If there was one burning take-home message that came out of last week’s In the Zone conference, it was that humankind must work together to save our overstressed oceans and seas.

The alternative, of course, is business as usual, resulting in the complete collapse of the marine environment and consequently life on the planet.

Touch on any subject to do with the global marine environment and the figures are startling.

For example, there are approximately five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, with eight million tonnes added every year. By 2050, 90% of coral reefs are likely to be bleached. Between 1961 and 2013 fish consumption has more than tripled in many Asian countries. And on it goes…

 

 

This year’s conference theme was The Blue Zone – Resources, Environment and Security in the Maritime Realm and staged by the Perth USAsia Centre. Experts from many countries in our ‘zone’ came together to discuss some of the planet’s most important marine issues.

The ballroom at Perth’s Beaumonde on the Point was packed with scientists, academics, government officials, business people, secondary and tertiary students, military personnel, environmentalists, media – in fact anyone with an interest in the blue economy and the future of our oceans.

Throughout the daylong symposium 35 speakers addressed a wide range of subjects. The conference was enlightening, thought provoking and sobering.

Following welcomes and explanations by Prof. L. Gordon Flake, Perth USAsia Centre CEO, and Prof. Dawn Freshwater, Vice Chancellor of UWA, the conference was opened by WA Premier Mark McGowan.

 

 

The Premier talked up the State’s vast, relatively pristine coastal and marine areas, and the commercial assets that operate around our coasts, with particular focus on oil and gas operations and minerals shipping in the Northwest. He was quick to remind our east coast neighbours that WA drives one third of the nation’s economy, much of it due to natural resources shipped from here over the briny.

Mr McGowan also said the Australian Navy, traditionally based on the east coast, now has half its fleet at WA’s HMAS Stirling (perhaps the Admirals finally realised that at least one third of Australia is washed by a body of water called the Indian Ocean).

 

 

Dr Richard Walley presented a Welcome to Country in Noongar dialect and song. He noted we were conferencing on the shores of the Swan River, and pointed out that his people believe rivers begin at the ocean, not end at it.

This reasoning, being quite correct, says most evaporation happens over the oceans and seas, turns to cloud, drifts inland to the hills and plains, falls as rain, forming the streams and rivers, which run back to the sea.

 

 

The Hon. Julie Bishop, proud Western Australian and Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, touched on the importance of the region’s blue zone economy, the careful and sustainable use of the Indian Ocean by all its surrounding member nations, and said maritime industries produce about 5% of the nation’s GDP.

Yet even though the Minister was adamant about the protection of our oceans she did not mention her government’s proposal to reduce the size of protected Australian marine parks by 40%.

Nor did she refer to the LNP’s unflagging support of the increasingly dubious Adani coalmine project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which may have catastrophic impacts on regional aquifers and potentially seriously damage the greatest of all planetary coral clusters, the Great Barrier Reef.

During her talk she announced that the CSIRO would be be receiving an additional $500,000 for ocean research (a drop in the Blue Zone?), but did not cite the string of redundancies and sizeable budget cuts already forced upon Australia’s most important science and research body.

Rio Tinto Chief Executive of Iron Ore, Chris Salisbury, told the conference of his company’s relationship with the sea in the zone, which is chiefly the shipping of iron ore out of our northern ports into Asia, China in particular.

He said Rio must consider the growing incidents of piracy and simmering tensions in the South China Sea, resulting in its ships rerouting around trouble spots, adding to shipping costs and lengthening delivery times. Currently Rio owns 17 vessels and charters another 80 for its ore shipments.

 

 

The company has also ramped up the monitoring of ballast water in its vessels to prevent invasive species coming into, and leaving, regional waters.

He also said that major strides are being made at Rio to cut carbon output. Following rulings by the International Maritime Organisation to cap marine carbon emissions, the company intends to run more vessels on LNG, a cleaner, greener alternative. The first ore carrier commenced using LNG this year, he said.

Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, presented another keynote stressing the Opposition’s primary concerns regarding in The Blue Zone. They were greater protection of fisheries, exploitation of seabed resources and climate change.

 

 

Senator Wong also foresaw India’s further economic expansion and increased maritime trade, suggesting a major opportunity for Australia to build closer ties with the subcontinent.

WA Senator Linda Reynolds chaired a distinguished panel addressing defence and security in the Indo-Pacific maritime realm.

There were representatives from Indonesia, Japan, India and China. The contested South China Sea was central to the discussions, and the most interesting, and rather strained, exchanges were between the Vice Admiral Yoji Koda of Japan and Professor Shen Dingli, Dean of International studies at Fudan University, China.

While the Professor said his country was merely looking after its interests in the South China Sea and wished to maintain the peace, Admiral Koda was rather more forthright, stating, “If any nation tries to use military force, we will be ready.” Few were in doubt which nation he was talking about.

 

 

Indian Admiral Anup Singh shrewdly avoided chiming in on the South China Sea issue, being more concerned with incidents of piracy and terrorism on the high seas, pointing out that 80% of incidents take place in the Indo-Pacific region. There were 110 reported acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia (excluding China) in 2012.

He also said that “choke points” like the Malacca Straits were areas where extra naval vigilance was required to protect against piracy and terrorist activities.

The subject of fisheries was touched on by David Carter, Chief Executive of Austral Fisheries, who gave a sobering address and statistics about the vital need to keep working towards sustainability in fishing practises around the world.

The number of fishing vessels operating out of Asia alone is 3.5 million, and China’s annual marine catch had grown 60-fold from1950 to 2013. The average person consumes an average of 20kg of fish each year, hence the extraordinary pressure on the world’s sea life.

 

 

Mr Carter said the next few decades would be critical. “We all have to work together and do something if 2050 is not going to be a train smash,” he said, concluding his address.

Next was SkyTruth Data Scientist, Dr Nate Miller, who showed some fascinating, yet disturbing, PowerPoint images of the extent of fishing in the world’s oceans.

The tracking of vessels revealed a fuzzy green mass of thousands of luminous dots on a map of the world, each representing fishing boats on the oceans and seas – some operating illegally and taking endangered and prohibited species.

 

 

He singled out one vessel that was tracked for months in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. The ship was finally inspected in the Galapagos and found to have a large haul of illegally caught sharks. Crewmembers were imprisoned for the illegal catch.

Dr Miller said the effort to control over fishing and illegal fishing was “a transnational challenge and that the only way we are going to address it is through transparency.”

Another panel of guests covered the energy business and innovation on the seas.

We heard from Dr Michael Ottaviano, CEO and Managing Director of Carnegie Clean Energy, whose wave energy company operates off WA’s Garden Island. He said that Carnegie is making giant steps in perfecting the ocean-based energy technology and that Carnegie was also planning on moving into solar and battery storage.

 

 

Naveen Unni, Perth Managing partner of McKinsey Company, also touched on the future of energy, stating that “renewable energy sources are coming much faster than we thought they would.”

Manila-based academic, columnist and author, Professor Richard Heydarian, turned the focus back on the South China Sea, offering a Philippine perspective.

He said it was a common belief China was interested in the region and its reefs and islands due to rich oil, gas and mineral deposits. However he asserted that China’s claims were more to do with protecting trade routes and access to fishing.

“Fish stocks in the North China Sea have been decimated so the Chinese are coming further south,” he said.

 

 

Interestingly, he also said that Vietnam claims more of the region and its islands than China.

He added that rising nationalism within several nations with claims in the South China Sea did not help matters. All were regularly trying to rename the sea to suit their own perspectives and interests.

Pulitzer Prize winning Associated Press (AP) journalist Margie Mason spoke about the human toll in the fisheries sector of Southeast Asia.

She and her AP colleagues investigated and exposed an extraordinary case of modern slavery in the regional fishing industry.

Thai and Burmese men were being kidnapped and taken to a remote Indonesian island in the Arafura Sea, where they were kept as prisoners and forced to fish for no pay. Some had been there over 20 years and others were even locked in cages to prevent them fleeing their captors.

 

(AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

 

The AP team tracked ships coming from the island and eventually followed the money and seafood trail to US companies.

The story alerted the Indonesian authorities and the slave fishermen were finally freed to return to their families. Over 2000 men were repatriated and US law was changed to prohibit seafood imports resulting from slave labour.

Dr Nick D’Adamo, officer in charge of the Perth Programme Office of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), said that governments in our zone must work together for sustainable oceans.

“No one country alone can do this,” he said. “We must collaborate internationally. It is one ocean, one planet. The IOC and its partners are calling for 2021 – 2030 to become the International Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.”

 

 

This would ensure that the global focus by governments and organisations on our oceans remains in place for the future.

The final session kicked off with Dr Paul Hardisty, CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, presenting on the value of the marine environment.

Using the Great Barrier Reef as an example he reiterated the recent findings that the reef was valued at $6.4 billion a year, but acknowledged that such a precious natural asset was beyond price.

He spoke about the latest back-to-back bleaching events, which have killed off approximately half of the reef, the northern section being the worst impacted.

 

 

He also noted that the lesser known, but equally beautiful, Scott Reef off northern WA had also been severely bleached by rises in ocean temperatures during the last few years.

Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Office at Woodside, Shaun Gregory spoke about his company’s efforts to preserve the environment in the marine column.

He cited the impact that sonic soundings for oil and gas deposits can have on local marine life and said Woodside was working with experts to prevent such problems.

 

 

He also said all efforts were made to reduce impacts on the ocean floor during exploration and drilling. Approximately one third of Woodside infrastructure is on the ocean floor, a highly sensitive area.

Oil and gas are big business in the Indo-Pacific. Daily oil production in the zone is about 7.6 million barrels per day, and there are 539 million cubic feet of gas reserves in the region.

The conference also heard from two winners of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Blue Economy Aquaculture Challenge. They were Sharon Suri and Bonnie B. Hobbs.

Ms Suri won her award for her work at WorldFish, where she focuses on climate change adaptation and incubating aquaculture projects. She has worked in West Africa, Asia, North America, & Europe with a focus on Project Management, Training Design, and Workshop Facilitation.

 

 

Ms Hobbs joined EnerGaia as a project manager in September 2016 where she is learning best practices for farming spirulina on rooftops in Bangkok. She is managing the expansion of spirulina farms to other Indian Ocean countries for EnerGaia’s project with the Blue Economy Challenge.

Work by both women is aimed at reducing pressure on wild stocks of seafood and helping feed the world.

Impressive inroads have been made in Asian aquaculture. Today 50% of fish consumed globally is from Chinese aquaculture, and in 2008 aquaculture overtook marine catch in the region.

David Bird, Vice President Production, Shell Development Australia, presented on the giant new Prelude FLNG facility now located 475km north of Broome.

 

 

The incredible floating facility is half a kilometre long, incorporates the latest environmentally sounds technology, and will carry Shell’s regional gas production into the future.

Two more panels of speakers shared their thoughts on our shared marine environment and summed up and added to content from the previous presentations.

Dr Han Sueng-Soo, former President of the UN General Assembly and former South Korean Prime Minister, gave the final keynote address and called all governments in the region to be “more assertive and cooperative in addressing maritime issues.”

Touching on climate change, he added that “the Paris agreement was a necessary minimum, but it is not sufficient to deal with climate change and the world must collectively do more.”

All in all, this year’s In the Zone conference was a great success. The strongest messages of the day were that our oceans offer irreplaceable resources and need far greater protection and care from all nations as we move into the future.

 

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