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Ocean economy is crucial to political and strategic relations

By Anthony Bergin and Marcus Haward

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop introduced the idea of the blue economy in 2014 at a Perth meeting of senior ministers and officials from Indian Ocean rim countries.

The concept centres on marine economic activity as a driver of sustainable growth. The oceans will become an economic force this century, driven by new technologies that make it economically viable to tap marine resources and demographic trends fuelling the search for food security and alternative sources of minerals and energy.

The ocean economy should be a core feature of our broader political and strategic relations in the regions in which our neighbours have extensive maritime interests, including large offshore zones. They have an urgent need to build their capacity to manage these areas.

At the heart of our promotion of blue growth in the Indo-Pacific should be fisheries diplomacy. Australia has direct interests in fisheries in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans.

If our fisheries engagement is done well, it will facilitate stronger relations to support our regional economic and security objectives.

If regional fisheries were to become seriously depleted, we’d be under considerable pressure to provide greater economic support for many of our island neighbours, with long-term implications for political stability.

The importance of fisheries as a key economic driver in the Pacific continues to grow. The total value of the tuna catch in the western and central Pacific is about US$5.8 billion ($7.7bn).

The tuna sector provides up to US$400 million in direct revenues and makes an equally significant contribution to employment and investment. For the small island states, the sector is a potential economic game-changer.

Ensuring the sustainability of the stocks is now a key focus for all regional stakeholders. That includes dealing with the problem of unregulated and unreported fishing through improved monitoring measures, such as more observers on fishing boats and catch documentation. Most of the offending is by vessels that have already paid for licence fees or vessel fishing days.

Fisheries experts agree that cuts will be needed to maintain the key species in this fishery at a level that is biologically sustainable and able to produce maximum economic returns in the long term. Pacific fisheries are in many ways at a tipping point, and the next few years will be critical.

We are well placed to help in capacity building, fisheries science, maritime surveillance and enforcement and in facilitating regional discussions about sustainable returns from fisheries.

This is particularly relevant in the Indian Ocean. The problem of illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean make it like the wild west.

We can play a greater role in strengthening the key body, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. Our membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association also provides a useful way to advance our fisheries and broader political interests in the Indian Ocean.

Australia should engage with India and Indonesia to build on shared interests in eastern Indian Ocean fisheries.

Our fishing industry operates in the Southern Ocean, catching valuable Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish.

As yet, there are no Australian vessels fishing for krill, a key species in the Southern Ocean, and the world’s largest under-exploited marine resource stock. China is rapidly expanding its krill operations. We will need to increase our scientific efforts to inform decisions regarding the acceptable levels of krill harvest.

To strengthen our Indo-Pacific fisheries diplomacy and leadership we should appoint an ambassador for fisheries to make the most of the political and economic opportunities for the region. Fisheries attaches should be appointed in key posts to support the ambassador’s work.

China has the world’s biggest distant-water fleet. It’s rapidly expanded its Pacific tropical longline fleet to be the largest. But the Chinese fleet does not provide accurate logbook and observer data in key fisheries.

China is developing a market for southern bluefin tuna, one of Australia’s most valuable fisheries. A key challenge with the recovering SBT stock is the threat of unregulated catches on the high seas. China has expanded its fishing considerably in two key SBT areas: in the Indian Ocean and north of New Zealand. But it isn’t a member of the organisation that manages this fishery. We should include fisheries issues on the agenda of our annual bilateral strategic dialogue with China.

We need to strengthen programs in regional fisheries management. We should fund a women in fisheries development program to empower women in fisheries work in the region.

Our regional fisheries engagement is an important means by which we advance our broader foreign and security policy objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

We should reinvigorate our position as a respected influence in regional fisheries affairs. It’s not just about the fish.

Anthony Bergin and Marcus Haward are the co-authors of Net Worth: Australia’s Regional Fisheries Engagement, released today by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published on The Australian

Originally published by: The Australian on 14 Mar 2016