Photo credit: UN - Photo: 2017

The Ocean Conference: Challenges & Opportunities for Sri Lanka

By Dr Palitha Kohona*

“The oceans have now become a central focus of a range of discussions in UN bodies involving a number of major UN initiatives, including those relating to the SDGs and climate change. While it is easy to get ensnared in the confusion of the UN’s myriad political pursuits, practical initiatives that have an immediate effect on the daily lives and livelihoods of millions, such as those on the oceans, tend to be glossed over by the mainstream media.”

COLOMBO (IDN) – The landmark United Nations Ocean Conference will take place in New York from June 5 to 9. The close connection between the health of the oceans and climate change now being widely accepted, the outcomes of this conference are likely to have a significant impact on UN activities on the oceans and on climate change for many years to come.Trout.

The Prime Minister of Fiji, Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate of Sweden, Isabella Lövin, will chair the conference. Prime Minister Bainimarama will also Chair the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in Bonn in November 2017.

The oceans have now become a critical focus of discussions involving a number of major UN initiatives, including those relating to the SDGs and climate change. While it is easy to get lost in the confusion of the UN’s disparate political work, practical initiatives that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions tend to be missed by the mainstream media.

Sri Lanka, was part of a small group of countries that pushed intensely for the oceans to be given due recognition during the negotiations (2013 – 2014) that resulted in the adoption of the list of 17 SDGs. The need to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources is now enshrined in SDG 14. The concept of the blue economy, economies dependent on the oceans and seas, has become the overriding factor in the thinking of many small coastal states.

For Sri Lanka, the ocean is of critical import and it could become the major basis of its national economy. The country, located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, possesses a territorial sea of 21,500 km2 and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 517,000 km2. The EEZ, with its rich fisheries and other biological resources, is more than seven times larger than the land area of the country above the sea level.

Under the UN Law of the Sea Convention, Sri Lanka is entitled to claim another vast extended area of seabed as its continental shelf. The claim for the continental shelf was submitted to the UN in 2009 and, if approved, Sri Lanka will gain an additional seabed area which would be 23 times that of the island’s land area. This extended land mass beneath the waves is thought to be abundantly rich in non-living resources, such as hydrocarbons and a range of economically important minerals.

Already, the country is extracting mineral sands from an endless accumulation on the north eastern coast. Seismic surveys conducted during the preparation of Sri Lanka’s claim, suggest the possibility of significant, exploitable concentrations of natural gas in the shelf area.

At present, fisheries are the major economic resource exploited from the waters around Sri Lanka and they account for 1.8 percent of the GDP. The total fish production in 2014 amounted to 535,050 metric tons valued at Rs.176,239 million (1,350 million dollars). In 2014 the fisheries sector enjoyed a growth rate of 4.5 percent.

Around 272,140 active fishermen are engaged in both marine and inland fisheries and 1,023,780 members of their households depend on the income generated through fishing and related activities. The fisheries sector provided Rs. 34,797 million (266.5 million dollars) of export earnings in the year 2014 and it accounted for 2.4 percent of all export earnings. Given the overwhelming Lankan preference for canned fish, there still remains considerable potential for expanding the fish canning industry. About 32,025 motorised boats and 21,963 of non-motorised boats are operated in marine fishing. 

As Sri Lanka is extensively dependent on the ocean for large-scale employment creation, wealth generation, foreign exchange earning, trade, etc, UN initiatives relating to the oceans and climate change acquire a particular importance.

Tourism is fast becoming a preeminent source of foreign exchange earnings for the country and the availability of hundreds of miles of largely unpolluted sandy beaches, warm seas, a myriad water sports and leisure activities, etc are a magnet for leisure seeking visitors. With visitor numbers exceeding two million in 2016, the potential of this sector for further expansion is enormous. Naturally, the health of the ocean around us, especially the impacts of climate change, becomes a critical for this growing and potentially lucrative industry.

The Indian Ocean also carries the second biggest accumulation of floating plastic waste in the world. The problem of this floating continent must be addressed and the long term health of the oceans must be ensured. It also creates economic opportunities for countries such as Sri Lanka. The technology exists for converting waste plastic to useful products, inter alia, to diesel.

The geographical location of Sri Lanka also creates immense economic potential. Located approximately 20 nautical miles to the north of one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, Sri Lanka can exploit it’s location to gain significant economic benefits while simultaneously shouldering the responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of the vessels passing so close to its shore. Much of the energy needs of the Far East passes along this sea lane.

As the Economist observed, the construction of the Hanbantota harbour was a far sighted and strategic move by Sri Lanka which would enable the country to become the central cog in the sea borne trading network of the South Asian region. Judicious and long term planning and management would result in obtaining the maximum benefits from a location with which nature so generously favoured Sri Lanka. Historically, the island was a critical mid point in the lucrative sea borne trade between China and the Far East on the one hand and Western India, the Arabian Peninsula and further afield on the other. Over 200 sunken vessels so far located off our shores bear testimony to the extent of this trade. 

In the 15th century, Admiral Cheng He paid three visits to the country during his voyages of discovery on behalf of his emperor. More contemporaneously, China’s One Belt One Road initiative embraces Sri Lanka. Any global rules developed for the protection and conservation of marine life, such as whales and dolphins and rules on ocean pollution and safety will have implications for Sri Lanka.

Against this background, the Ocean Conference and any follow up action initiated by the UN will be of direct significance for Sri Lanka and many similar countries. Historically, the country played a seminal role in developing the law of the sea and other UN initiatives on the oceans and seas. Given that Sri Lanka’s interests are shared with those of many similar countries, we have the opportunity to explore possibilities for advancing our interests together with other like-minded countries at the UN.

The UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi, has said, “Oceans and their resources have a vast potential to unlock growth, wealth and support the implementation of Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but human activity has taken a toll on ocean health,” adding that oceans connect people, markets and livelihoods and are a conduit for 90percent of world trade.

In the global context, fisheries have attracted the attention of policy makers and UN agencies for some time now. It is a sector that generates employment and income and is also threatened due to human activity. According to the 2016 edition of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 31percent of global fish stocks have been estimated to be exploited at biologically unsustainable levels. It has also been estimated that the ocean economy generates over 350 million jobs world wide, while over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal resources for their livelihood.

Marine and coastal resources are worth over 3.6 trillion dollars a year, providing employment, food security and protein to many of the world’s poorest people. The oceans are known to contain over 200,000 species but many millions remain uncatalogued. Increasingly patents based on genetic material extracted from the oceans are being registered. The weight of the above statistics alone makes it imperative for humanity to adopt measures for the sustainable management of one of its critical resources, the oceans and seas.

Over fishing is a persistent problem, despite decades of effort, especially by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and regional bodies, to manage fisheries so that stocks are conserved at sustainable levels. The damage done to the cod fishery in the North Atlantic and to orange roughy off New Zealand through over fishing has been a hard learnt lesson but one not heeded everywhere.

The fleets of more advanced nations tend to ravage the fisheries resources in less regulated developing country EEZs. The daily invasion of Sri Lanka’s territorial sea, including protected areas, by thousands of Indian fishing vessels, some deploying destructive illegal fishing methods, has caused tensions to rise between the two countries.

Target 4 of SDG 14, which addresses the health of oceans, specifically recognises the need to end over fishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The FAO estimates  the cost of IUU fishing between 10 billion dollars and 23.5 billion dollars annually in unlawful or undocumented revenue, representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish. It has also been estimated that the poor management of fisheries squanders roughly $80 billion annually in lost economic potential.

(When the EU suspended the importation Sri Lankan fish and fish products, they alleged that the local fishing industry was tainted with IUU fishing, although other more political factors may have influenced their decision. Indian fish exports to the EU, curiously, were not affected by this suspension).

Target 4 also envisages the end of destructive fishing practices and the implementation of science-based management plans to restore fish stocks by 2020, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yields as determined by their biological characteristics. Taking its cue from this target and its obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to develop a comprehensive fisheries management plan. It must also invest resources for acquiring the equipment, including vessels, for the enforcement of its management rules and laws.

Subsidised fishing fleets are a menace contributing to the rapid depletion of many commercially valuable fish species and are nullifying efforts to  restore global fisheries, causing ocean fisheries to generate $50 billion less per year than they otherwise could. These fleets are mainly from more advanced countries, including members of the EU.  The development of more efficient monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for coastal states is a must. But many of them lack the resources to acquire the technology and the skills for the purpose. The transfer of more advanced technology has been a constant demand by developing countries over the years.

UNEP research suggests that human generated CO2 is an increasingly critical factor affecting the health of the oceans. Due to the oceans’ high capacity for absorbing CO2, (The oceans, being the most prolific. carbon sink, absorb about 30percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide.) there is about 60 times more CO2 in the ocean than in the atmosphere. The oceans also have a mitigatory impact on climate change. Nevertheless, upon contact with seawater, CO2 immediately reacts with water to form carbonic acid. Although considered a ‘weak’ acid, it is an acid which ‘donates’ hydrogen ions to the ocean, lowering seawater pH in the direction of more acidity.

A vast array of ocean plant and animal life, from tiny but extremely common phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, to coral reefs and various shellfish and mollusks, form their shells by transforming calcium and carbonate from seawater into calcium carbonate.  As seawater pH drops, the availability of carbonate ion declines dramatically. Below certain levels, it literally becomes unavailable, making it impossible for these organisms to develop their shells and skeletons.

Furthermore, since gases such as CO2 dissolve more readily in colder water, ocean acidification will progress much more rapidly in the Arctic  and  Antarctic  waters, where a number of species are already under stress. Under a lower pH ocean future, increasing numbers of calcium carbonate fixing organisms could face dramatic losses or even extinction. This would have consequences throughout the marine food chain as key ‘links’ were diminished or extinguished. The medium to long term consequences to the fisheries and tourism industries could be devastating.

CO2 saturated sea water may contribute to raising temperature levels, again causing damage to reefs, forcing fish stocks to migrate to waters with familiar temperatures  not to mention the melting of the ice caps. The economic and social consequences are only beginning to be understood.

Coastal regions, mangroves, tidal flats, etc., are often referred to as nurseries for fish and other marine life. SDG 14. aims to conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas so vital for the survival of this vast source of marine life. The IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016 adopted a resolution requiring the protection of 30 percent of oceans by 2030.

MPA expansion is imperative for biodiversity and ecosystem health and for the global economy. A 2015 study  concluded that the economic rate of return on money invested in expanding MPA networks is as high as 24 percent. The UNDP currently has around 40 MPA projects in 37 countries, and clear evidence has emerged on the linkage between marine biodiversity conservation and social and economic benefits.

A successful model for other developing countries has been developed on the eastern sea coast of India. A project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) established an active community-based eco-tourism programme, sensitively exploiting the potential of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary, with benefits for the biodiversity of the park and the local communities. A 4km long raised wooden walkway enables visitors to enjoy guided walks through the biodiversity rich mangrove forests.

A portion of the fees collected is diverted to a Community Fund used to address agreed local development needs. Women and men are trained in alternative livelihood activities. Many tourist accommodations are run by women trained for the purpose. Globally available resources, such as the GEF, though inadequate, if judiciously used, could benefit many conservation needs without sacrificing community developmental demands.

Against this background, the UN General Assembly ad hoc committee on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) recommended in February 2015 (later endorsed by the GA) the commencement of negotiations on an international legally-binding instrument to conserve and protect BBNJ, with the negotiations framed by four issues, following a historic compromise between the EU and the G7 and China grouping at the UN: (1) marine genetic resources, including the question of benefit sharing (2) measures such as area-based management tools, including marine protected areas (3) environmental impact assessments (4) capacity building and the transfer of marine technology to developing countries. Negotiations on the preparatory process have begun.

Interestingly, least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS) which will pay a heavy price for the depletion of ocean resources and for the consequences of climate change, are significantly less visible and heard in regional and international meetings on ocean related issues, while the authorship of academic literature on these topics is dominated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states (97percent). Their interests do not necessarily coincide with those of LDCs and SIDs.

Progress towards meeting SDG target 14.5 on MPAs is slow. So far only less than 4 percent of the world’s oceans are protected, mostly in areas under national jurisdiction. Given that the marine areas beyond national jurisdiction account for nearly 95 percent of the oceanic water volume, the areas under protection are not even the tip of this iceberg.

* Dr Palitha Kohona is the former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York, Co-Chair of the UN Committee on Biological Diversity Beyond National Jurisdiction 2010 – 2015, President, of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the UN General Assembly, 2014, Vice President, UN Oceans Regular Process 2014, President, UN Indian Ocean Commission 2010 – 2015. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 April 2017]

Photo credit: UN

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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