MY interest in the Ocean, and its ecosystems and crucial resources, was probably initiated by my time in the Royal Navy, and this was more than 40 years ago, and has only deepened over the intervening years.
There is now, at last, an increased awareness of the plight of the Ocean, its intimate connection to us and our survival and the enormous amount that needs to be done. Even 10 years ago, tackling the many and mounting pressures on the marine environment was still a relatively unusual endeavour, certainly when compared with the efforts geared to protecting life on land.
It is at least heartening that there now exists a large number of collaborative processes and initiatives in relation to, among other things, sustaining and rebuilding fish stocks, the steps towards tackling the problem of the progressive, and increasingly omnipresent, pollution of the ocean with plastic debris and the establishment of marine protected areas – some of them absolutely vast.
The trouble is that the problems we face are not only enormous; they are also systemic and inter-related. Their remedy can only be found by building a consensus across a wide range of stakeholders and communities.
But along with knowledge and partnerships, decisive action is required. An example of this is the difficult decision Canada took 25 years ago to protect the Northern cod stocks on the Grand Banks by closing a fishery that had all but collapsed due to mismanagement and overfishing.
This ended more than 400 years of fishing tradition and put over 30,000 people out of work overnight. But, while this decision was unimaginably painful at the time, it has worked and the cod stocks are slowly increasing and this demonstrates that given a chance, and with some brave decisions, the Ocean can recover its health and by doing so generate employment and economic growth.
Surely we must take equally far-sighted steps to deal with plastic pollution or illegal and over exploitative fishing, or, indeed, ocean acidification, especially as our ability to fine-tune and accurately monitor implementation has been hugely enhanced by advances in satellite capability?
It does seem that this combination of increasing awareness and the availability of new tools has led to a clearer determination to act, both within countries and globally. On the world stage the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals has created new platforms against which our efforts can at least be judged while, at the same time, encouraging an integrated approach to problem-solving.
Yet while we should be relieved that the health of the Ocean is now understood, alongside rainforests, to be one of the essential prerequisites for our physical and economic survival, and I’m afraid I really do wonder if the Ocean’s fragility is yet truly grasped and how susceptible it is to the impacts of our economic activities?
As many of you know so well, the eight million tonnes of plastic that enter the sea every year - through our own doing I might add - is now almost ubiquitous. For all the plastic that we have produced since the 1950s that has ended up in the ocean is still with us in one form or another, so that wherever you swim there are particles of plastic near you and we are very close to reaching the point when whatever wild-caught fish you eat will contain plastic. Plastic is indeed now on the menu!
Faced with such damaging effects on the ocean from plastic waste from the throw-away, convenience lifestyles of many around the world, it is, I believe, utterly crucial that we transition to a circular economy.
A circular economy allows plastic (along with many other substances) to be recovered, recycled and reused instead of created, used and then thrown away. On our increasingly crowded planet this economic approach has to be a critical part of establishing a more harmonious relationship between humankind and the ocean that sustains us all and also provides a mechanism for the benefits of a sustainable Blue Economy to be reaped.
For the Blue Economy is not only what happens in or on the sea, it is in reality all the economic growth that is derived from or affected by the sea, its ecosystems, its coastline and the coastal hinterland.
The fact that the “Blue Economy” has entered the development lexicon a should be welcomed. However, we must never mistake it for a new frontier for endless economic exploitation, but rather remember that it is the ecosystem that ensures our survival.
Coral reefs are perhaps the clearest litmus tests we have to gauge progress relative to the impact of an unsustainable Blue Economy. These incredible ecosystems host about two-fifths of all marine species on just two per cent of the seabed, they protect many vulnerable coasts from storms, are nurseries for the young of commercially valuable fish and provide food and livelihoods for more than one billion people.
Coral reefs’ economic value is, then, truly vast, at least while they are still intact. The fact that we seem to have catastrophically under-estimated their vulnerability to climate change, acidification and pollution and that significant portions of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s Eastern coast have been severely degraded or lost over the last few years is both a tragedy and also, I would have thought, a very serious wake-up call.
Are we really going to allow ourselves the dismal comfort of accepting that in the long run we will only be left with a tiny fraction of them?
And so it is absolutely vital, it seems to me, that we create sustainable Blue Economy agendas that take truly integrated approaches to improve ocean and therefore planetary health as part of strategies that also seek to meet the overwhelming challenges of poverty reduction, population growth, food and water security, the circular economy based on resource-efficiency and the huge elephant in the room of accelerating climate change.
Although there is some movement in this direction, arguably the sense of urgency needed to tackle these issues is still lacking.
If the unprecedented ferocity of recent catastrophic hurricanes is not the supreme wake-up call that it needs to be in order to address the vast and accumulating threat of climate change and ocean warming, then we – let alone the global insurance and financial sectors – can surely no longer consider ourselves as part of a rational, sensible civilisation.
The Prince of Wales delivered a keynote address at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta. This is an edited version.