Pacific Islanders sail 11,000km to deliver message of ocean protection | Pacific Voyagers

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Pacific Islanders sail 11,000km to deliver message of ocean protection

A fleet of four Polynesian vaka travelled to Sydney for the World Parks Congress carrying a simple message: the ocean may be vast but it is not limitless, and it needs protecting.

At sea on the Mua Voyage between Fiji and Vanuatu. Photograph: Mua Voyage

At sea on the Mua Voyage between Fiji and Vanuatu. Photograph: Mua Voyage

To a master traditional navigator like Tua Pittman from Raratonga in the Cook Islands, a canoe is much more than just a means of transport.

“The canoe is our island, the crew members are the community and the navigator is the leader,” Pittman says.

He continues, explaining that the converse is also true. “An island is our canoe, the community are the crew members and the politicians and leaders are the navigators.”

“On a canoe you are not just going from one destination to another using the stars, the moon, the sun and the birds. Navigation is using the philosophies of being a leader to show your crew members the light of life.”

 Navigator Tua Pittman. Photograph: Susan Gough Henly/The Guardian

Navigator Tua Pittman. Photograph: Susan Gough Henly/The Guardian

It has been a whirlwind week for the crews of the flotilla of four vaka (sailing canoes built with fibreglass hulls but styled on traditional designs) since arriving in Sydney for the start of the World Parks Congress.

Tua’s journey began at the Cook Islands on September 25. The first leg took the islanders to Samoa then Fiji, Vanuatu and onto the Gold Coast before heading south to Sydney. Around 100 crew members were involved in the various stages of the voyage and they aimed to travel using only traditional navigation techniques. Unfortunately, said Tua, the crews were forced to rely on modern navigation equipment on some occasions to reach Australia in time for the Congress.

The official title of the expedition is the Mua Voyage and is a partnership between the IUCN Oceania Regional Office and five Pacific Island countries: Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Cook Islands and Fiji.

The main goal of the 6,000 nautical mile (11,000km) trip was to deliver a special message to the World Parks Congress.

In part the message said: “We see the signs of overexploitation. We no longer see the fish and other marine creatures in the size, diversity or abundance of the past.

“We witness the change as foreign fishing fleets ply our waters in a race to strip our resources. Our coral reefs, the greatest in the world, and our mangrove and wetland spawning grounds are disappearing.

“Our ocean is vast but not limitless…. growing global populations and the relentless pursuit of unsustainable development is reducing the ability of our ocean to sustain life.”

 On board during the journey from Fiji to Vanuatu. Photograph: Mua Voyage

On board during the journey from Fiji to Vanuatu. Photograph: Mua Voyage

In spite of the effort and urgency behind the Pacific Islanders’ message to the delegates of the once-in-a-decade Congress, much of the final days of the marine part of the Congress has been taken up with trying to set a revised target for the amount of the ocean that needs to be protected in marine sanctuaries.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature: as of 2013 the amount of the world’s oceans in marine protected areas was not even three per cent and less than one per cent of that is ‘no take’. This was despite a target of 20-30% of no take areas set by the last World Parks Congress held in South Africa in 2003.

World-leading marine scientist Professor Callum Roberts from the University of York was one of the scientists who helped set the 20-30% target in 2003. But he said it was not enough.
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“The global conservation union IUCN should now lift its target from 30 to 33%. New research strengthens the case for the 30% target set previously to now be raised.

“Threats of climate change and overfishing have only increased in recent years, so a stronger resolve to maximise the benefits of no take sanctuaries must now be pursued. Any reduction in efforts at this stage and moment in history would be disastrous for our oceans.”

After lengthy haggling and difficult negotiations the World Parks Congress delegates passed a motion that will dramatically shift the goals for global marine management. Instead of the 20-30% aspirational target the IUCN’s new official position is to: “Urgently increase the ocean area that is effectively and equitably managed in ecologically representative and well connected systems of MPAs [marine protected areas] or other effective conservation measures by 2030; these should include strictly protected areas that amount to at least 30% of each marine habitat and address both biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

While the federal government claims that 35% of Australian marine waters are in protected areas, this is in name only.

Australia’s marine parks estate now covers 35% of Australia’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), in law. But only 10% of that is operational and much of that is in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Of this 10%, less than half is highly protected no-take zones.

Tua Pittman was delighted with the news that a strong resolution had passed the Congress regarding the planet’s oceans.

“It’s just like a huge reward for all effort that we made to be here and to be heard. To hear they made that resolution is fantastic. It’s a start in the right direction.”

Tua Pittman says that while much of the traditional navigational aids were things, such the sun, moon and stars that never changed and would, at least on a human scale, always be there, other impacts of environmental degradation were becoming clearer when voyaging across the Pacific.

 A vaka sailing into Sydney harbour ahead of the World Parks Congress. Photograph: AAP

A vaka sailing into Sydney harbour ahead of the World Parks Congress. Photograph: AAP

He said he was 55 and in his lifetime he was already beginning to see that it was much harder to catch fish on the open ocean. He also said that pollution was worsening, particularly as the canoes approached big cities such as Sydney.

And the impacts of climate change were already beginning to seriously impact on Pacific Islanders.

“The decisions of the big countries impact on the small countries twice, thrice four times more than it will impact developed, large nations.

“Many times people don’t even know where our islands are and, from the eyes of a traditional navigator, our people have a very, very deep concern because we are talking about decisions made far away that impact on our homes.”

The Mua Voyage had been a massive logistical undertaking, said Tua. It was not just a matter of jumping into canoes and heading out to sea. Years of preparation and navigational planning went into such a trip and it was critical to the voyagers that the world listened to their message and acted.

He said, the leaders of wealthy countries need to start to think more like traditional navigators who recognise their vessels are mere specks in an enormous sea.

Most importantly, and spoken like a true navigator, Tua says politicians must seek a different route to avoid the pending ecological crises that are beginning to befall the small island nations.

“The world needs to find a different path.”

Reposted from The Guardian, article by James Woodford, November 19, 2014

James Woodford is Guardian Australia’s ocean correspondent. The position is a non-profit journalism project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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