Blue Assets: Realising the Potential of our Oceans and Coasts

The Out of the Blue (OOTB) photographic exhibition, showcasing the winning images of The Prince of Wales’s Commonwealth Environmental Photography Awards, opened at the Commonwealth Youth Forum at the San Antonio Hotel in Malta on Saturday 21stth November.

On Sunday, a range of the competition’s stunning entries was brought to life by Dr. Ben Milligan (pictured), Senior Researcher at University College London, who presented a session at the Youth Forum on the importance of realising the potential of our oceans and coasts.

The session was attended by youth delegates from across the Commonwealth. Amongst the countries represented were Australia, Malta, Trinidad and Tobago, Bangladesh, Seychelles, Guyana, Uganda, The Maldives, Singapore, Cyprus, Belize and the United Kingdom.

Dr. Milligan introduced the photography exhibition and emphasised the power of photography to shock, inspire and educate. It is hoped that the Out of Blue exhibition will have this impact on Commonwealth leaders and inspire them to do all they can to protect, nurture and sustainably manage our oceans, seas and coasts.

Dr. Milligan then described the role of our marine resources in the context of the global environmental and development challenges that currently face our world. He began by stressing that the oceans are relevant to nearly all of the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals, as the health of our oceans has a direct impact on goals, from nutrition, health and sanitation, to poverty, decent work, economic growth, affordable clean energy, climate action and responsible consumption and production. One way in which our ocean resources or ‘Blue Assets’ can be used to meet the SDG’s is through Sustainable ‘blue’ economic growth.

Dr. Milligan used the competition entries to highlight the numerous and varied ways in which people experience, interact and rely on marine resources, as well as the extraordinary diversity within these resources, as demonstrated by the almost unfathomable range of marine and plant species. Environmental polices and legislation to ensure the sustainable use of our marine assets needs to recognise that this vast range of life within the ocean interacts with one another as functional units i.e ecosystems. Therefore a specific intervention in one part of the coast, or on one marine species, will have implications for all others.

The interactions within an ecosystem have not traditionally been factored into human use of natural resources. Over the past 100 years, humans have changed the characteristics of the natural environment, both through extraction of resources from the oceans and by the adding of chemicals, pollution and waste into the oceans. Human activity has even altered the chemical balance of the ocean’s waters. Dr. Milligan used entries from the OOTB competition to show examples of this human impact, showing images that depicted pollution, mining, fishing and bleached coral reefs. One such image was of a crown of thorns on a bleached coral reef – a result of ocean acidification.

Dr. Milligan did add that it is important to remember that such negative consequences of human endeavour are only half of the story. The traditional model of development has resulted in huge benefits for vast numbers of the global population. Poverty has been significantly reduced and life expectancy and living standards are considerably better than they were 100 years ago. However, when weighing the pros and cons of human development over the last 100 years it is also important to recognise that these benefits are not realised equally across the Commonwealth and that this human productivity has resulted in substantial and irreversible loss of the diversity of life on earth.

This development and human productivity has been possible because of the very natural resources which are increasingly at great risk.  Through the services provided by natural ecosystems, we have been able to create energy, build infrastructure, feed and clothe ourselves and make products and goods that we can buy and sell to establish an economy.

This increasing recognition of the reliance of human development on natural resources has led to a new and evolving view of how we interact with nature. Dr. Milligan referred to this as the 21st Century approach to development. In this view, nature is perceived to be an asset, just like any other. ‘Assets’ is commonly referred to in the context of financial or human resources and increasingly we are recognising that we need to value our natural assets, including those from the marine world, just as much.

Dr. Milligan used competition entries to demonstrate these blue assets. He showed how our oceans provide vital ecosystem services such as infrastructure, filtration, recreation and tourism, storm and flood protection, livelihoods and food security. There are also new opportunities for use of these assets for energy and health, for example through tidal power and genetic resources for medicines.

However, these assets are not recognised in traditional methods of financial accounting and do not feature on countries’ balance sheets. The Gross Domestic Product method of measuring a country’s wealth says nothing about the status of its natural assets, despite the fact that natural assets are as important to human wellbeing as financial assets.

In looking to the future- and to the next generation- as to how our blue assets will be used, protected and invested in, Dr. Milligan highlighted a couple of key considerations that should be taken into account. He suggested that it is important to weigh up the costs and benefits of a given policy by taking into account the fact that blue assets form a complex ecosystem and consider the interactions within that ecosystem. He also noted the need to address the cause and not just the symptom of poverty that leads people to turn natural wealth into financial.  He suggested that the status of our blue assets need to be better measured and understood and that this analysis should be incorporated into how we understand our economy.

A short discussion followed the presentation during which youth delegates were able to pose questions and share their concerns and experiences of how blue assets were being used in their own countries. Delegates asked about specific development challenges within their countries and asked about the role of knowledge sharing and technology transfer to meet those challenges. In response to this discussion Dr. Milligan noted that better measurement of the status of natural assets would facilitate a better appreciation of the costs and benefits of any development that utilised these assets. Such analysis could also help increase the investment needed in blue assets and in the services that marine ecosystems provide.  He suggested that knowledge sharing was very important and that mutual learning should be encouraged across economic and geographical divides. Finally, Dr. Milligan stressed that communities should be recognised as stewards of nature’s assets and should be recognised for the benefits to the global community that their stewardship provides.

The Out of the Blue images enabled Dr. Milligan to bring his presentation and the discussion that followed it to life. The images provided vivid examples to support Dr. Milligan’s analysis. They proved to be a powerful tool to assert the importance and potential of our blue assets and we hope they continue to be so as the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting progresses.