The Commonwealth Blue Charter: Ocean Action Report
An Ocean of Opportunity
The Commonwealth Blue Charter: Ocean Action Report
This progress report was released on 16 June 2022 by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Oceans and Natural Resources Section, with notable contributions from David Sheppard, the Director of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP); Matthew Goldie-Scot, the Managing Director of the humanitarian strategic consultancy firm Thuso; and, Nina Schoonman, Consultant at Thuso. The purpose of this report is to illustrate the impact of the Commonwealth Blue Charter thus far under its 10 Action Plan Groups, and what will be its objectives and priorities moving forward.
Why is an ocean action agreement by the Commonwealth of Nations even necessary? Simply put, the world’s oceans are essential to billions’ livelihood, yet increasing human activity jeopardises this precious resource at an almost-irreversible pace. No nation can tackle such dire challenges alone. For this reason, the Commonwealth, which covers approximately 36 per cent of the world’s ocean territory and 45 per cent of global coral reefs, has a unique and advantageous position to unite its nations and make a lasting positive impact. The Commonwealth has a strong presence (45 per cent of the entire association) of small island developing states (SIDS) that are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change due to which the Secretariat has been actively advocating for ocean sustainability through smaller initiatives before the bloc’s efforts were amalgamated into an express agreement in April 2018, the Commonwealth Blue Charter. The Commonwealth Blue Charter is an agreement between all 56 members of the Commonwealth of Nations to unite and collaborate on tackling ocean-related challenges and uphold their commitments to sustainable ocean action, especially under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, “Life Below Water” to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. The main mechanism of the Charter comprises 10 Action Groups, each of which has a distinct but modular purpose to scale action, build partnerships, close funding gaps and train on-the-ground personnel on collective solutions. These 10 Action Groups are entirely driven by member-states, particularly 16 “Champion” states that have stepped forward to spearhead the programmes as listed below:
Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance: Tackling marine plastic pollution
Champion states: The United Kingdom and Vanuatu
Coral Reef Protection and Restoration: Protection and revival of coral reef habitats
Champion states: Australia, Belize and Mauritius
Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods: Preservation and restoration of mangrove ecosystems and mangrove inclusive Ramsar sites
Champion state: Sri Lanka
Marine Protected Areas: Commitment to the “Thirty by Thirty Target” to fully protect the 30% of global MPAs under Commonwealth Jurisdictions by 2030
Champion states: Barbados and Seychelles
Ocean Acidification: Improving knowledge and capacity to tackle increasing acidification and enacting legislation
Champion state: New Zealand
Ocean and Climate Change: Incorporating ocean sustainability into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)
Champion state: Fiji
Ocean Observation Action Group: Deployment of Argo floats; disbursement of “GOA-ON in a box” observation kits
Champion state: Canada
Sustainable Aquaculture: Good governance training and development of Strategic Roadmap on Sustainable Development of Aquaculture
Champion state: Cyprus
Sustainable Blue Economy: Implementing Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) initiatives and the goal to sustainably manage 100% of marine waters by 2025
Champion states: Antigua and Barbuda and Kenya
Sustainable Coastal Fisheries: National Plans of Action (NPOAs) to protect ocean life and implement the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing
Champion states: Maldives and Kiribati
Four years have passed since the beginning of this shared journey towards ocean restoration; during this time, 62 case studies and 15 thematic toolkits on good practices and ocean action were developed, 21 Action Group meetings were hosted across the globe, 13 online training courses for over 400 officials from 40 member countries were conducted and 286 officials have registered on the Commonwealth Blue Charter Knowledge Hub which provides access to over 200 external training modules via the Training Database, 19 informational videos and more than 100 profiles for potential funders providing ocean action opportunities worth £126 million. In this period, 5 “All Champions” conferences were held of which 4 were conducted online and 1 was arranged in person in London from 18 to 21 June 2019. Praising the Blue Charter, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Oceans dubbed its initiatives and achievements a “wave of ocean action” vital for the six strategies that comprise the roadmap of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
The report provides a closer examination of the progress of the 10 Action Groups thus far, primarily drawing data from progress reports by Champion countries, desktop-based research undertaken by member nations and supplemented by literature review done by the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the Commonwealth Ocean Action Survey responses collected from twenty Commonwealth countries including Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Cyprus, the Kingdom of Eswatini, Fiji, Jamaica, Kiribati, Malaysia, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom. 75 per cent of survey respondents described the Commonwealth Blue Charter as useful in expediting legislation on ocean action and gave them a platform to improve collaboration with fellow Commonwealth nations and other external ocean action institutions. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, 55 per cent of respondents shared that the Blue Charter galvanised their capacity to tackle marine climate change problems; for instance, representatives of Kiribati stated that their staff now has the skills and tools needed for monitoring and evaluating ocean resources as well as for the development of in-country project proposals and new initiatives. In a similar vein, officials from the Bahamas shared that their government has also initiated programmes to build capacity. In Belize, the Ministry of Blue Economy was recently set up. The development of a Blue Economy Policy and Strategy is in the making, showcasing their commitment to bettering their own institutional capacity in tandem with other Blue Charter Champion states.
Commonwealth Secretariat’s Blueprint for Ocean Action
The Commonwealth Secretariat has been working diligently and tirelessly since the inception of the Blue Charter to provide a versatile range of assistance to Commonwealth nations on their journey towards ocean sustainability. The Secretariat has assisted Champion states during their meeting preparations and community-building programmes, particularly by drafting terms of reference (TOR) and plans of action (PoA). Additionally, the Secretariat has helped convene Action Group members through the 4 virtual and one physical “All-Champions” conferences from 2019 to 2022 and also helped arrange the 12 knowledge exchange webinars (all of which had a minimum of 120 participants) which were recorded and distributed across the Blue Charter membership. In support of the Secretariat, the Association of the Commonwealth Universities established the Blue Charter Fellowship Programme, to be funded by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and supermarket chain Waitrose & Partners, to sponsor 48 gifted young researchers from across the Commonwealth nations.
Amongst the most notable contributions of the Secretariat are the six official Blue Charter partnerships established with:
1) Bloomberg Philanthropies: Mike Bloomberg, the CEO of the leading business and financial data insights company, Bloomberg LP, set up the philanthropic organisation in 2006 to provide resources for the betterment of five focal areas: the environment, public health, the arts, innovation in government and education. Through this partnership, Bloomberg Philanthropies will offer a powerful and broad range of data analytics to avail for ocean action and its Vibrant Oceans Initiative can aid the Commonwealth in the fight against pollution and harmful fishing practices to protect oceanic ecosystems. In 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies co-hosted the Commonwealth ‘All-Champions’ week wherein Champion states were introduced to 21 partner organisations that made five-minute “pitches” on how they could support them in their efforts toward ocean conservation.
2) Nekton: Nekton is a not-for-profit scientific research organisation and registered charity dedicated to protecting and exploring the world ocean, established in 2015. The organisation works closely with several Commonwealth governments to incorporate science into policy-making and offers in-country training to aspiring scientists.
3) Exxpedition: Exxpedition is a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2014 that conducts all-female sailing research voyages with an aim to create an international network of multidisciplinary women dedicated to exploring solutions and pathways for marine sustainability. Currently, they are partnering with the Commonwealth Blue Charter to investigate causes and find solutions for ocean plastic pollution.
4) Arizona State University’s Allan Coral Atlas: Developed in 2017 with the help of coral reef scientists from around the world and powered by Arizona State University, the Allan Coral Atlas is a powerful tool created to safeguard and nurture coral reef habitats. In partnership with the Commonwealth Innovation Hub, a dynamic and interactive coral reef map is being developed which will be uploaded to the latter’s website.
5) The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI): A global partnership association of nations and international organisations that was founded in 1994to preserve coral reefs and related marine ecosystems around the globe. Despite its non-binding nature on members, the initiative has played a critical role in bringing awareness and its impact has been acknowledged by the United Nations in multiple official documents and speeches. The Commonwealth Secretariat is a proud member of the ICRI and collaboration with the Blue Charter is currently underway.
6) The Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA): The ORRAA’s mission is to attract at least US$500 million of investment for coastal and ocean change and generate a minimum of 50 novel financial products by 2030 to protect 250 million people living in coastal areas that are at most risk to the adverse effects of ocean climate change. The organisation is the only international body that brings together insurers, banks and such financial institutions to collaborate with governments, academic institutions and policymakers on ocean climate action. The Commonwealth Secretariat is a member of the ORRAA and is collaborating with the multi-sector body in driving transformation and global awareness in response to ocean-related risks.
While these 6 partnerships are the most notable, smaller but still significant collaborations also include the Secretariat’s partnership with the US think tank Stimson Center to pilot a new “rapid assessment protocol’ to identify climate vulnerability risks in coastal communities. Developed under the Stimson Center’s Coastal Resilience Vulnerability Index (CORVI) Project with generous support from the United Kingdom’s Blue Planet Fund via the ORRAA, the rapid assessment protocol was piloted in Barbados, Kiribati and Sri Lanka and it was observed that the risk assessment time was shortened from 18 months down to 3 months. By identifying the political, financial and ecological risks of climate change, the protocol is designed to equip Small Island and coastal countries with knowledge and training for improved decision-making and better strategies for climate-smart investments. The Commonwealth Secretariat also kicked off a collaboration project with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the Satellite Applications Catapult, Maxar, and Planet to create the first-ever virtual competition called “Hack the Planet” to stimulate international discourse on developing innovative and modern concepts on ocean sustainability with the use of technology, more specifically the use of satellite and big-data analytics. The 2021 winners of the competition were invited to work with the Secretariat and its partners’ ocean and satellite experts to actualise their ideas.
In the Caribbean region, the Secretariat is synergising with the Champion state of the Sustainable Blue Economy Action Group, Antigua and Barbuda, the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and the University of the West Indies to establish a Centre of Excellence on Oceanography and Blue Economy as a regional research hub specifically for institutional capacity building. With the support of the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, the Hon. Gaston Browne, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s head of Oceans and Natural Resources, Dr Nicholas Hardman-Mountford teamed up with the Secretary-General of the ACU, Dr Joanna Newman, to visit the Caribbean nation for a scoping mission to further advance plans for the Centre of Excellence with the aim to gradually expand the research areas of the institution.
Concurrent with the establishment of these partnerships, the Commonwealth Secretariat has put significant emphasis on broadcasting the Blue Charter and magnifying Commonwealth voices on the global stage. The Secretariat created a public website dedicated to the Blue Charter which has thus far received over 50,000 visitors and accumulated 170,000 page views; this website also hosts just about 400 training modules, 19 informational videos on the Blue Charter, 69 op-eds and press releases aside from the 62 written case studies previously mentioned, and quarterly newsletters to keep stakeholders updated on the progress of ocean action initiatives. Aside from publicly available data, the Commonwealth Blue Charter Knowledge Hub has a password-protect forum for registered Action Group officials to communicate with each other, report current findings and highlight knowledge gaps and training opportunities to be added to the Funding and Training Opportunities Databases using ten thematic toolkits designed to reflect the current pool of knowledge in each Action Group. An additional five cross-cutting toolkits were later added to the Hub to cover the topics of Maritime Security, Ship Registries, Social Sciences, Gender, and the development of Robust Indicators.
The Secretariat periodically reminds champion states to capitalise on the £126 million international funding for ocean action projects; this funding has been distributed to 56 separate funds covering 11 different purposes. Recently, the Secretariat gathered a consortium of experts on ocean-climate finance which was established as a joint venture between the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub and the Commonwealth Blue Charter. With considerable financial support from the United Kingdom, the consortium officially began operations in October 2021 and worked until the end of March 2022, successfully collaborating with Commonwealth policymakers on drafting proposals for fundraising ocean-based adaptation and mitigation initiatives which were subsequently listed under the nations’ NDCs as stipulated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2020, the Secretariat conducted five curated online training courses for ocean leaders on Project Proposal Development; Increasing Stakeholder Engagement; Bridging Divides between Science and Policymaking; Remote Sensor Building for Mangrove Monitoring; and, GIS Mapping of Mangroves (for technical experts). Upon positive feedback from these sessions, the recorded courses were converted into self-paced online training modules and further expert seminars were conducted in 2021 and are continuing into 2022 including new material on:
- Coral Reef Mapping
- Effective Compliance for Coastal Fisheries
- MPA Implementation
- Effective Governance of Sustainable Aquaculture
- Addressing the Impacts of Ocean Acidification through Mitigation, Monitoring and Policy
- Using R to Analyse and Interpret Ocean Observational Data
- Commonwealth Blue Charter Introductory Training on Blue Carbon
The Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance (CCOA)
By far the largest Action Group, the Clean Ocean Alliance has consolidated synergetic relationships with most of the Commonwealth nations and regional organisations supporting the delivery of various programs. These initiatives include The Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP) under which several Marine Litter Action Plans and water quality research are being developed, the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) in partnership with the World Economic Forum through which National Plastic Action Partnerships are being forged across the globe, and the Tide Turner Plastic Challenge Badge (TT) which has educated over 330,000 young individuals about plastic pollution and equipped them with the tools to adopt more sustainable personal lifestyle changes.
Studies estimate that 79 per cent of all plastic materials, globally, are still neither recycled nor reused and approximately 90 per cent of global plastic waste is not being managed sustainably. As such, the impetus to ban the global use of plastic has been a focal point, for Commonwealth nations. In 2018, Canada headed the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter which was formally endorsed during the forum’s Summit in June 2018, to agree upon binding parameters for the ambitious endeavour to reduce plastic waste and pollution through sustainable and circular management of plastics throughout the products’ lifecycles and recycles. Thus far, 8 Commonwealth nations have joined the initiative. Another notable and recent development has been Rwanda’s monumental sponsorship of the global resolution to end plastic pollution, adopted at the United Nations (UN) Environmental Assembly that gathered in March 2022, with full support from all Commonwealth member states.
41 member nations have made progress in regulatory instruments to cut down on single-use plastic products and their waste. Examples of such policies include Malaysia’s “Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018-2030”, Singapore’s “Zero Waste Nation” initiative to facilitate recycling and introduce a pneumatic waste conveyance system, and the United Kingdom’s new plastic packaging tax which came into force on 1 April 2022. As of this year, 28 Commonwealth nations have implemented a ban on single-use plastic carrier bags; Bangladesh, Rwanda and Samoa are some of the member states who have banned single-use plastic bags at points of import or production whereas Kenya has banned it for both points and also at the point of sale. Eswatini, a landlocked nation, implemented its own Control of Plastic Bags Regulations in 2021 aiming to cut down on plastic use and better manage waste disposal mechanisms. Research conducted for this report shows that Commonwealth small island states have been more likely to ban the use of single-use plastics than their counterparts and makeup 27 per cent of nations globally that have imposed bans on plastic-carrier bags. Aside from initiatives implemented nationally, sub-national jurisdictions within several Commonwealth states such as Canada and Australia have also taken up their own respective programs for banning plastics. Despite the uptake in such policy decisions, the question pertaining to their efficacy in reducing plastic pollution holistically remains, partially due to the fact that the majority of the aforementioned implementations have been launched recently and over and above that is the challenge of enforcing the changes where alternatives are neither available nor cost-effective, as of yet.
Multiple Commonwealth nations, for example, Barbados, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago have created deposit return schemes (DRS) to tackle the issue of implementing plastic bans by incentivising the return of plastic waste through financial reimbursements. Within the Commonwealth, small island developing states (SIDS) are the most well-positioned and have been the most proactive to phase out the use of plastics, for example, the Maldives, under its National Single Use Plastic Phase Out Strategy, are the first nation within the Commonwealth to ban the production and sales of single-use plastics as of 1 June 2022. Others such as Zambia and Singapore have introduced extended producer responsibility schemes (EPRS) to give industries economic incentives for industries to recover and reuse plastic waste. The Canadian government is using its Strategy and Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste to develop a roadmap and timeline for production management to gradually discontinue single-use plastics, facilitate their infrastructural needs and educate the consumer markets on how to target plastic pollution leakage points. In a similar vein, India officially established a partnership with the informal waste collection sector to collect, sort and find ways to reuse plastic rubbish.
Aside from plastic waste management, Commonwealth nations are participating in global ocean waste management missions for instance the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-up as well as making individual efforts. For example, Belize is the first nation in the entire Caribbean region to develop a National Marine Litter Action Plan to reduce trash expelled into oceans, in particular, fishing gear. Studies reveal that 5.7 per cent of fishing nets, 8.6 per cent of fishing traps and 29 per cent of fishing lines are left in the World Ocean annually yet they only contribute 10 per cent of global marine waste. 8 member nations (Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu), including the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat, have joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) to break the waste wave and recover ocean health. Additionally, 10 member states have signed the UN Environmental Programme’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to establish a fully-circular economy for plastic; 23 Commonwealth states are party to the 63-state-strong UN Clean Seas Countries; and, 24 are signatories of the London Protocol to prohibit the export of waste for ocean dumping and incinerations at sea.
As touched upon briefly in the previous section, the problem of plastic waste does not end at the stage of ban implementation. Effective and consistent waste collection and management need to first occur on a national level before proper and concerted efforts can be made to tackle plastic waste flowing into oceans and other water bodies. Furthermore, incorrect methods of refuse collection can lead to ‘plastic leakage’ whereby collected plastic waste deposited in open dump sites remains a hazard, both for the ocean and the inhabitants living nearby which is why policymakers must bear in mind the risk of public and industry backlash if bans and waste collection initiatives are poorly implemented. Therefore, bans must be treated as one part of the process of national and international waste management and equal due consideration should be given to creating alternatives for plastic products such as single-use plastic food packaging, otherwise, there may unwarranted food and water security risks that could add more problems into the mix.
Industry opposition is amongst the most frictious obstacles to even well-designed and well-implemented plastic bans as companies tend to be compliant in the short term but then revert back to plastic in the medium-and-long term. In some cases, bans have even resulted in plastic bags being sold on the black market which is why bans must not be coupled with punitive measures from the start without proper alternative arrangements already in place. It might be more positively impactful if policymakers introduce market incentives and alternatives to ease consumers and industries into discontinuing plastic before gradually introducing penalties and other prohibitive measures.
Next steps: Priorities and Opportunities
In some ways, plastic cannot be completely phased out due to which it is crucial for governments and change-makers to understand that aside from market incentives and bans to discontinue plastic use, it is a must to adopt circular economy solutions to ensure that all plastic products and materials are being maximised upon and recycled. Commonwealth nations can learn from initiatives like the Plastics Innovation Challenge, New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize and the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge which are engaging with scientists, entrepreneurs and industry experts to capitalise on technological advancements to innovate new plastics that are easily recyclable by design.
Circling back to market incentives, it is recommended for Commonwealth states to promote value-added tax (VAT)/goods and services tax (GST) exemption on non-essential products that utilise minimal or no plastic materials across entire supply chains. This is can prove to be extremely effective if implemented correctly and consistently as it will provide strong incentives for inter-industry competition to innovate and will also bring about changes in consumer behaviour without having to charge them any additional costs. Simultaneously, no exemptions should be offered for products that use unnecessary plastics nor for any products for which no waste management system is in place. For those companies and individuals that struggle with weak waste management infrastructure, which is especially the case in Asia, the continent that produces almost 81 per cent of global ocean plastics, investment firms such as Circulate Capital and the Singapore-based and industry-funded Alliance to End Plastic Waste are examples of corporate partnerships that can be availed to fund infrastructural gaps. Such opportunities paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can be powerful mitigators of environmental detriments.
Aside from ocean bodies, recent studies indicated that over 1,000 rivers globally account for 80 per cent of annual plastic emissions which is approximately 0.9-2.7 million metric tonnes, yearly. The most polluting are small urban rivers including the Meghna River (Bangladesh), Brahmaputra River, Ganges River (flows through both Bangladesh and India), the Indus River (flows through both India and Pakistan) and the Niger River (Nigeria). River clean-ups are hence an essential first step for the disruption of plastic flows into bigger marine bodies and buying time for nations and policymakers to develop and implement robust and leak-proof ocean waste management. Eventually, end-of-pipe solutions such as advanced final-stage wastewater filtration and microplastic removal technology can be deployed to create clean, efficient and sustainable water sources. Moreover, plastic pollution coming from fisheries and fishing gear can be tackled through the use of trace-and-trace systems and can offer economic incentives for the proper and sustainable disposal of worn-out or recovered gear.
Coral Reef Rejuvenation
The 37 coral reef-bearing states of the Commonwealth comprise an estimated 45 per cent of global coral reef zones, of which 33 member states have protected parts of their reefs to some extent. However, some studies suggest that only 8 member nations have been successful in protecting over 40% of their respective reef zones. 31 reef-harbouring nations have provided monitoring data to the Global Report on the Status of Coral Reefs (2020) and as of yet 16 of the bloc’s nations have begun coral reef restoration within their borders. The Action Group’s progress was presented at the December 2019 General Meeting of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) which was commended and taken as an example of how important knowledge exchange and collaboration are to monitor rehabilitation progress. In recognition of the Action Group’s efforts, the Commonwealth Secretariat was welcomed as a member of the ICRI in December 2021. Along with the Commonwealth Secretariat, 17 Commonwealth countries became members of the ICRI and have thus far made significant contributions to the institution’s Resolution on Coral Reef Restoration and Rehabilitation.
The nations of the Commonwealth have made notable strides through national plans of action as well. Belize has 40 per cent of its coral reefs covered within marine protected areas (MPAs) and community-driven reef rehabilitation in the Laughing Bird Cave National Park has successfully increased coral cover in the area by 10-20 per cent; on top of that, 23 in-situ coral nurseries have been stationed across the country. Although Mauritius only has about 4 per cent of its total reef area under MPAs, it has impressively restored 275 m2 of damaged or bleached reef colonies at Trou au Biches and the Blue Bay Marine Park. Back in 2018, Mauritius also implemented the Community-based Coral Culture Project to advocate for coral farming by fishers and small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and is presently in talks with the Adaptation Fund Board on creating heat-resistant “super corals” as a pathway for coral restoration; this initiative is also in the works to be implemented in Seychelles. A Coral Reef Network has been organised to coordinate all marine restoration initiatives in Mauritius to enhance adaptive capacity. Within the Commonwealth, Australia has the most coverage, approximately 85 per cent, of coral reef areas under MPAs inclusive of the Great Barrier Reef with 82 Master Reef guides employed to inform the public of the critical need to conserve coral reef colonies and inspire them to change their lifestyles for the betterment of ocean sustainability.
In recognition of their efforts and contributions, Commonwealth nations have won several international awards including the Secretariat for Climate Change Lighthouse Activity Award 2017, the Earthshot Prize in the Ocean category(1) and the Global Environment Fund SGP Women as Agents of Change 2018. The Action Group’s initiative to improve the monitoring and mapping of coral reefs was also lauded during the interactive virtual event that took place on 25 May 2020 which was arranged by the Commonwealth Secretariat in collaboration with Vulcan Inc on World Oceans Day 2020.
Notwithstanding 230 international policy instruments, 73 binding global and regional instruments as well as 591 written commitments to both, directly and indirectly, rehabilitate and conserve coral reef ecosystems and reverse the adverse impact of anthropogenic activity, these ecosystems continue to decline at alarming rates. While countries, especially champion states, have been proactive in national endeavours, the execution of protective and restorative courses of action at global or regional scales has been lacklustre. The key to identifying action gaps is extensive monitoring by local bodies that are then relayed to national, regional and ultimately global databases. These databases are crucial for the generation of international reports such as the Status of Coral Reefs of the World Reports by the ICRI’s Global Coral Reef Monitoring Program that inform management bodies across the globe of action gaps that need improvement. Acknowledging the limitations of human error in comprehensive reporting, image-based technology using “trained” artificial intelligence could help fill out data gaps in shorter time periods; for example, the Australian Institue of Marine Science, in collaboration with Fiji and Palau, designed the ReefCloud tool which was officially launched during the Our Oceans Conference 2022 that took place in April. This tool uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyse photographs taken of coral reef colonies and then interprets and relays the data directly to management bodies. Other tools that could improve reporting include big data analytics and underwater drones.
In a joint statement issued by the representatives of Australia and Belize, obstacles to effective management of coral reef restoration include weak governance, lack of awareness of the human impact on coral reefs and insufficient capacity for enforcement and compliance due to a lack of long-term commitment by governments to restorative efforts, particularly governments of nations with large Exclusive Economic Zones and/or territorial disputes. Many of these problems arise from a lack of funding and although the “coral funding gap” has been reduced by instruments including the Global Fund for Coral Reefs, much more will be needed for scaling coral restorative efforts.
At the heart of all challenges to coral reef sustainability, is climate change. Climate change has caused ocean acidification which has directly led to coral bleaching, eutrophication, infectious diseases and sedimentation all of which have the potential to cause irreversible damage and even endangerment of coral polyps. Therefore, restorative efforts rely on the commitment and meaningful actions to reverse climate change.
Next steps: Priorities and Opportunities
The global anthropause caused by COVID-19, studies have shown, has had a short-term positive impact on the air and water quality across the globe as well as fish density and coral health. However, while global tourism industries most definitely have a negative effect on ocean environments, ecological tourism and sustainable fishing efforts can be a better alternative to safeguarding coral heritage without adversely impacting the tourism industry that many Commonwealth small states rely on for revenue and economic development. Action Group members remain dedicated to their coral restoration goals and have proven their drive even during the pandemic such as in the case of the grounding of the MV Wakashio on the beach of Pointe d’Esny in Mauritius where the government diverted resources to manage the oil spillage and prioritise the protection of the coral reef colonies. Moreover, the Republic of Mauritius is planning to include coral farming, restoration and nursery development and management into its Economic Recovery Programme which is recommended by the Blue Charter for all nations to follow suit to the best of their respective capabilities. To support Blue Charter Action Groups, the Commonwealth Secretariat Database of Funding Opportunities offers a catalogue of funding sources that member states can utilise to scale their programmes as well as a Training Database which provides courses and toolkits on reef restoration for practitioners.
To galvanise local and adequately resourced policies such as Belize’s Resilient Reefs Strategy under the UNESCO and Great Barrier Reef Foundation Resilient Reef initiative, extensive policy gap analysis is required to extract indicators of policies common to successful local, regional and international coral reef rehabilitation initiatives to gain a better understanding of how these three categories intersect and interact which could help build a cohesive network to add on to work done by the UNEP and ICRI. For example, member nations of the Action Group can take note of the best practices from local initiatives such as Mauritius’ Coral Reef Network and Australia’s Reef 2050 Plan and compare and extract synergies with global instruments like the Global Fund for Coral Reefs to devise more resource efficient pathways for coral restoration. Aside from the creation of new programmes, existing initiatives such as the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) should be revived and developed, and technologies including the Allen Coral Atlas should be more fully leveraged to close gaps in reef monitoring and reporting.
Lastly, it must be understood that coral degradation is a direct symptom of climate change and cannot be taken as a solution for the immense stress that it, along with overfishing and marine pollution, has caused. Therefore, safeguarding existing healthy reefs and their proactive management is of utmost importance and must be a prerequisite for risk-informed and lasting colony restoration. Moreover, using a framework of “nature-based solutions”, collaboration amongst Action Groups managing MPAs, Ocean and Climate Change, CCOA, Ocean Acidification and Mangrove Ecosystems is essential to address the stressors that directly cause coral reef degradation.
The Livelihood of Mangrove Ecosystems
42 of the 56 Commonwealth nations have mangrove forests. Of these 42 nations, 38 have launched projects for their protection; 13 have thus far successfully brought at least half of their mangrove forests under their supervision. 9 member nations are currently members of the multi-partner initiative aiming to build a worldwide knowledge base on mangroves, Mangroves For The Future (MFF), which aims to gain investment into coastal ecosystem conservation. Under the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group, these 42 nations have jointly endorsed 44 national commitments to the rehabilitation and preservation of mangroves and have developed 15 project proposals under the Action Group. Several Commonwealth member countries have integrated these commitments into their respective national policies; in 2018, Belize implemented the Protection of Mangroves Regulations whereby fees are to be levied on any party that alters the state of mangrove patches, India’s NDC and ‘Green India Mission’ on eco-restoration and afforestation, Kenya’s National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan 2017-2027 and Mozambique’s Strategy and Action Plan for Mangroves. Other notable initiatives include mangrove restoration in the Matang Reserve in Malaysia and the Sundarban Reserve in Bangladesh.
Of all 42 mangrove-bearing Commonwealth nations, Sri Lanka has risen to the occasion as the Champion state. Several institutions including the government as well as private and non-governmental organisations have been actively involved in working on the conservation and rejuvenation of these ecosystems whether by awareness campaigns, funding research projects and conducting training workshops or scientific restoration programmes across the nation, among other efforts. In January 2020, the nation endorsed the National Policy on Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation of Mangrove Ecosystems in Sri Lanka with a supplementary action plan emphasising “conservation, research, land-use conversions and sustainable resource extraction and restoration parameters” to ensure that the policy is sustainable in the long term. The National Guidelines for Restoration of Mangrove Ecosystems and Propagation of Mangroves were also issued to help achieve the objectives and strategies set out in the National Policy. As of August 2021, the South Asian nation is home to 21 true mangrove species and various mangrove-associated flora and fauna with over 18,000 hectares of mangroves under firm environmental protection.
Several case studies have been done across the Commonwealth nations involved in the Action Group. A notable case involving mangrove restoration in Point Lisas in Trinidad and Tobago using an evidence-based approach for restoration of the coastal area’s topography revealed that upon the completion of hydrologic restoration, mangrove recolonisation naturally progressed with minimal replanting and supervision needed. This and other research findings of Trinidad and Tobago’s Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) were reported to the Commonwealth Ocean Action Survey, the latter of which stated that these results will greatly aid studies looking into mangrove replanting and will also lay the foundation for the nation’s carbon trade. The Tahiry Honko mangrove carbon project in Mozambique’s locally managed marine area (LMMA) overseen by the Velondriake community also revealed unprecedented potential benefits mangroves can bring to reverse the impact of climate change, especially in terms of reducing carbon footprints.
Between 2000 and 2012, 38 per cent of mangrove habitat loss was reported to be due to the cultivation of palm oil plantations and rice paddies crops, highlighting the detrimental effects that aquaculture, agriculture, and urban and coastal development on large and exploitative scales can have on mangrove ecosystems. Significant pressure cannot yet be exerted on nations due to the non-binding nature of regional and global policy frameworks such as the RAMSAR Convention, the World Heritage Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution, the International Tropical Timber Agreement, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea although they provide some measure of protection through trust mechanisms.
Globally, 75 per cent of all mangrove forests are not only unprotected but also overexploited and while existing protected areas and Ramsar sites have been successful in decreasing levels of mangrove degradation down to less than half as compared to non-protected mangrove forests, stakeholders of these protected areas reported lack of confidence in their adequate and consistent implementation to the Commonwealth Ocean Action Survey. This showcases how mangroves still remain susceptible to damage from inconsistent protection and climate change. Furthermore, restoration projects without a proper scientific methodology have been significantly less successful and on top of that, the projects that do have a science-based approach have only been successful when using monocultures of specific rapid-growing species of mangroves such as Rhizophora sp. and Avicenna sp. that tend to produce species with low biodiversity with limited blue carbon values that ultimately lead to an ecosystem with limited functioning and green value.
Next steps: Priorities and Opportunities
Holistic environmental protocols must become mandatory for all coastal development projects. For both new coastal development projects and existing infrastructure on coastlines where mangroves are prevalent and need to be restored, hydrologic restoration should be used as it is the most cost-efficient and practical method which is especially useful for member nations, such as the SIDS, that have high restoration potential scores and where mangroves comprise a large portion of their total forest area. For the maintenance of healthy and resilient mangroves and the implementation of thorough protective policies, it is, firstly, crucial for the communities in the vicinity of these forests to be very aware of the importance and utility of mangroves to their well-being and the well-being of their environment. Secondly, research on the biological and ecological functions and performance of different mangrove species under different conditions and methods of management is also pertinent to gaining a better understanding of the different types of species that could survive in the different environmental conditions of each of the 38 mangrove-bearing Commonwealth nations.
With the support of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Training Database, training in capacity building, general project management, and the technical methods behind the rejuvenation and maintenance of mangrove forests will remain a priority for the Commonwealth nations of the Action Group. Simultaneously, information exchanges between member countries to compare and contrast legislation and regulations pertaining to mangrove preservation and management to find the most optimum and strengthful regulatory regimes also remain at the top of the list of objectives. An equally, if not more, important objective for the Action Group is to arrange pilot projects to test and assess mangrove restoration procedures across the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, funding for such activities has thus far been insufficient and as such the Action Group is focussing first on gathering enough capital to execute these projects which may take precious time away from mangrove rehabilitation efforts. The Commonwealth Secretariat’s Database of Funding opportunities is an excellent source for the Action Group to find financial enablers; as mangroves are also the “poster child” for the valuation of ecosystem goods and services, it is hoped that there will be more than adequate incentive for environmentally conscientious contributors to help the Action Group in its commitment, especially with its synergies with other Action Groups also invested in the wellbeing of mangroves including the ones on MPAs, Ocean and Climate Change, Sustainable Aquaculture, and Sustainable Blue Economy.
Expanding Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
Only 8 per cent of the global ocean comes under Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
48 of the 49 Commonwealth nations that possess coastal territory comprising 36% of global marine waters, have dedicated MPAs. Of these nations, 30 have committed to the “Thirty by Thirty target” aiming to incorporate 30 per cent of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) into MPAs; 4 other Commonwealth nations, namely Barbados, Seychelles, the United Kingdom (including the British Overseas Territories) and Palau, have successfully encompassed over 30 per cent into MPAs already. By 2020, 7 other Commonwealth nations had covered 10 per cent of their EEZ in MPA under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Aichi Target and as of 2022, 6 Commonwealth countries have achieved ‘Blue Park’ status courtesy of the Marine Conservation Institute, an international organisation that recognises exemplary MPAs using the science-based ‘Blue Park’ standard for effective marine conservation.
In terms of regional and national frameworks, a considerable number of Commonwealth nations have made ambitious commitments under initiatives such as the Maldives’ Blue Prosperity Programme aiming to cover 20 per cent of EEZ into MPAs by 2022, Bermuda’s Ocean Prosperity Programme aiming to cover the same area of 20 per cent by 2024 and the Micronesian Challenge of conniving 30 per cent of near-shore marine resources. It is also interesting to note that half of the Western Indian Ocean nations partaking in the Great Blue Wall Initiative, a programme by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to protect marine biodiversity and promote ocean sustainability in the region, are East African nations belonging to the Commonwealth all of which are proactive and dedicated to the goal of increase the area under protection from the current 5 per cent to at least 30 per cent. Online, the MPA Action Group has been working diligently to develop action capacity; member nations, in collaboration with the IUCN and the Pew Charitable Trust, have been actively building upon the guidelines under the Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMS) and, with the help of the 2019 Nekton Deep Sea Expedition, are revamping The Marine Protected Area Strategic Management Framework to improve inter-Action Group strategic objectives, scope and delegation of responsibilities and activities required to complete the framework’s mission objectives. To maintain momentum on the “Thirty by Thirty” target, the Commonwealth Secretariat conducted two half-day seminars on the designation, management and financial maintenance of MPAs, both of which were spread across two timezones.
Shifting the focus to unilateral efforts by Commonwealth countries, Seychelles has been spearheading the Action Group’s efforts. The nation has made significant strides across both national and regional levels in establishing and maintaining its own MPAs, having over 30 per cent of its marine waters in protected areas through marine spatial planning (MSP) exercises. The nation has set an ambitious goal to guarantee the protection of 100% of its seagrass and mangroves by 2030, with a special added task to conduct mangrove and seagrass assessments on the Mahé Plateau and outlying isles which will also be used as measurements for the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Another notable member state spearheading impactful projects under the Action Group is Barbados, which is assigning two new areas for marine management along its western and southern coastlines. Built upon the former Folkestone Marine Reserve and informal Carlisle Bay Marine Park on the western and southern coasts, respectively, the new West Coast Marine Management Area is roughly 8.2 km in length and has an area of 8.3km2 while the South Coast Marine Management area is roughly 5.2 km in length and has an area of 5.5 km2 providing a total protected coastline area of 14 km, representing 14 per cent of the nation’s coastline. The expansion of Barbados’ Marine Spatial Plan (MSP), which began in 2020, will focus on integrating more offshore marine areas and resources under MPA territory as currently, only 1 km of offshore marine space is under supervision. The Plan is expected to be executed over a period of 5 years and will encompass 200 nautical miles of the nation’s exclusive economic zone coastal boundary. As a matter of course, due diligence will be taken to consult all stakeholders, including fisherfolk, who will be an integral part of shaping the pathways of the Action Group and ensure that such projects make significant headway in not only conserving existing but also potentially new species that will support the rehabilitation of critical ecosystems for Barbados’ ocean economy.
Of the 8 per cent of the World Ocean under MPAs, only 3 per cent can be classified to be under the “highly protected” category. While the Commonwealth has made notable contributions to MPAs and global action calls like the CBD and UNSDGs, we must realise that some of these objectives were drafted in 1983; considering the environmental degradation that has taken place since, we must accelerate our efforts to gather the additional resources needed for contemporary issues i.e. resilience, inclusivity and digital connectivity for report building. Moreover, of the Commonwealth nations with MPAs, only the UK, Kiribati, Australia and Belize have enforced “no-take” zones wherein extraction or utilisation of any resource is strictly prohibited. And of the 48 Commonwealth nations with MPAs, only 4 have successfully fulfilled the evaluations of the IUCN Green List, though 20 other nations are currently undergoing the process as candidates. It must be reiterated that the Commonwealth nations have been proactive leaders in taking the first few steps towards evidence-based positive impact on the global environment and have been taking up meaningful initiatives; however, they must be mindful of the risks of falling into a sense of complacency and must give due consideration to their existing MPAs that have not yet actualised to their maximum potential.
In regards to effective surveillance and subsequent report building for impact evaluation, transparency in reporting and the quality of reporting standards are major areas of improvement that persist in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). The WDPA does not yet provide standards for the establishment and maintenance stages of MPAs nor has it imposed a minimum standard for the level of protection required for MPAs, leaving massive gaps and areas of question that hamper the momentum of MPAs and the creation of no-take zones. Even on a national level, legal and governance frameworks are not robust enough as they are now to efficiently implement policy changes and enforce standards and penalisation to improve stakeholder accountability due partly to the lack of comprehensive training for enforcement officers and judicial bodies on maritime law and prosecutions parameters based on it. On top of that, there remains a dearth of funding for the Action Group’s implementation of the Action Plan as well as training modules that have already been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent social distancing restrictions.
Next Steps: Priorities and Opportunities
As the Champion States of this Action Group, Barbados and Seychelles have vowed to support their Commonwealth counterparts in establishing MPAs, achieving their climate action objectives and developing variables and indicators to measure their Action Group milestones and progress. Alongside Champion states, proactive cooperation and joint initiatives with other Action Groups, especially the Coral Reef Restoration and Protection, Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods, Sustainable Coastal Fisheries, and Ocean Observation, will be a must for creating lasting impacts that will scale. In regards to the funding gap Commonwealth nations face for the health and management of their MPAs, the Commonwealth Secretariat urges them to maximise the use of its Funding Opportunities Database. The United Kingdom’s Blue Planet Fund (with a budget of GBP500 million) is also an important financial utility that countries on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee’s (OAC) Official Development Assistance List can avail to improve biodiversity and sustainable fishing methods and also to better tackle marine pollution and climate change.
The CBD is also making significant progress in motivating nations to pursue allotting at least 30 per cent of the global ocean territory into highly protected “no-take zones”. Commonwealth nations with MPAs, in particular, are positioned to lead the success of this initiative in innovating new rapid assessment techniques to efficiently point out gaps in marine protection policies, using the Blue Charter platform to involve local communities in the management of MPAs and piloting cost-efficient surveillance and impact measurement systems such as remote sensing and data sharing that will help in drafting more comprehensible and enforceable laws for marine protection. The Bahamas’ successful assignment of its territory under the IUCN’s Protected Area Management Categories and Malaysia’s application of its two candidate MPAs for the IUCN’s Green List, which is now in the phase of final certification after it began in 2019, are two exemplary case studies that can be used by fellow member states of the Commonwealth to follow to enlist their MPAs under these international standards and their respective assessments and workshops.
30 of 56 Commonwealth Nations are officially represented on the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) and 4 member countries (Canada, Fiji, New Zealand and Seychelles) are members of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification. New Zealand has been particularly active in its contributions to the Action Group; in 2019, the Champion state hosted a technical workshop for the Action Group which was attended by marine acidification scientists and 23 government officials from 17 member nations. These participants identified several issues including gaps in funding and scientific data collection and monitoring processes; they also outlined pathways and actions that could be taken to enhance the accessibility of data on acidification, more accurately measure impact radii and maximise existing networks and tools to come up with more efficient and affordable guidelines to mitigate acidification. In early 2021, New Zealand spearheaded the drafting of the Ocean Acidification Handbook, which was officially launched over the course of two webinars in April of the same year, to assist policymakers of the Commonwealth in implementing strategies. These webinars were supplemented by online training courses arranged by the Commonwealth Secretariat in May 2022. Nationally, New Zealand is developing a citizen-centric science program aimed at equipping society with the necessary knowledge and to an extent some tools to broaden the nation’s scope of monitoring ocean pH levels. Fiji is also another example of a proactive member of the Action Group, having recruited scientists from the University of the South Pacific to collaborate with the Ocean Foundation to conduct studies on local-carbon chemistry and managed to find a breakthrough to successfully revitalise a bed of mangroves.
Monitoring ocean acidification demands significant capital and human investment and unfortunately, the Commonwealth nations most vulnerable to the effects of the acidification, particularly the SIDS, are the most restricted in financial and human capacity. Due to the high costs of setting up and maintaining surveillance systems, many of these nations have no significant monitoring or research initiatives ongoing due to which the devastating effects of acidification remain largely unknown to a good portion of their populations. Even taking out the money factor, the majority of the measures thus far adapted for the reversal of marine acid levels are still largely untested or not yet comprehensively controlled for quality and effectiveness. Notwithstanding the notable headway the Monaco Declaration of 2008 made in spreading awareness of the global issue of lowering pH levels in the ocean, exhaustive governance frameworks are not yet implemented with most frameworks thus far being either ad hoc or limited to national levels, such as in Fiji. As such, it is not surprising that solutions for rising acidification are not yet included in global financial instruments; in the case of some national or sub-national plans even, the contribution of pollution towards ocean acidification is not even considered.
Next steps: Priorities and Opportunities
Learning from the experiences of other Action Group’s Plans of Action, the Ocean Acidification Handbook and the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification’s Action Plan Toolkit, the Ocean Acidification Action Group will soon release their own Action Plan to motivate Commonwealth stakeholders to join and support collaborative platforms, particularly the GOA-ON and its regional monitoring subsidiaries including the Pacific Islands and Territories Ocean Acidification Network (PI-TOA Network) and Ocean Acidification Africa Network (OA-Africa). The Action Plan, modelling after the UN International Oceanographic Commission’s methodology and data template for the collection and submission of pH data, must also include the creation of a forum for the exchange of information and updates on scientific breakthroughs on methods to mitigate acidification. In this capacity and with the help of the member nations at the fore of global scientific research and systems, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, the Commonwealth is in the position to be central for global training programs pertaining to lowering acidification levels. As such, the Action Group has the potential to be a crucially important bridge between the aforementioned nations and the SIDS of the Caribbean and Pacific who are in need of capacity and infrastructure to tackle the issues they are especially vulnerable to.
Implementation of the rules and recommendations in the Handbook and Toolkits will provide much-needed impetus to further adaptation and mitigation strategies while also brainstorming ways to make existing strategies more affordable. The Action Plan must be engineered to supplement and support the work of all other Action Groups under the Blue Charter.