Malta, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently hosted the first global ocean ambassadors’ meeting, with seminal entities currently involved in ocean governance convening around the same table to rationalise the various parallel ongoing activities within the same field.

Some of these entities included the EU Commission, represented by incumbent Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella, and the Finnish Presidency. The BBNJ Conference (Biodiversity in the High Seas, or in the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) represented by the Conference President Rena Lee, FAO (the Food and Agricultural Organisation) represented by its Deputy Director-General and the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter represented by Secretary-General Patricia Scotland were also present.

Other entities represented at the meeting and having a global ocean governance remit included the IMO (International Maritime Organisation), the IOI (International Ocean Institute) and IMLI (International Maritime Law Institute) hosted at the University of Malta. Besides the Maltese ocean ambassador, the Norwegian and Swedish ones were also present for the meeting as well as diplomatic staff from Portugal, Namibia and Mauritius. The context within which the meeting was held is indeed a compelling one – 95 per cent of global economic activity currently takes place on land, but this is set to change through the Blue Economy narrative.  

UN Special Envoy for the Oceans Peter Thomson, who chaired the event, rightly put his finger on the broad scope of such a meeting by stating that one of the key objectives was to make sense of the various ocean governance threads to ensure that we are all heading in the same direction.  The possibility of having an unharmonised approach towards global ocean governance was a tangible risk, especially with an overwhelming suite of ongoing initiatives that might obfuscate the overall target, namely that of achieving the objectives laid down in SDG 14.

Such initiatives include the efforts to launch the seabed mining code by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) based in Jamaica, the BBNJ Conference, the UN’s Ocean Conference being hosted by Portugal and Kenya in June 2020, UNEP’s Ocean Sciences Decade and the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter.

This already corpulent body of international initiatives adds on to a further patina of global ocean-related initiatives consisting of, for example, the various inter-governmental panels on climate change and a sustainable marine economy (the latter being a recent activity launched in 2018 by Norway and Palau), the upcoming Our Oceans conference being hosted by Norway next October and the multifarious initiatives led by the EU Commission, FAO and the IMO.

We are indeed at a critical juncture for ocean governance

As rightly underscored by Baroness Scotland, the Commonwealth wields considerable clout when it comes to the global management of the marine domain. For instance, 46 out of the 53 Commonwealth countries have a marine coastline, with the grouping representing the lion’s share of Small Island Developing States (SIDs) given that 45 per cent of its members belong to such a category.

The Commonwealth’s eminence in the marine domain is also reflected in the sheer extent of marine surface area managed by its members, with a whopping 36.5 per cent of all national waters falling within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth. Nearly half of the global extent of coral reefs is also enclosed within the Commonwealth’s precincts.

These compelling statistics add legitimacy to the initiative embarked upon by the Commonwealth known as the Blue Charter, headed by different states that champion specific themes within Action Groups, including Ocean Acidification, Ocean Observation, Sustainable Aquaculture, Mangrove and Coral Reef Conservation as well as Oceans and Climate Change.

Commissioner Vella rightly underpinned the international ocean governance initiative launched by the EU Commission a few years back, as well as the onerous marine-oriented EU Directives (for example, the MSFD, the MSP policy and the Common Fisheries Policy) and its support for marine research through the upcoming Horizon Europe Programme and the Copernicus satellite-based monitoring platform.

FAO’s Deputy Director-General Arni Mathiesen gave an overview of the ongoing revision taking place within FAO of the various fisheries and aquaculture regional policies and regulations. Prof. David Attard touched upon the role played by IMLI over the past 30 years since its foundation in the training of 1,300 maritime law professionals hailing from well over 100 different countries.

Prof. Attard rightly stressed that, without such maritime law professionals, most related agreements were not enforceable due to a lack of capacity-building. The need for greater training and capacity-building, especially for SIDSs, was also touched upon by Ms Antonella Vassallo, the Managing Director of the IOI.

Norway’s Ocean Ambassador Vidar Helgesen in his vest as special envoy to the high-level panel on a sustainable marine economy, gave an insight into the ultimate rationale behind the setting up of a such a panel. Over the next nine months, in fact, the Panel (which features a massive 165 experts and 14 heads of State which collectively hold 30 per cent of the world’s EEZ) will commission research on evidence-based solutions to the ocean crisis and how to address it.

This will include a series of 16 “Blue Papers” by these global experts exploring issues such as sustainable fisheries, ocean-based energy solutions and tourism, as well as new approaches to Marine Protected Areas and ocean finance, to culminate in turn into Blue Economy Plans (BEPs) by 2030. The papers will inform an action-oriented report to be released in 2020 at the UN Ocean Conference being held in Lisbon.

We are indeed at a critical juncture for ocean governance – a time for joining forces and for taking bold decisions in order to mobilise the global ocean governance community in a consistent and decisive way. We need to capitalise on the current limelight being shed on the oceans in order to extract meaningful results and not just platitudes...

A resilient ocean is, after all, the best buttress against unremitting climate change. The precious red coral (an endemic and emblematic species of the Mediterranean) that was used as the logo chosen for the event represents that very resilience given that this species has been fished in the Basin since antiquity.

The next assessment of the IPCC on the current climate outlook is scheduled to be released in the coming weeks. This is expected to further make evident the intrinsic links between climate change and ocean health, so much so that the next climate conference to be held in Chile in the coming months has already be dubbed the ‘Blue Cop’.

Kudos goes to all the staff at the Foreign Office involved in the organisation of this landmark ocean ambassadors meeting in Malta, as well as to Peter Thomson’s Office and to all attendees for making the event so successful. Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela, who opened and closed the meeting, laudably committed to hosting future runs of the ocean ambassadors’ forum in Malta in future.

Prof. Alan Deidun is Malta’s Ocean Ambassador. This column was penned exclusively in his own personal capacity and does not reflect on the opinions and views of any of the other entities listed therein.