In the depths of the Pacific Ocean, 11,000 km beneath the sea surface, lies the deepest known point in the Earth’s seabed known as the Challenger Deep. On this pitch black patch of the Mariana Trench, temperatures are just above freezing, and the ocean pressure is comparable to a one kilo weight on a single fingernail.
Here, just a few weeks ago, undersea explorer Victor Vescovo returned from the deepest ever solo expedition, only to report that he witnessed a plastic bag and candy wrappers, floating glibly on the ocean floor.
On this year’s Ocean Day, this disturbing find reminds us of two facts. The first is the scale not only of marine pollution, but the plethora of challenges the world faces in terms of ocean health. The second is the incredible opportunity we have to cooperate on a global scale to protect and manage one of our most precious natural resources.
A historic step towards united action
The Commonwealth covers a third of the world’s coastal oceans and nearly half of its coral reefs. The majority of the world’s small island developing states (SIDS) are Commonwealth, although they can be more accurately dubbed ‘large ocean states’ due to their vast oceanic domains or exclusive economic zones. Forty-six out of 53 Commonwealth members have a coastline, and three of the remaining landlocked states border great lakes.
For these countries, the ocean is everything – it represents their home, their livelihood, their history, culture, and their future.
Yet this future is under unprecedented threats. Global warming is causing ocean heatwaves that bleach kilometres of reefs; foreign trawlers are depleting fish stocks – often illegally; sea level rise is flooding homes and salinising the soil, and plastic junk is polluting waters and beaches while contaminating food supplies.
In response, 53 world leaders adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter in April 2018, unanimously agreeing to actively co-operate to solve ocean-related problems and achieve sustainable ocean development.
Progress and milestones
To date, 12 countries have stepped forward to lead on nine different topic areas or ‘action groups’. These include: Sustainable Aquaculture (led by Cyprus), Sustainable Blue Economy (Kenya), Coral Reef Protection and Restoration (Australia, Belize, Mauritius), Mangrove Restoration (Sri Lanka), Ocean Acidification (New Zealand), Ocean and Climate Change (Fiji), Ocean Observations (Canada), Marine Plastic Pollution (United Kingdom, Vanuatu) and Marine Protected Areas (Seychelles).
Over 25 countries have signed up to these action groups, and counting.
Action-oriented and member-driven, the success of the Blue Charter is dependent on the level of passion or commitment from the countries to set goals, forge partnerships, and mobilise together. We believe this creates deeper and more enduring actions.
Key progress made by countries in implementing the Blue Charter includes:
A package worth up to £66.4 million pledged by the UK to fight marine plastic pollution through the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance;
Increased bans or restrictions on single use plastics, with more than 30 Commonwealth countries now taking action on plastic pollution;
Commitments by Seychelles and the UK to protect 30 per cent of their ocean waters by 2020;
The world’s largest conference on the sustainable blue economy hosted successfully by Kenya in November 2018, with more than 18,000 registered delegates from 184 countries;
Action group meetings hosted in UK, New Zealand and Canada on marine plastics, ocean acidification and ocean observation, to discuss concrete actions, tools and cooperation under the Blue Charter.
We have also received tremendous encouragement from the private and philanthropic sectors, for example:
British supermarket chain Waitrose has donated £500,000 to the Association of Commonwealth Universities to support Blue Charter fellowships for research on marine plastic pollution;
Ocean research organisation Nekton is partnering with the Commonwealth to build ocean scientific research capacity and knowledge in Indian Ocean countries. This includes ground-breaking deep sea exploration in Seychelles waters;
Bloomberg Philanthropies is partnering with the Commonwealth to direct their ocean conservation efforts to support member countries.
The first Commonwealth Blue Charter ‘All Champs’ conference on 18-21 June 2019 will bring together champion countries with international partners to strategise on more concrete actions to address our ocean priorities, and help achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14.
The momentum for action is rising, and there is a hope that the Commonwealth Blue Charter will help spur lasting global change towards sustainable ocean governance.