17 Jul 2022
Pacific ahead of the curve on challenges facing Indian Ocean
At the just concluded Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Suva, leaders launched the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. Cornerstone priorities include climate change action, protecting the region’s ocean health and sustainably managing ocean resources. This is a big step forward, reflecting the concerted efforts of our Pacific neighbours to work together to build a strong and resilient region.
The island states of the Indian Ocean share many of the same challenges faced in the Pacific, including in avoiding strategic instability.
But the Pacific is ahead of the curve on many of these issues and has a lot to offer other island states. Australia is well placed to help facilitate a conversation between the Pacific and Indian Ocean island states on a range of shared challenges. We can help bring our neighbours together to share experiences and potential solutions. Through this, Australia could help build a wider neighbourhood that is stable and resilient.
There are a lot of experiences to be shared. For one thing, the Pacific represents the gold standard of how to combat illegal fishing, helping to protect its tuna industry worth some $2.5USbn a year. In contrast, the Indian Ocean is a hotspot for IUU fishing, with many island states struggling to effectively govern their ocean areas.
There are opportunities in the Indian Ocean to collaborate with the Pacific in establishing a central management of reporting data, as happens through the regional surveillance centre in the Solomon Islands. The Indian Ocean could also benefit from the experience of Pacific fisheries bodies on the development of harmonised minimum terms and conditions for access, that help to prevent one country being played off against another.
Another area for cross-ocean exchange is in preventing, reducing, and eliminating marine plastic litter. The marine litter problem in the Indian Ocean is getting worse, with the Covid-19 pandemic increasing medical plastic waste.
The Pacific is a big recipient of marine plastics. But there are plenty of things working well. Some 73 per cent of Pacific nations have policies banning single-use plastic and polystyrene, and soon the total commitment will be over 90 per cent of all states and territories in the region. At the UN Environment Assembly in March, 175 countries agreed to develop a binding treaty on plastic pollution that will cover the life cycle of plastic from production to disposal. An intergovernmental negotiating committee has the ambition of completing its work by 2024. It has a mandate to develop binding and voluntary measures, set targets and produce mechanisms for tracking progress and ensuring accountability.
Pacific countries will play a strong role in ensuring any agreement is responsive to the needs of the region and its measures are effectively implemented. They can co-operate with Indian Ocean states to advance those aims. There’s been a real coherence by the Pacific as a region when it comes to marine litter. Lessons can be shared with the countries of the Indian Ocean, especially on changing consumers’ behaviour.
The Pacific can also learn from the Indian Ocean experience. Ocean science is critical in responding to Pacific challenges, including from sea level rise, ocean warming and fisheries management. But the Pacific Islands lack offshore ocean research vessels and sampling equipment, and have limited onshore laboratory equipment. There’s only one oceanographer in the region working for a national government. The Pacific Islands are reliant upon foreign research vessels and depend on foreign expertise for much of their ocean science requirements.
There’s never been a coherent examination of the Pacific as is now occurring in the Indian Ocean through the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition. This is a global co-ordination effort that is advancing the understanding of the physical, biological and climate role of the Indian Ocean by bringing together institutions and scientists under a multinational framework designed by stakeholders from within the region.
The Pacific can adopt a similar type of overarching ocean science program. It could be a once-in-a-generation initiative to have a lasting legacy aimed at improving livelihoods and sustaining the region’s ocean environment.
Last week’s endorsement of the long-awaited 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific presents an ideal opportunity to kickstart greater dialogue between the Pacific Islands and the Indian Ocean on the pressing issues of ocean development and management. Australia can play a key role in helping to bring our island neighbours together and help build prosperous and resilient island communities across the Indo-Pacific.