Earlier this month on the island of Vanuatu, leaders from 15 island nations gathered for a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. From countries as wide-ranging as Australia and the tiny island of Niue (population 1,354), these representatives share a common bond: deep environmental, economic and cultural ties to the sea surrounding their homelands.
Across the globe, the world's ocean is in crisis, threatened by massive overfishing, climate change and a myriad of other forces. Although the Pacific Islands Forum counts some of the world's smallest countries as its members, the group has just made one of the boldest agreements for collaborative, integrated and adaptive ocean management yet: the launch of the Pacific Oceanscape.
Threats to the Central Pacific
Scattered across a vast ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand, the island nations of the Central Pacific are home to almost 35 million people, many of whom are dependent on the ocean for their livelihoods. The region contains some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, and the abundant marine life fostered by these ecosystems support fishing, tourism and other subsistence and economic activities.
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"The new Pacific Oceanscape will help us build resilience in ocean ecosystems so that marine life has the best chance of adapting. Only by doing this can there be some assurance that the oceans, and millions of people who depend on them directly for their livelihood and well-being, will survive the onslaught of global climate change." – President Anote Tong of Kiribati
Effective ocean governance has always been a challenge, complicated by territorial disputes, varying national regulations and the difficulty of enforcing laws over a vast area. In addition, high-seas regions lie outside of national jurisdiction and are largely devoid of any governance at all.
Despite these obstacles, effective marine management is needed now more than ever; island nations are at particularly high risk for threats like rising sea levels and ocean acidification caused by climate change.
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Building an Oceanscape
The Pacific Oceanscape is the largest government-endorsed marine managed initiative on Earth – 38.5 million square kilometers (nearly 24 million square miles) of ocean, larger than the land territories of the United States, Canada and Mexico combined. Its framework emphasizes integrated management across all sectors, with the following guiding principles:
- Improving ocean governance: engaging leaders and other decision-makers in strengthening governance mechanisms
- Sustainably managing ocean resources: educating and training scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders in better management practices, including multi-use marine protected areas
- Maintaining ocean health: reducing negative impacts of human activities, protecting and conserving biodiversity.
- Expanding our understanding of the ocean: increasing scientific knowledge to better inform decision-making
- Protecting ocean security: bringing together the economic, environmental, political and military sectors to fight illegal and criminal practices
- Facilitating partnerships and cooperation: fostering collaboration to make conservation efforts more effective, from national exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to the high seas
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The framework for the Pacific Oceanscape was initiated by the nation of Kiribati, which has been a major proponent of marine conservation efforts in the region. In 2006, Kiribati President Anote Tong established the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a 410,000 square kilometer (almost 160,000 square mile) marine territory about the size of California. This month, this site was designated the world's largest UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One important outcome of enhanced marine protection in the Central Pacific will be a greater understanding of how climate change is impacting the region – and how we should respond. "The new Pacific Oceanscape will help us build resilience in ocean ecosystems so that marine life has the best chance of adapting," said Tong. "Only by doing this can there be some assurance that the oceans, and millions of people who depend on them directly for their livelihood and well-being, will survive the onslaught of global climate change."
Building on a history of collaboration with Kiribati and other Pacific Island nations, CI will support these national governments as they work to implement the Oceanscape framework. "It is very encouraging to see all regional intergovernmental agencies united on support for the Pacific Oceanscape," says Sue Miller-Taei, marine director of CI's Pacific Islands Program, who directly supported the creation of the framework.
"After 20 years working in this region, I have never seen such widespread support and engagement. The strong support by the Pacific Forum Secretariat indicates that the time and place is right for this initiative."