Ocean protection is a global issue that needs an international response. Step in the Commonwealth, whose Adviser on Oceans Governance, Jeff Ardron, explains the leading role the organisation is playing with its Blue Charter in the latest issue of Overseas.
Why was it decided the Commonwealth should play a role in better managing our oceans?
46 of the 53 Commonwealth countries have a marine coastline. Over a third of the ocean under national jurisdictions is Commonwealth. So, our collective interest in the global ocean is significant. In June 2017, the Commonwealth Secretariat organised a side-meeting at the first UN Oceans Conference in New York. There, the Secretary-General posed the question: should the Commonwealth be doing more to address ocean issues? The response was a resounding ‘Yes!’ Maritime countries are all facing similar challenges. The idea of cooperating to meet shared global commitments resonated deeply with those present. Subsequently, in April 2018, the Commonwealth Blue Charter was adopted unanimously and enthusiastically by Commonwealth Heads of Government.
How does the Blue Charter fit within the larger principles and values of the Commonwealth Charter?
Our tagline is ‘Shared ocean, shared values’, because the Commonwealth Blue Charter explicitly commits members to applying the 16 principles of the Charter of the Commonwealth to meeting ocean-related commitments. The two are very tightly linked together. Additionally, it commits members to take a principled, science-based approach.
How is it possible to balance the need for conservation and the economic demands we place on the ocean?
It can be a challenge, but it is not a new one. Some Commonwealth cultures have been living sustainably with the ocean for millennia. That said, I think that mistakes have been made in the past on various scales and we have the opportunity to learn from them. More recently, however, it has become evident that the pressures – and the stakes – have increased dramatically. It is the raison d’être of the Blue Charter to share experiences, what has worked and what has not, and to together develop good practices and approaches for both conservation and sustainable development.
What role do you play in heading up the efforts of member nations?
The member countries themselves have stepped forward to lead on issues important to them. So far, we have nine such action groups, with 12 countries leading or co-leading them. These Champion countries set the tone, the pace, and indeed the agenda. So, our role in the Secretariat is mainly to support these groups. For example, in May we will be hosting the first ‘All-Champions’ meeting here in London, to allow the Champion countries to come together, share progress to date, and to build internal and external partnerships.
How receptive have member nations been to the aims of the Blue Charter?
Very receptive. There is great interest in the Blue Charter and in joining its action groups. Any country is welcome to join any Action Group. This is all still quite new, and the action groups are at various stages of development. For example, the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (the Action group on marine plastic pollution, co-led by the UK and Vanuatu) has 24 members, whereas some others just getting started.
How was the topic of each Action Group chosen? Do you think these provide a good representation of the threats faced and opportunities offered by our oceans?
The topics are a result of Commonwealth countries stepping forward on issues of their own choosing. It is a very pragmatic way to sort through the ‘ocean of noble causes’ out there, and to zero in on those topics most likely to see meaningful progress. I think they do offer a representative selection of the sorts of issues facing us all, but naturally there are still many other topics that could be addressed. Coastal and small-scale fisheries, for example, are not currently covered. And while all Action Groups will be developing training materials, there is no single group yet established to look at education specifically, and issues such as encouraging girls and boys to study marine sciences. Nonetheless, the door for new groups is always open, and the nine to date are a wonderful beginning.
What achievements have been made since the introduction of the Blue Charter? Well, it is a bit premature to be trumpeting achievements. I would say that the very existence of these nine Action Groups is a very good sign that there is genuine interest in these areas, and that progress will be made. One of our next critical steps here in the Secretariat is to establish an independent mechanism to enable the funding of the Action Groups and their pilot projects.
Taking the example of the Clean Oceans Alliance, which tackles plastic waste, there are so many facets of the problem to explore, such as microplastic in fish stocks, improving plastic recycling in member nations, or banning some plastics from sale altogether. Where do member nations start when trying to work together to tackle these issues?
There are many ways that Commonwealth countries are responding. Last year, Vanuatu, which is co-leading this Action Group, began by banning plastic bags, straws, and styrofoam food containers (styrofoam cannot be recycled). They are now looking at expanding the restrictions to other things such as plastic cutlery, disposable nappies, and so forth. It is hard to know where to begin, true. But then again, once you get started, things have a way of just falling into place.
To quote from the sagacious Lewis Carroll, The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ch. 12)
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