The UN Oceans Conference and Australia’s blue economy
28 Sep 2017|

While a non-binding international call for action on the oceans may be seen as having little political importance for the Australian government, we’re a nation ‘girt by sea’: any movement in the governance of the oceans could have profound implications for Australia’s security and ocean economy.

Without attention given to our ocean estate, we’ll miss the indicators of our changing climate, miss our chances of adaption and mitigation, and miss out on opportunities that can drive our economy, our security and many of the societal benefits that come from our coasts, seas and oceans.

In June, the minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, represented Australia at the UN Oceans Conference in New York.

This was the first global conference focused on ocean issues to advance Sustainable Development Goal 14: to conserve and manage oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Apart from the minister, Australia was represented by several institutions, such as CSIRO, which attended the many side meetings.

Nearly 180 states participated and agreed to a 14-point call for action that enshrines a greater commitment to global cooperation in the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans. Among the many points raised at the conference were two of great salience for our region: counteracting illegal fishing and reducing levels of marine debris, especially plastic pollution.

As the director of the University of Western Australia’s Ocean Institute recently noted on the latter issue:

Plastics find their way into our oceans from multiple sources and their impact creates a complex problem that will require multifaceted solutions. Approaches will involve reducing production and promoting waste prevention through to reuse and recycling, requiring commitments from governments, industry and communities, and necessitating the employment of scientific and technological resources.

Oceans are critical to our security, with our dependence on maritime commerce and the maintenance of freedom of movement for shipping. The oceans provide resources and offer a defence against possible aggression. The maritime domain over which Australia has some jurisdiction is nearly twice the area of the continental landmass of Australia.

The UN’s call to action in June highlighted the importance of the blue economy, recognising the oceans’ role in connecting international trade and business, and as a source of income from their resources.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has valued our maritime-related industries at $73 billion, and growing. By 2025, our oceans are expected to contribute $100 billion a year to our economy.

But Australia has a piecemeal approach to ocean development. When it comes to northern development, for example, the focus has been squarely on the landward side, with little heed paid to the critical role of marine developments in northern Australia. There was little attention given to the critical role of marine science in the Northern Australia White Paper. Australia’s exclusive economic zone to the north exceeds the area of land mass being considered for development. It’s expected that the Project Sea Dragon aquaculture farm on the far north coast of the Northern Territory will be the world’s largest black tiger prawn producer by 2025.

We’ve also undervalued the contribution our marine science research efforts can make to building relationships in our ocean neighbourhood. It’s likely, for example, that, given Papua New Guinea’s status as an archipelagic country, next year’s APEC summit in Port Moresby will have a focus on ocean themes and the blue economy.

We’ve got a national marine science plan that identifies the importance of the blue economy, but marine science in Australia suffers from the vagaries of political cycles and austerity.

Our new $120 million bluewater research vessel, the RV Investigator, for example, is tied up alongside the wharf in Hobart for half the year.

Our decreasing funding of marine science was recently highlighted in a UNESCO – Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission stocktake on global ocean science: despite our enormous marine estate, our research fleet is one of the smallest and one of the oldest in the world.

While we’re acquiring a new icebreaker, currently being built in Romania, it will be solely focused on our Southern Ocean research, leaving the RV Investigator as our main bluewater vessel. We need to explore the benefits of a national fleet approach to the acquisition and management of Australian vessels across defence, civil oceanography, polar logistics, and customs and border security.

Countries can’t be good at everything, but we should try to be a smart nation in ocean affairs. To strengthen our Indo-Pacific oceans leadership, we should appoint an ambassador for oceans to make the most of the political and economic opportunities from oceans policy for the region.

We need a coordinated approach to the blue economy. Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), through its network of instrumented moorings, coastal high-frequency radar and autonomous gliders, has allowed us to better understand our ocean environment.  IMOS should serve as motivation for further investment in marine science as the Australian government considers the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

To reflect a truly whole-of-government approach, an office of oceans affairs should be established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The oceans and seas around Australia are central to our future prosperity and security. We should view the seas as a bridge that links Australia with the world. The fisheries management regimes we have, for example, are well developed and we should help build capacity across the region, which depends so heavily on fish for protein.

Last year, then US Secretary of State John Kerry called Foreign Minister Julie Bishop an ‘Ocean Champion’.

But the oceans are changing at an alarming rate, and we need to search for the connections and the relationships in our maritime region that can champion a better ocean environment for us all.