Protecting our ocean home

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Peter Woolcott

I have always had a strong professional interest in our maritime environment and the world’s oceans. So I have been delighted to follow the progress New Zealand is making over the establishment of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary.  The area is huge.  It will cover 15 per cent of New Zealand’s extensive ocean environment (some 620,000 square kilometres), and even more significantly shows an extraordinary commitment to preserving a pristine marine environment. The sanctuary initiative envisages the prohibition of all fishing, prospecting, exploration and mining activities.

You don’t have to be a marine expert to understand innately just how much the world’s oceans matter. They comprise some three-quarters of our planet, they hold 97% of our water and they produce more than half of our oxygen. Half the world’s population lives within the coastal zone and ocean based businesses contribute more than $500 billion to the global economy. Our way of life is shaped by our use and enjoyment of the oceans and it is critical that we manage this in a sustainable way.

And governance of our oceans is patchy. Nation states have different approaches to how they exercise sovereignty – some do it better than others. But it is the open ocean or the high seas which poses a real dilemma. For while it is a priceless asset, it is also a global commons covered by international rules, and this coverage is thin and leaves it vulnerable to over exploitation of its resources and environmental degradation.

The UN, under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea has started negotiations for a new international agreement to protect high-seas biodiversity on a global scale. This is progress, but ensuring protection of the high seas remains one of the major global challenges.

Both New Zealand and Australia are marine nations surrounded by oceans of incredible diversity which are the envy of the world. We are very focused on meeting our obligations to protect and preserve our marine environment.

In 2012, Australia designated 989,842 square kilometres under the Coral Sea Marine Reserve, which protects the waters of the Coral Sea that fall within Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This is a remote ocean ecosystem in near pristine condition and a significant portion of the Reserve is now zoned as a marine national park.

Australia is also custodian to one of the great natural wonders of the world in the Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest living structure on the planet. The Great Barrier Reef world heritage area was inscribed by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in 1981 under all four of the natural criteria used to make these judgements. The Reef was always a multiple use area.  It is the size of Germany and supports nearly 70,000 full time jobs and is worth $5.6 billion a year to the Australian economy from tourism alone.

Managing marine sites is a complex undertaking, especially when the site is large and features great diversity, strong indigenous connections and is used for manifold economic and recreational purposes.

Immediately prior to moving to Wellington, I was Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment and heavily involved in avoiding the threat by the World Heritage Committee to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”.

The Australian and Queensland Governments responded with major policy changes to address the concerns raised by the Committee. These included restrictions on marine disposal of capital dredge material, limits on port development and an additional $200 million contributed from Federal and State governments to address the critical issue of water quality in the Reef region.  The 2050 Reef Plan called for by the Committee demonstrated the seriousness of our efforts.

On 1 July last year, the World Heritage Committee unanimously rejected efforts to list the Great Barrier Reef as world heritage “in danger”.  The decision was a welcome and hard earned outcome. Although no one is any doubt as to the extent of the challenge, including from climate change.

The decision to not list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” was characterised by the World Heritage Committee as a win for the Reef, and a win for the world heritage system. The extent of dialogue over the 2050 Reef Plan with UNESCO, and the technical advisors to it – the World Heritage Centre and the International Union of the Conservation of Nature – was unprecedented and has set a new model for international cooperation.

Australia and New Zealand have common purpose on marine environmental issues. We see this in our approach to our own sovereign jurisdictions and there is much we can work on together internationally to help safeguard the world’s oceans and its biodiversity – whether it be the Southern Ocean, lethal whaling, plastic vortexes, sustainable fisheries or biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions.

But to return to where I began. The progress on the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary shows a great commitment from New Zealand to the conservation of the unique and diverse marine ecosystems in our southern corner of the globe.  I look forward to seeing the plans for the Sanctuary come into fruition during my time as High Commissioner to New Zealand.

Peter Woolcott is the Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand and Australia’s former Ambassador for the Environment. You can read his full biography here.

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