Charting a Path to Ocean Prosperity

A career in conservation can be alternately trying, rewarding and energizing, as we work with leaders and communities to innovate sustainable solutions that will balance the pace of economic development with the capacity of the planet and needs of a growing human population. I can honestly say that in my 40 years of doing this work, which I know is absolutely essential to safeguard our families' future, never before have I seen such cause for hope and partnership as I recently did during a week in the Cook Islands.

Attending the 43rd annual Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, I had a front row seat to what can only be described as a sea change in ocean management and stewardship, from leaders whom most Americans would likely be hard-pressed to name: President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kiribati, Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands, and President Harold Martin of New Caledonia, to name a few. Among them was special guest Secretary Hillary Clinton, representing the United States' renewed interest in the Pacific region as a pillar of economic, cultural, regional and food security.

In Secretary Clinton's words, "the 21st century will be America's Pacific century," given our regions' shared interests, shared values, shared history and shared goals for our future. She described the Pacific Islands as a "vast and dynamic region, a key driver of global economic and politics ... strategically and economically vital and becoming more so," before pledging that the U.S. would increase its investments in the region and stand with Pacific leaders for the "long haul."

In my view, this is extraordinarily encouraging, and represents strong, cooperative leadership built on enlightened self interest -- two essential ingredients for sustainable development.

It also reinforces similar messages from other leading participants -- Pacific Islands Forum members Australia and New Zealand, as well as other influential powers in the region like China, Taiwan and the United Kingdom -- who expressed similar interest in this area of the planet that is not only economically and politically important, but environmentally important to the world as well. In particular, Pacific Ocean issues, including fisheries, surveillance and enforcement, climate change and marine protected areas, featured strong in Pacific leaders' discussions.

Fortunately, the 16 member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum have been actively building a framework to align their and our shared interests since 2010, when they adopted the remarkable vision called the Pacific Oceanscape, an ambitious framework for collaboration to sustainably manage a vast oceanic region with global significance.

This effort began three years ago, when President Tong from Kiribati supported by Conservation International shared the vision that the nations of the Pacific could come together in a united movement to protect and manage their ancestral waters and lands, including from unsustainable extractive practices of developed nations from the east and west. President Tong brought forth the Pacific Oceanscape proposal to his peer heads of state in 2009. They reacted enthusiastically, debated and embraced the concept, and in 2010 launched the Pacific Oceanscape, appointing a distinguished Samoan leader, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, as its commissioner in 2011.

In the past two years, progress has been extraordinary. Kiribati, the Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands have established or committed to establish no whaling zones, shark protection and marine conservation areas that already total an area larger than India. Uniting these widely-dispersed island nations is their connection to the Pacific Ocean. Their culture, ancestors, foods and myths have all been shaped by the ocean that surrounds them: the great Pacific, the largest body of water on Earth; the most important geographical feature of our planet with the deepest trenches and largest fisheries.

Before the recent Forum, these 16 Pacific Island countries were historically and diminutively referred to in international parlance as "small island developing states." In truth these nations are giant ocean states, with the South Pacific islands controlling roughly 10% of the ocean's surface and 60% of the world's remaining tuna populations. Remote nations such as Kiribati control ocean territories equivalent to one-third of the United States. There is nothing diminutive in this governance or responsibility, and the mounting pressures facing them.

In recent years, fishing fleets from North America, Asia, South America and Europe have been overfishing the fish stocks of the Pacific with heavily subsidized fleets, destructive fishing practices and ever-more sophisticated technologies. Additionally, the number of deep ocean mining and fossil fuel projects are accelerating, with potentially unacceptable negative impacts on ocean health and productivity. And with changes in climate and sea level, the ocean's rising water is encroaching on their doorsteps. Overfishing, mining, land-sourced pollution and siltation and increased acidification are a threat to more than the fish that inhabit the oceans -- they are a threat to all people.

That is why I believe so strongly that the stewardship of these Pacific leaders should be an inspiration to us all: with the planet's 7 billion people squeezed onto just 30% of its surface -- the rest is covered by water -- oceans dominate the Earth. In fact, it's the oceans that make this place habitable. Mangrove forests, seagrass beds and salt marshes help the ocean absorb and store more carbon than the lands, and play a major role in stabilizing climate. Our air, even far from the shore, is breathable because of the ocean. The oceans are the bedrock of the precipitation cycle that assures our farms and food security; the ocean depths, subsurface mountains and coral reefs are the homes and feeding areas for the fish we eat. Simply put: Every person on Earth depends upon the oceans to thrive and survive.

The Pacific Island Forum nations and their peoples have courageously stood up to the developed world and asked those countries to stop the overexploitation and thoughtless destruction of the ocean. Now it is time for the developed world to answer, not only by ceasing to take so much, but by committing to give back, by aiding these heroic guardians of our oceans. This is not just in their enlightened self-interest -- it is a benefit for all humankind.

Peter Seligmann is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International.