Nagoya 24th October – “A war against the oceans is a war against ourselves”.

Today was our first major presentation. We met in the Marriot Hotel, Nagoya to discuss the coral reef crisis. The group of legislators was quite small but important. We had representatives from The Peoples Representative Council of Indonesia, thew world’s most important nation in terms of coral reefs. Also present was the French Ambassador for the Environment, Ambassador Thebault and a member of the National Assembly of France. Despite being  a European state, France is the third most important nation in terms of the percentage of coral reefs it hosts, entirely in its’ overseas territories. We also had a member of the National Assembly of Palau, a small island state in Micronesia, number 13 in the world of coral reefs, just after Britain at 12, with its’ overseas territories, such as the Chagos Archipelago. Also present were parliamentarians from India, Sri Lanka and of course Japan, which has coral reefs in the region of Okinawa.

Adam Matthews, the General Secretary of GLOBE kicked off proceedings, followed by a Member of the UK Parliament, the Right Honourable Barry Gardiner. Barry asked everyone to imagine we were in a world where we were at war with the sea. We could not fight it using conventional means but instead we resort to poison, suffocation, and the leaching nitrogen and phosphorus into rivers to cause eutrophication and deadly algal blooms. This would be a slow process but over time the oceans would be like an organism with withered limbs. Imagine being able to eliminate all the enemy cavalry. He asked us to imagine we could target particular species by overfishing to destabilise the healthy structure of the oceans, to cause a rise of slime. Finally we would  wage an aerial war pushing CO2 into the atmosphere, raising temperature and making the oceans acidic. This would alter the pattern of the oceans natural cycles, destroying the seedbeds the oceans use to manufacture our enemies. No great general could inflict greater damage on the world’s oceans than we’re already doing. A perfectly deadly strategy. Barry then went on to describe that only the oceans are not our enemy. They are our friend, our partner, our sustainer. A war against the oceans is a war against ourselves.

I could not have put it better myself. Destruction of the oceans, the Earth’s natural capitol and a critical component of its’ life support system, was indeed a war against ourselves. This was followed by Ambassador Thebault. He stated that the 10th Conference of Parties for the Convention on Biodiversity was the time to start a stronger international reaction to protect marine ecosystems. He described how, even at this stage, some states were not in agreement and through self-interest were unsupportive of strong action to protect the oceans. He described how France had initiated ICRI, the International Coral Reef Initiative, in 1995 when 10% of the coral reefs of the world were under threat. Now that figure was much higher and the survival of tens of millions of people who are dependent on these ecosystems was at risk. ICRI had done marvellous work in protecting coral reefs and there were some very encouraging projects such as the Coral Triangle Initiative. GLOBE, with its Action Plan for Coral Reefs was in a unique position to gain powerful support from legislators to push through measures to protect coral reefs where needed. ICRI and GLOBE could clearly be partners.

The GLOBE Action Plan for Coral Reefs was the plan my team and I had been working on for months (see – then look under events and finally under Nagoya Forum).  It outlined a strategy for Legislators to work to improve coral reef resilience to climate change impacts and was the second part of our Marine Ecosystems Recovery Strategy (MERS).

France’s speech was followed by a moving speech by the Honourable Noa Idechong, Palau. He described how Palau is very tiny but its’ culture, food, income all comes from coral reefs. Palauan men go out to the reef to learn about the sea, currents and tides as part of entering adulthood. The Palauan people had done very well at living off the coral reefs for 2000 years. However, recently small islands had started to have problems. Bleaching has demolished 40% of Palau’s coral reefs. The communities of the islands were unsettled and could not understand what was going on. Now another bleaching event was occurring. There was great urgency to take action on climate change and to improve coral reef resilience globally.

Then it was my turn to give my talk on the state of coral reefs. I described how these ecosystems only occupied 0.18% of the area of the oceans but harboured 25% of all marine fish species and perhaps a third of all marine species (estimates from 600,000 to 9 million species). Direct human impacts have degraded these systems and lowered their resilience. Now the twin climate change impacts of bleaching, which I described yesterday, and ocean acidification threatened to destroy coral reefs by the end of the century. The oceans have been doing a service to mankind by mopping up a significant proportion of the CO2 we have been producing. This CO2, when it is absorbed by seawater, produce carbonic acid, lowering the pH of seawater. Already this process has changed the ocean pH by 0.1 units. This does not sound like alot but represent 30% more hydrogen ions in seawater and these react with calcium carbonate to produce bicarbonate. Calcium carbonate, specifically the form called aragonite, is what coral skeletons are built of. They require seawater 3-4 times saturated with calcium carbonate to grow naturally. The removal of calcium carbonate from seawater was a direct threat to coral reefs. The slow-down of the growth of reef-forming corals now detected in various parts of the world was probably a result of acidification.

We then heard from Imen Meliane, a good friend of mine, from The Nature Conservancy, a large US NGO. Imen spoke about measures to improve the resilience of coral reefs through the reduction of direct human pressures such as overfishing, comprehensive watershed management policies and coastal zone planning. The implementation of carefully planned Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)was a major feature of her talk and she showed some very encouraging and excellent examples of where such projects had taken place.

Following some questions and the raising of points Indonesia the presented the next session. They raised some very good points. People often were not aware of the damage that they were doing to the ecosystem and a much more holistic approach was required to manage marine ecosystems. Particularly problems arose around coastal development and overfishing. The representative from Indonesia emphasised the need for education and awareness raising of the issues associated with climate change and direct human impacts on the oceans. Legislators themselves were often not aware of environmental issues and needed a particular effort in awareness raising and training as they were often neglected.

Then Leah Karrer, from Conservation International, another large NGO, spoke about how marine protected areas and coral reef management could really benefit local communities. There is often opposition to the idea of setting aside areas of the ocean as MPAs as fishers fear that they will loose catches. Her work showed that fishers and communities from areas where MPAs had been set up in places like South America actually benefited in terms of income and livelihood diversification from the recovery of the oceans. Such projects had many additional benefits, including the building of community relations and a capacity for self-determination and governance at the local level.

We also heard about efforts to protect coral reefs in India and the new initiatives to protect large areas of the oceans around France’s territories. These were progressive and very encouraging new programmes. We also heard an interesting scientific presentation on reef connectivity in Japan by Prof Naduoka and the day was completed by Dr Samuel Frankhauser who described the mechanisms for financing coral reef conservation initiatives. This was a particularly useful talk for many of the parliamentarians in the audience who had asked throughout the day on how coral reef conservation actions could be funded.

Finally, I summarised the GLOBE Action Plan for Coral Reefs and it was accepted with a few small amendments related mainly to education and outreach. The call for 30% of reefs to be set aside as no-fishing zones created some consternation amongst some parliamentarians who thought this would be difficult for people to accept. I defended this with the fact that studies indicated that somewhere around this level was where maximum benefit could be derived from coral reef protection with minimum disadvantage arising from closing off too much seabed and displacing fishing elsehwhere.

The day’s work was followed by an informal reception at the hotel. I then went to bed very tired.

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