Restoring the health and prosperity of the Indian Ocean

In many areas ocean ecosystems are under stress. How can the ecological integrity of these areas be preserved and restored in light of a growing interest in the economic potential of sea-bed exploration, intensive fishing operations and increasing shipping activities? These are the issues explored recently at ‘the first conference of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) on the blue economy,’ attended by high-level officials and ministers of countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Ina van der Linde reports.

Step into the stretch of ocean at one of the many luxury beach resorts at Pointe aux Piments, north of Port Louis in Mauritius, the sea is dead. Here one can view the direct effect of coral bleaching of the fringing reefs: corals have turned white and died after expelling the algae that helped support them. Fringing reefs are reefs that grow directly from a shore.

On the same stretch of beach the first Indian Ocean Rim Association Ministerial Conference on the Blue Economy took place to discuss how to preserve and restore the ocean ecosystems and to promote collaboration and cooperation between countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The blue economy is a new comprehensive concept, incorporating the ‘ocean economy’, environment and sustainability to provide basic human. ‘Balanced economic development’ was the preferred term used by senior government officials and ministers from all countries bordering the Indian Ocean – all except Somalia and Pakistan – who participated in the conference that took place from 2-3 September.

The green economy – a core aspect of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 or Rio+20 – focuses on growth in income and employment driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, boost energy and resource efficiency and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. T blue economy takes this concept a step further: it advocates that a green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations.

From fish farming to ballast water
The September conference had much to talk about. Consider the issues: fish farming (aquaculture) to contribute to food security; the potential of renewable ocean energy; the impact of enormous container vessels on port congestion; ballast water, which is essential for safe and efficient modern shipping operations but which poses serious economic, health and environmental risks due to the multitude of marine species carried in ships’ ballast water; cooperation in security issues such as combating increasing piracy; gathering of big data to better understand the ocean economy; and sharing technology and knowledge to cooperate and to grow their economies.

From the outset IORA was not a body to lay down rules for Indian Ocean Rim countries, says secretary-general K V Bhagirath, Ambassador of the Republic of India. In the IORA Charter it expresses the principle ‘to seek to build and expand understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation through a consensus-based, evolutionary and non-intrusive approach’. The Charter states that there are no laws and binding contracts. ‘Compliance with consensus-based decisions remains without any rigid institutional structure to specify any rules and regulations.’
Without the option of enforcement of ‘rules’, it raises the question of conflicting interests of sustainability, versus economic interests, growth in income and employment.

Agreements on sea-bed mining
Dr Lyndon Llewellyn, research manager of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is pleased with what the conference has achieved. A long list of agreements was reached that reinforced the importance of the sustainable development approach. This includes doing sustainability assessments that evaluate the environment, social capital growth in addition to economic return – a triple bottom line assessment – and clear mechanisms to ensure benefits flow to communities.

The issue of sea-bed mining for minerals, oil and gas and the threat of damage to the environment were of special concern. Participants endorsed the establishment of strong legal and governance regimes prior to engaging in seabed mineral or hydrocarbon [oil, gas] development activities.

South Africa has much to offer in terms of knowledge and expertise in the blue economy, says Commander Tsietsi Mokhele, CEO of the South African Maritime Safety Authority. It has long years of experience in seabed mining (De Beers) and in oil and gas exploration through PetroSA, which operates the world´s first gas-to-liquid (GTL) refinery at Mossel Bay, using some of the most environmentally friendly processes ever developed. Other expertise is in deep-sea fishing (think I&J) and in the repair and maintenance of ships.

Mokhale is upbeat about progress made in South Africa’s plans for the blue economy, as set out in Operation Phakisa. Phakisa is a Sesotho word for ‘hurry up’. A series of work sessions or laboratories, with representatives from the government, business, labour, civil society and academia, are working on projects that aim to unlock the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans. According to the Presidency, the country’s oceans have the potential to contribute up to R177 billion to gross domestic product by 2033.

The first implementation of Operation Phakisa is led by the Department of Environmental Affairs, and focuses on four priority sectors: marine transport and manufacturing, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture, and marine protection services and governance.

Reinforcing these priorities, the IORA conference culminated in a declaration of country leaders, committing themselves to, among others, the sustainable use of marine resources; cooperation in data collection on the ocean environment; sustainable development of the ocean economy, cooperation and networking; funding of different projects; the empowerment of women and micro, small and medium enterprises; and cooperation and a favourable business environment.

And as for restoring the previously rich coral reef heritage of the northern shores of Mauritius, Dr Daniel Marie, principal research scientist at the Mauritius Oceanography Institute, holds out hope. There are concerted efforts to regenerate coral reefs in the Trou-aux-Biches lagoon on the northwest coast of Mauritius, and although the process is in its early stages, there are encouraging signs that these exquisite undersea gardens can be regenerated.

Encouraging too are efforts in creating a sustainable blue economy. It all comes down to ‘joining hands’ as expressed by the wise octogenarian and Mauritian prime minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth: ‘The ocean economy, due to its broad outreach, cannot be sustainably developed in isolation…  Let us share our knowledge, expertise and resources in the fields of seaport and shipping, offshore hydrocarbon and minerals, fisheries and aquaculture, and marine renewable energies.’  

Author: Ina van der Linde, science journalist and editor, Human Sciences Research Council.