Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Ida Auken

Danish Minister for the Environment

Turning the tide the blue flow of a green economy

17 October 2012

The world's oceans are our most shared resource. Australia has been working closely with our international colleagues to manage them for future generations. This article with my Danish colleague, Minister for the Environment Ida Auken, outlines how we are working in partnership across continents to protect marine biodiversity and the resources they provide.

Tony Burke


Picture a child on a beach, playing with a bucket of seawater.

It's a simple, iconic image. It could be any beach in the world, north or south, east or west. It is almost timeless. It could be an image created 100 years ago or a picture taken yesterday.

The game is unchanged, but the contents of the bucket are very different.

Only 50 years ago, the water tipped carefully by that child into the moat of the sandcastle would have been clean sea water. Today, the water is very different, it contains increasing levels of carbonic acid, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pesticides, plastics and marine debris.

And 50 years ago, fishing communities around the world would plan for and invest in a future livelihood based on fishing based on the ocean's ability to continue to provide. Today, global fish stocks the free resource provided to all by our oceans - are threatened, and in many parts of the world future livelihoods based on fishing are no longer assured.

International attention in recent decades has rightly focused on climate change. But while our global awareness has been raised about the causes and impacts of climate change, what is happening in our oceans, which cover over 70 per cent of the planet's surface area, has gone largely unnoticed.

Oceans provide vital services to life on Earth

Oceans account for 97 per cent of all water on Earth. Their health and the services they provide are crucial to us all, and to the health of the planet. They sustain fish stocks and marine life and provide the livelihoods of many communities and countries. They drive our climate system. Coral reefs and mangroves help protect coastal communities from cyclones and tsunamis. They are major carbon sinks: the United Nations estimates that 93 per cent of the earth's carbon dioxide is stored and cycled through the oceans.

And healthy marine ecosystems store and detoxify unwanted materials. The nutrient recycling they provide is estimated to be the single most valuable ecosystem service. Globally, fisheries have been estimated to feed more than one billion people and support 170 million jobs. They are a major sometimes central - source of food and income for many small island states, where they can provide people with more than a third of their protein.

Healthy oceans and coastal areas are also hugely important to tourism everywhere another powerful tool for developing nations. Without its 7300 km coastline and beaches Denmark's tourism industry would be a fraction of what it is today. And the Reefs at Risk Revisited report from 2011 estimates that worldwide coral reef ecosystems, for example, support tourism worth US$11.5 billion. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef alone supports tourism worth $3 billion each year.

We are undermining our own life support

All of this is at risk as the oceans of the world face increasing pressure from overfishing, acidification, pollution and habitat destruction.

Nearly a third of our global fish stocks are estimated by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation to be overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Another 50 per cent is fully exploited.

Ocean acidification as a result of climate change could threaten all coral reefs by 2050.

And according to the United Nations, more than 150 'dead zones' with too little oxygen ranging in size from less than a square kilometer to the size of Ireland have been created by the discharge of nutrients and waste from the land. A growing amount of rubbish and discarded fishing gear in the oceans is killing marine life and fouling coastal environments. We are undermining our own life support and it's a challenge we need to face.

In fact, we have known this for some time now and therefore we have made several global commitments to protect our oceans.

At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, in 2002, States committed themselves to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which among other things aims to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; establish networks of marine protected areas; restore and maintain fish stocks; eliminate destructive fishing practices; and control pollution. The importance of protecting and restoring marine ecosystems was confirmed by the Rio+20 Summit in 2012.

In Nagoya, Japan, in 2010, States adopted the 20 "Aichi Targets" of which many are relevant to the marine ecosystems, including that the pressures on coral reefs affected by climate change or ocean acidification shall be minimized by 2015, and that by 2020 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas shall be conserved.

We now need to put all the commitments into action.

The issue at stake here is not only the well-being of the oceans; but also about a large part of the world economy. The oceans are a provider of vital products and services and we need to start acting as professional managers for our own sake.

States are meeting right now at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention and Biological Diversity in Hyderabad, India, where marine issues are high on the agenda and hopefully they will push in the right direction and set a sustainable course for the use of our oceans.

We must turn the tide

We need to transform the way we value and use the oceans.

The key to this is that we truly integrate economic, social and ecosystem considerations in all decisions rather than see them as competing interests.

In reality they are inseparable all over the world. The fishing communities and industries in Hanstholm, Denmark, in Port Lincoln, Australia, at the beaches along the Great Barrier Reef, in West Africa or in Jutland's west coast, in the harbours in Sydney and in Copenhagen, and elsewhere in the world, all depend on a healthy, productive ocean.

We need to progress the implementation of an ecosystem approach to marine environment management and work to protect marine resources nationally and on the high seas.

We need to link the management of marine ecosystems more effectively with economic and social development strategies and transition economies, markets, industries and communities towards more sustainable patterns of resource use while respecting the needs and aspirations of developing nations.

Regional cooperation plays an important role in connecting ecosystems and human uses to ensure marine environments remain healthy, resilient and productive.

One such cooperation is the Coral Triangle Initiative, a partnership initiated by Indonesia with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste and supported by Australia (one of six formal development partners).

The Coral Triangle is a global hotspot for marine biodiversity sometimes known as the Amazon of the sea. The initiative enables collaboration by member states on how to achieve better conservation and management to improve food security and sustainable livelihoods.

Another is the HELCOM convention from 1992. It joins Denmark, Estonia, the European Community, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden in a common purpose of sustainable management of their common resource the Baltic Sea, one of the busiest and most intensively used seas in the world.

Protection of our most vulnerable areas

We need to protect our most vulnerable marine areas. With a maritime area bigger than the continent itself, Australia is well advanced on this commitment, with a representative network of marine reserves close to being finalised. Denmark, a country where the maximum distance to the coast is 52 km, and the coastline is 7300 kilometres long, has established large marine protected areas while playing a very active role in the shaping of sustainable fisheries policies.

By providing industry with the most up to date information, both countries are helping them to make decisions that deliver the best possible economic, social and environmental outcomes.

From each of our perspectives, from each of our individual starting points and requirements, our two countries on opposite sides of the same globe have realised the need to act in order to ensure that this common resource can continue to provide us with the future we want.

But what about the marine areas over which neither Australia, Denmark nor any other State has authority, which is by far the largest part of the oceans and is largely unprotected?

For those areas international cooperation is not just a hollow phrase, but an absolute necessity if they are to be protected and managed more sustainably than today. A first and crucial step is the identification of the most important ecological and biological areas. This is what States in Hyderabad are supposed to agree upon. In itself this will not lead to protection of the High Seas, but hopefully it could lead to the designation of marine protected areas as part of a future implementing agreement under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

In Hyderabad, States will also take important decisions on how different potentially harmful human impacts on the ocean and the marine environment are assessed for the common benefit of all parts of the oceans.

Wherever we live on the planet, our oceans sustain us all. And everyone, including governments, industry, civil society and individuals, must work together to ensure we bring economic and social benefits that are efficient, equitable and sustainable.

We all want the child on the beach to play with a bucket of clean seawater.