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Our interlinked ocean wealth and prosperity

Walter Roban

Bermuda, my home, is the ocean. Our island, of just 21 square miles, sits in the subtropical mid-Atlantic Ocean, one of the most isolated pieces of land in the world. Like all islanders here, I grew up swimming on our beautiful beaches and fishing off the rocks. Without a healthy ocean, the lives of all Bermudians would be poorer and less secure.

Bermuda’s heritage and culture are, and always have been, deeply entwined with the ocean. Our temperate climate comes from the Gulf Stream, and from our early history as boat builders, fishers and traders to our modern tourism industry, which sees half a million visitors to our shores each year, all that we do is connected to the blue expanse that surrounds us.

Bermuda’s waters contain the world’s northernmost coral reef system, considered one of the healthiest coral reef systems of the Atlantic and which has been spared from the ravaging effects of warming waters that have affected so many other coral systems in the global ocean. It is this coral reef that helps to protect us from the hurricanes that barrel over the Atlantic every year, and which under climate heating could become stronger and more frequent.

This threat, together with the impacts of overfishing, global shipping and pollution, are all reasons why my government has proudly joined with the Waitt Institute and Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to sign a memorandum of understanding to form the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme.

Through this partnership, Bermuda will create a binding ocean plan to sustainably manage and improve ocean industries such as fishing and tourism while at the same time preserving at least 20 per cent of Bermuda’s waters in fully protected areas — no fishing, extraction or destruction of any kind is allowed. That is an area of 90,000 square kilometres, or 50,000 square miles.

Last month’s United Nations report, which warned of unprecedented rates of extinction of marine life, is a wake-up call to us all. Scientists now say protecting at least 30 per cent of the global ocean is essential to maintaining a functioning marine system. Less than 5 per cent of it is protected at present, with only 2.2 per cent strongly protected. We must now do our part.

The process we have begun will be based on expert scientific, legal and socioeconomic assessments of the island and all the human uses of the ocean we rely on. Using a concept called marine spatial planning, new inshore and offshore zones will aim to preserve commercially important fish stocks, migratory routes for marine mammals, and deep-sea ecosystems such as seamounts and corals while allowing for responsible development of marine industries.

Marine spatial planning was identified as a key tool for islands around the world in the first Ocean Risk Summit, which my government hosted almost one year ago. Sponsored by one of our biggest commercial reinsurers, Axa XL, whose business is to assess risks to societies, this groundbreaking summit hosted scientists, high-level representatives of governments, the finance and the reinsurance sectors who considered specific risks posed by changes in the world’s oceans caused by climate change and other man-made impacts such as pollution and overfishing.

The summit helped to set us on the journey towards what we have agreed this week, which is essentially this: to see the ocean as an essential component of Bermuda’s sustainability and future, and to ensure we use its assets responsibly. We cannot put our ocean’s health at risk just for the sake of maximising income. We are delighted to work with Waitt and our own experts at Bios to learn from best practice around the world, avoid mistakes and ensure that our little piece of the ocean, which is so important to the globe, is robustly protected and its sustainability ensured by the choices that we make.

This is the next stage of that journey. This commitment means Bermuda joins an Atlantic wave of protection for the ocean. The governments of the Azores, Barbuda and Curaçao have recently announced similar commitments. Ascension Island is moving in the same direction.

Bermuda has a proud history of ocean protection starting in 1620 when the harvest of young sea turtles was banned — one of the world’s earliest environmental protections. Our island’s leadership in marine protection has continued with the creation of a whale sanctuary, 29 marine-protected areas and membership in the Sargasso Sea Commission.

The time has come to go farther and act boldly. For all Bermudians, I am honoured to help make the vision of a sustainable blue economy become reality.

Walter Roban is the Deputy Premier, the Minister of Home Affairs and the MP for Pembroke East (Constituency 15)