Feature Address on Regional OECS Workshop for Oceans Governance
Feature Address by Senator Hon. Dr. James Fletcher
Minister for the Public Service, Information, Broadcasting,
Sustainable Development, Energy, Science and Technology
Government of Saint Lucia
Regional OECS Workshop on Oceans Governance
8th February, 2012
Bay Gardens Hotel
Gros Islet, Saint Lucia
- Director General of the OECS Secretariat, Dr. Len Ishmael
- Mr. Daniel Dumas and other officials of the Commonwealth Secretariat
- Representatives of Member States of the OECS
- Staff of the OECS Secretariat, and I want to specially recognize Mr.Keith Nichols and the staff of the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit, whom I had the pleasure to direct for 3 years
- Members of the Media
- Ladies and Gentlemen
It is my pleasure, on behalf of your host government, to welcome you to our island. I am sure that for most of you it is not your first time, but for those of you who may be experiencing the thrill of our country for the first time, I want to extend an even more special welcome. Hopefully, like so many of your colleagues, it will be the beginning of a special and enduring relationship with our island.
Oceans cover 70 percent of the surface area of our planet and tropical coral reefs cover an area of over 284,000 square kilometers. According to a 2010 publication of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), these coral reefs provide over US$30 billion every year in goods and services, which include income from tourism and fishing and resources for building material and coastal protection. The nine Member States that comprise the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States have a combined land mass of under 3,500 square kilometres, yet the marine space that surrounds the OECS Member Countries, measured on the basis of our respective Economic Exclusion Zones, occupies over 100,000 square kilometres. This fact, on its own, points to why oceans governance is an issue that must be high on the agenda of our respective Member States.
It is clear, from a perusal of the decisions of the OECS, that Oceans Governance has been a recurring issue for the OECS Authority. As early as the 2nd Meeting of the OECS Authority in 1982, and followed by pronouncements at sixteen meetings between the 10th and the 48th Meetings, our OECS Heads of Government have issued instructions to the Secretariat on the subject of Oceans Governance in general, and Maritime Boundary Delimitation in particular. Unfortunately, the actions and reactions at the national and regional levels on this issue do not appear to match the frequency with which this issue has been discussed.
The Importance of our Oceans
Since the dawn of civilization in our islands, our fishers have toiled the sea and exploited the diversity of its bounty. Today, our fisheries industry continues to play a major role in ensuring food security. Caribbean people of all eras have used the beaches and near-shore waters for recreation while, in more recent decades, these same areas have become an essential component of our tourism industry, serving as a powerful attraction for investors and visitors alike, and in a way, helping to define our tourism product. The issue of bio-prospecting in our Caribbean Sea has assumed greater significance and our waters continue to be a fertile laboratory for marine scientific research conducted by external organizations.
However, despite the long-standing contribution of the ocean to the development of our Caribbean civilization and livelihoods, it is painfully apparent that our stewardship of this valuable marine space has been far from perfect.
Many generations of our people seem to have assumed that the ocean is infinite and that when waste, whatever the source, entered the sea, it would disappear and be of no further consequence. Perhaps, when the nature and scale of the waste we produced was different, our ignorance would not have been betrayed. However, as our populations exploded, as our consumption and production patterns became less sustainable, and as we moved from biodegradables to plastics and toxic industrial waste, our seas became more and more polluted and the fallacy of that belief was exposed for all to see.
In addition to the problem of land-based sources of marine pollution, we face a number of other challenges to the sustainable management of our Caribbean marine space. These include the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste, including radioactive waste; the ever-present possibility of oil spills in a region of active oil exploration and extremely heavy tanker traffic; over-exploitation of our marine fishery resources; illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU); coastal sand mining; narco-trafficking; sea level rise arising from climate change, and on this it is sobering to note that the CARICOM-UNDP facilitated modeling of Sea Level Rise in the Caribbean suggests that the projected increases in global sea surface levels of 1.5m to 2m may be exceeded in the Caribbean due to gravitational and geophysical factors; coral bleaching; improper coastal development; and invasive alien species, of which the predatory Lionfish now poses a serious threat.
Emerging Environmental Issues
At the 18th Meeting of the Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean, which I attended in Quito, Ecuador last week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) listed the ten most serious emerging environmental issues for our region, and among that sinister top ten was “the potential collapse of oceanic systems”, which it was said “requires integrated ocean governance”. A direct quote from that UNEP report provides a poignant summary of the challenge that confronts us in the OECS:
“The oceanic environment is faced with increasing threats to its long-term integrity including acidification, overfishing, land- and marine-based pollution, widespread habitat destruction and the proliferation of invasive species. There is a growing assumption that the current approach to managing oceans will be ineffective in avoiding a collapse of some oceanic systems, due to the convergence of various factors, some of which are natural while others are human-induced. Although these factors have been foreseen and adequately diagnosed for some time, they persist as a result of powerlessness or incapacity and the dispersion of the efforts waged on various fronts.”
The section of this quotation that is perhaps most relevant to this meeting is the last sentence, which I will repeat: “Although these factors have been foreseen and adequately diagnosed for some time, they persist as a result of powerlessness or incapacity and the dispersion of the efforts waged on various fronts.”
Eighteen months earlier, on June 8th 2010, the UN Secretary-General, in his message to mark the observance of World Oceans Day, expressed similar concerns when he stated:
“The diversity of life in the oceans is under ever-increasing strain. Overexploitation of marine living resources, climate change, and pollution from hazardous materials and activities all pose a grave threat to the marine environment. So does the growth of criminal activities, including piracy, which have serious implications for the security of navigation and the safety of seafarers.”
Time to Act
The need to pursue sustainable governance of our oceans, for this and successive generations, makes it imperative that we purposefully confront and surmount these challenges.
This workshop is particularly timely. It takes place at a time when, in just a few months, our countries will be attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, more popularly known as Rio+20 conference.
It comes at a time when AOSIS countries, led by nations in our OECS and wider CARICOM regions, are asking the international community to give sufficient consideration of the circumstances of small island developing states and to support efforts towards effective ocean governance, especially at a time when the concept of a “blue economy” is beginning to gain some level of prominence.
The Case for Evidence
Before I close, I want to touch briefly on what is for me a pet peeve, and that is the absence of up-to-date empirical data on which we, as policy makers, can rely to inform our deliberations and shape our decisions.
Our region is infamous for its absence of accurate and current information on environmental and social indicators. As a result, we make decisions based on conviction. However, conviction is not sufficient ammunition to help us mobilize support and action in the international community. When others make their case with State of the Environment Reports and trend analyses based on well-populated data sets, we rely on anecdotal stories of fishing grounds that have disappeared or coastlines that have receded. This is not good enough. We have to make data collection and analysis one of the bases in our policy-making DNA. If you want to present a compelling argument to our residents on the need to treat our ocean resources better, or to policy makers like my colleagues (since in me you would be speaking to the converted) on the need for urgent action, or to the international or development partner community on the importance of greater technical and financial support, you must produce more compelling, evidence-based supporting arguments.
In addition to data on sea level increases or changes in sea surface temperatures, you should start to collect and analyze data on coral diversity and fish diversity; show how coral:algae ratios are changing or water salinity, transparency or acidity, is varying. Provide reports on the areal extents of mangroves and sea grass beds. Explain how changes in coral mortality, herbivorous fish abundance and fish bite rates are indicators of coral reef health. Let us know how much contaminant is accumulating in our waters and how our sediment delivery rates have changed over time. You will discover that when you present your case in a language that your audience understands, backed by evidence to which they can relate, action follows much more quickly.
I want to congratulate the OECS and the Commonwealth Secretariat for collaborating to host this very important workshop. Our government looks forward to the next steps in effecting sustainable ocean governance in our OECS region. In particular, we expect to get from you guidance on an efficient and viable framework for weaving together the myriad agencies that have a stake in the governance of our oceans into an effective national oceans governance system.
I wish you successful deliberations over the next two days and pledge the continuing support of our government for regional efforts in this critical area.
I thank you.
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