Nekton Foundation Oliver Steeds described the initiative as “a bold bid to help accelerate our scientific understanding of how the Indian Ocean is changing”.

He said, “Sustainable ocean development is the heart of what we are doing to support a blue economy and we are delighted to partner with the Commonwealth to support regionally led ocean governance for the Indian Ocean region.  We are seeking other Commonwealth nations to participate in future expeditions after the Seychelles in 2019 through to 2022.”

The Nekton Indian Ocean Mission will run from 2019 to 2022. Three research expeditions will be deployed in distinct regions of the Indian Ocean. They are backed by an alliance of additional partners, including the UK Government, Omega, Kensington Tours, University of Oxford, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Sky and The Associated Press.

Image credit: Nekton

Ocean focus expected in next round of climate talks

With global climate talks freshly concluded last weekend in Katowice, Poland, some Commonwealth countries are already working towards a stronger ocean focus at next year’s negotiations in Chile.

While annual sessions of the Conference of the Parties (COP) emphasise cutting global emissions to tackle climate change, there is a growing recognition of the role played by the ocean. A special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the ocean and cryosphere – the frozen part of the world’s water – is due out September 2019, and will further spotlight ocean issues in climate debates.

“Due to the exemplary leadership of Fiji during its COP Presidency [2017-2018], the linkage between the ocean and climate change has solidified,” said Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland at a COP24 side event co-organised by the Commonwealth and Fiji. “Though there is still much work ahead of us, the ocean is at long last ‘in the room’ and should not be disregarded in future negotiations.”

Opened by Fiji’s Minister for Agriculture, Rural & Maritime Development and National Disaster Management, Inia Seruiratu, the event drew out innovative solutions to tackle ocean and climate change issues, both at international and local levels.

Taholo Kami, Special Envoy for the COP23 Presidency Secretariat, elaborated on advocacy efforts towards a more ocean-inclusive UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Working towards COP25, Fiji plans to host climate negotiators from up to 50 countries next March, to strategize on advancing the ocean agenda.

“One of the aims of the [Commonwealth] Blue Charter Action Group on ocean and climate change [chaired by Fiji] is what we do in the UNFCCC, and we’d like to see more leadership from the Commonwealth countries,” said Mr. Kami.

Speaking in support of the Blue Charter, the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna highlighted the country’s home-grown approach to ocean management known as “marae moana” or ‘sacred ocean’. The Marae Moana Act established a marine park, and a Council to oversee it, made up of traditional, religious, government leaders and members of the opposition, in consultation with grassroots communities.

“It confirms my suspicion that my people are born conservationists. Conservation is in our blood,” he said. “But while we’re trying to do our best to conserve it and manage it sustainably, the actions of others will have far-reaching impact on the ocean.”

Seychelles representative Angelique Pouponneau welcomed an ‘Ocean COP’ in 2019, and shared innovative financing solutions from her country, which champions the Blue Charter action group on marine protected areas.

This includes a ‘debt swap’ programme with the Paris Club, supported by the Nature Conservancy, whereby US$30 million of Seychelles’ foreign debt has been exchanged for commitments to ocean conservation projects. Seychelles also recently launched the world’s first sovereign ‘blue bond’, raising US$15 million from international investors, of which $3 million will be going to the Seychelles’ Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust.

“This is not just top-down – what I find most exciting is the fact that one of the first tranches of money provided by the Trust was for a voluntary fishery zone closure on Praline Island for the benefit of the marine environment and fisher folks,” she explained. “Innovative financing going to marine conservation as well as climate adaptation is definitely a win-win-win.”

At the grass-roots level, Karuna Rana, Coordinator of the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network underlined the significant impact made by young people in Mauritius. In the fight against marine pollution, young people are installing drinking water dispensers across the country, lobbying local businesses and restaurants to become plastic-free, while developing an app that locates not only water dispensers, but plastic-free establishments as well.

The panel also included presentations by Australia, Vanuatu and New Zealand as (co-)champions for Blue Charter Action Groups on coral reefs, marine plastic pollution and ocean acidification respectively. Delegates from the Pacific Islands Forum, the Nature Conservancy, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) shared notable examples of region-wide and international ocean action.

Commonwealth ocean action gains traction at COP24

“Real experiences” are what drove some Commonwealth countries to take up the banner for the ocean, stepping forward to champion action groups of like-minded members working together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing ocean problems.

When 53 countries agreed on the Commonwealth Blue Charter on ocean governance in April 2018, it inspired a new model for intergovernmental cooperation, whereby countries are invited to establish, join and drive voluntary and action-oriented alliances, based on their own shared priorities.

“This not about the Commonwealth or a high level body saying to countries, ‘Thou shall do this’, it was the countries themselves saying, ‘We get it, we want to work together with other countries to help fix it’,” said Commonwealth adviser on ocean governance Jeff Ardron.

Speaking at a side event at the UN Climate Change Conference COP24 this week, he said the Blue Charter links high level global commitments to on-the-ground implementation, a key theme at this year’s climate summit: “[Because it’s a voluntary-based initiative] only the countries who care about the issues join. So the most leading, most forward thinking, the most engaged countries in each of these topics are coming forward. This is a different model of global cooperation.”

Sri Lanka, for instance, vulnerable to disastrous tsunamis and storms, recognised the importance of coastal protection and stepped up to lead the action group on mangroves. Vanuatu, shocked at a study showing the amount of plastic polluting their coastal waters, volunteered to co-lead the action group on marine pollution with the United Kingdom. Fiji, a small island developing state in the Pacific, came forward to lead on ocean and climate change. To date, nine action groups have been set up, with varying membership.

At the event held at the COP24 UK pavilion, Deputy Director for Marine Policy at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Gemma Harper highlighted the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance co-led by the UK and Vanuatu.

“The UK, together with Vanuatu, is calling on other countries to pledge action on plastics, be this by a ban on microbeads a commitment to cutting down on single use plastic bags, or other steps to eliminate avoidable plastic waste,” she urged.

Vanuatu banned single use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers in July 2018.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter is very important to us because it commits a number of counties to the same objectives. If Vanuatu were to do this alone it wouldn’t get very far. So by having the Blue Charter, we can commit the Commonwealth – already [covering] more than half of the oceans in the world,” said Vanuatu Foreign Affairs minister Ralph Regenvanu.

Earlier in the week, at another COP24 event hosted by the Nordic Cooperation, Mr. Ardron showcased fish leather designs from Kenya – the Blue Charter champion on blue economy – and the Faroe Islands. He announced that the Commonwealth, together with the Nordic Cooperation and the Food and Agricultural Organization, will launch a ‘blue fashion’ challenge in September to promote sustainability in the second most polluting industry in the world.