PORT VILLA, Vanuatu -- An unprecedented agreement toward the cooperative stewardship of a vast swath of Pacific Ocean has been reached, and conservationists are heralding it as among the most ambitious, innovative, and collaborative marine initiatives on Earth.
Meeting in Port Villa, Vanuatu at the annual Pacific Islands Leadership Forum, Heads of State and Governments from 15 nations endorsed a draft framework for the long-term, sustainable, and cooperative management of 38.5 million km2 (nearly 24 million square miles) surrounding their collective islands, or comparatively larger than the land size of Canada, the United States and Mexico - combined.
The Framework, called the Pacific Oceanscape, aims to address all ocean issues from governance to climate change, as well as design policies and implement practices that will improve ocean health, increase resources and expertise, and encourage governments to factor ocean issues into decisions about economic and sustainable development. It represents perhaps the largest marine conservation management initiative in history, as measured by countries and area, and a new united Pacific voice on ocean conservation and management.
In a Communiqué announcing the agreement, leaders from Australia, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu agreed to a Pacific Oceanscape framework, and "reiterated the critical importance of ensuring the sustainable development, management and conservation of our oceans."
Introduced to Forum Leaders in 2009 by President Anote Tong of Kiribati, the Pacific Oceanscape plan was designed with support from Conservation International (CI) which has also committed technical and scientific assistance for implementation.
"It is, without doubt, the most ambitious, most innovative, and most well-grounded marine initiative I have seen in my 32 years as a marine biologist and conservationist," said Dr. Greg Stone, CI's Chief Ocean Scientist and Senior Vice President for Marine Conservation. "What we are seeing here is the dawning of a new era for marine management at such a massive, multi-national scale, and the kind of leadership that brings about real, positive change."
Increasing threats, including climate change, to Pacific Island states has spurred their Leaders toward the historic measures.
"Climate change threatens our very existence. With rising sea levels, overfishing, warming ocean temperatures pollution, and acidification, our oceans are changing in ways that our ancestors could not have imagined," said President Tong,. "There is an urgent need for us to join together and face these common threats, if we are to successfully manage and conserve the ocean's precious resources for present and future generations of people."
Tong added, "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."
The Pacific Oceanscape will address many ocean challenges in the region both in countries' Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as well as the High Seas connecting them, including climate change, security and enforcement, and the establishment of multi-use marine protected areas.
CI's Pacific Islands Program Marine Director, Sue Miller-Taei, speaking from Samoa, emphasized the impressive regional ownership of the new plan.
"Input and ownership across all sectors, from fisheries to universities, environmentalists, and government, has created a framework that everyone wants to succeed. In my twenty years of working in this region, I have never seen such widespread support and engagement. This is a precious commodity."
Agreement of the Pacific Oceanscape plan this week came on the heels of similar large-scale success in the region as UNESCO named Kiribati's Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) a new, natural World Heritage site. The designation makes PIPA's 408,250 km2 the largest marine World Heritage site on the planet, and a natural climate change research laboratory that offers scientists many opportunities to study impacts of climate change, well into the future.
Working alongside other marine initiatives in the region (eg., the Coral Triangle Initiative, the IUCN Pacific Ocean 2020, the Micronesian Challenge) implementation of the Pacific Oceanscape will help to contribute to wider management of the Pacific Ocean, and organize the region on ocean issues with a holistic approach. The central Pacific contains some of the most pristine and robust coral reefs, islands, seamounts and marine systems remaining in the world today.
With formal adoption of the new Pacific Oceanscape, leaders now hope their demonstrated leadership and success in improving ocean health will spur replication among other governments and regions that depend on the many benefits of a healthy ocean for their own national wellbeing.
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