Oct 22, 2017 Last Updated 8:27 AM, Oct 20, 2017

READING through the world’s pledges for the protection of our oceans during the first-ever Oceans Conference that Fiji and Sweden co-chaired at the United Nations headquarters in New York in June, one could easily be lulled into thinking that our oceans have been saved finally. Members of the UN by the end of the five-day meeting had made a total of 1372 commitments towards ocean protection and marine conservation, keeping in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

These commitments are purely voluntary and not legally binding. Even the Call to Action declaration released as the conference’s outcome document could only “call on stakeholders” to remember their voluntary pledges and see to their implementations “on an urgent basis.” The Dominican Republic has the largest number of voluntary pledges about the ocean at 43. Fiji as co-host submitted 16. Its bigger neighbours of Australia and New Zealand put up 20 and 22 commitments respectively on saving the ocean and its resources.

Conservation measures directed at the South Pacific Ocean totalled 313. The North Atlantic Ocean had the most, some 449 voluntary commitments. Protection of marine species such as sharks, sting rays, turtles, whales, dolphins and spawning groupers were among the voluntary pledges that Fiji submitted. It also announced nationwide plans to reduce the use of plastic bags, and put in place a strategy to protect its coastlines from storm surges and land loss.

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Whales - starvation or not?

WHALES are likely starving and entering dangerously shallow water in a desperate search for food. Whales are not immune to starvation.

The 650-plus pilot whales beached at Farewell Spit, New Zealand, provide ‘canary in the coal mine’ warning of the state of the world ocean. There are a number of possible whale stranding scenarios. Whales are air breathing mammals. Mammals have instinct to avoid drowning.

A sick and weakened mammal can be expected to instinctively seek shallow water to avoid drowning. Healthy whales appear to follow even one suffering in their pod. Animal behaviour in a herd of goats is similar. First-hand experience reveals when one goat in a mob of 25 is shot in a culling event the rest of the mob sometimes just stand there apparently stunned.

When another is shot the mob might remain without running away. Then another and another and another can be shot and the remainder will continue to stay until only a few remain, then those run away. Shark or killer whale mauling of whales likely also leads to weakness and stranding.

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Reef pillaging by Vietnamese Blue Boats seeking lucrative returns from beche de mer harvesting is being picked up under oceanic fisheries surveillance networks. As FFA’s Director James Movick told Pacific fisheries and legal officials at a joint workshop with SPC on May 1 and 2, reef pillaging is more than a blatant criminal act, but has tragic environmental impacts.

The crimes against Pacific nations and devastating impacts to reef species and bio-diversity from Vietnamese Blue Boats takes more than beche de mer from our waters. These violations appear to be escalating and spreading to more Pacific nations as the boats deplete targeted species in one area and move on to the next reef, without regard for territorial borders and maritime boundaries.

Moreover, the illegal harvesting of valuable species such as beche de mer (BDM) essentially robs these economic opportunities from local harvesters and their increased sale on the market is likely to depress prices that legal harvesters and traders are likely to receive.

The deadly damage from harvesting also brings in the threat of invasive species through bilge water or other carriage by the boat and crew. Affected countries so far, covering half the FFA members and New Caledonia, has met with sympathy from the full membership and other metropolitan countries with all keen to step up extra-regional surveillance and intelligence capacity to try to better spot, track and apprehend these boats.

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Whales

Surviving in a changing ocean

THE humpback whale was hunted almost to the point of extinction last century, with around 200 of a population that was once around 10,000, remaining across the entire region when the hunting ended in 1978.

Hailed as one of the world’s most successful conservation stories, the population has recovered today to around 3,000 whales. These whales no longer face the harpoon, but are affected by new threats, especially plastic litter, marine noise, and climatic changes.

In April, 11 Pacific countries signed the Pacific Whale Declaration, calling for strengthened whale conservation across the region, at the Whales in a Changing Ocean conference hosted by the Kingdom of Tonga which is fitting given its historical role. When King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga banned all whaling in Tongan waters in 1978, he ushered in a new era of conservation for this iconic species.

The Declaration highlights the need for continuing efforts to conserve Pacific whales in the face of emerging and ongoing threats. “The growing population of the humpback whale is proof that by working together, the Pacific islands can achieve great results. But we cannot rest here: the threats whales face continue to grow,” said Mr Michael Donoghue of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). 

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Message from the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP)

OUR Ocean is an inherent part of who we are as a Pacific people, and in June our Pacific voices will amplify our tribute and respect of this valuable resource that plays such a significant role in our lives.

Faced with the daunting task of sustainably managing our interactions with the ocean and its resources, the need for integrated ocean management is vital. Our Pacific leaders recognised this when they endorsed the regional Framework for a Pacific Oceanscape in 2010. The global community will now confront the task of integrated action on oceans in New York at the United Nations Ocean Conference on SDG14 - Life Under Water in June 2017.  

The ocean carried our ancestors as they journeyed across the Pacific Ocean to settle distant islands where our cultures and communities were formed. The ocean is the foundation of our cultural traditions and beliefs and helps sustain our Pacific livelihoods, bringing our communities economic revenue and sustenance. Ocean currents are the lifeblood of the planet, mediating our climate, connecting countries and economies, and land and sea ecosystems.

We hope our ocean will be the link that binds all nations together in effectively tackling the planet’s multiple challenges on climate change and the decline of critical ecosystems and natural resources.

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