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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales for the Our Ocean Conference, Malta

Published on 5th October 2017

Prime Minister, Your Serene Highness, Commissioner Vella, Commissioner Mogherini, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I was enormously touched and flattered to have been asked by Commissioner Vella and the Prime Minister to be with you here today at the 2017 Our Ocean Summit and finally able to speak to you in person instead of via the rather disembodied medium of a video message!  In fact I've come to the conclusion  that I'm much more affective as a video message, but unfortunately you've ended up with me in person! So many of you, I know, have contributed so much to the task of sustaining the ocean, upon which all of life on Earth depends, that I would like to start by acknowledging and thanking you for all that you do.

I would also like to offer particular thanks and appreciation to John Kerry for his leadership in establishing this forum and also to Commissioner Karmenu Vella and the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, for bringing this much-needed conversation to this part of the world.

Needless to say, it is a great joy to be back in Malta again so soon after being here during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting two years ago.  I share with my parents a deep affection for Malta and its people, together with countless happy memories of times spent here as a child, as an under-graduate from Cambridge and while in the Royal Navy.

Now I know, ladies and gentlemen, that many of you, like me, have been involved with some of the matters being considered at this summit for more years than I suspect you would care to remember.  My interest in the Ocean, and its ecosystems and crucial resources, was probably initiated by my time in the Royal Navy, and this was more than forty years ago, and has only deepened over the intervening years – which I am now slightly alarmed to realize, amount to more than four decades!  And if I may, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps I could share with you a few reflections derived from that interest and, hopefully, leave you with a sense of what I see as the possibility for positive change and the bold action required?

There is now, at last, an increased awareness of the plight of the Ocean, its intimate connection to us and our survival and the enormous amount that needs to be done.  Even ten years ago, tackling the many and mounting pressures on the marine environment was still a relatively unusual endeavour, certainly when compared with the efforts geared to protecting life on land.  This meeting and the undertakings that it highlights, is a testament to the extent that that has changed.

It is at least heartening that there now exists a large number of collaborative processes and initiatives in relation to, among other things, sustaining and rebuilding fish stocks, the steps towards tackling the problem of the progressive, and increasingly omnipresent, pollution of the ocean with plastic debris and the establishment of marine protected areas – some of them absolutely vast.  And here, in this respect, I must acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of Dr. Enric Sala and his Pristine Seas programme, as well as Pew, Oceans 5 and the Bertarelli Foundation.  And I would also particularly like to thank Prince Albert of Monaco for all he has done over so many years to stimulate and encourage genuine movement on these issues.  And I can only congratulate a leading country such as Chile, which is now fully protecting over one million square kilometres of its marine waters in four massive marine parks.

The trouble, ladies and gentlemen, is that the problems we face are not only enormous; they are also systemic and interrelated.  Their remedy can only be found by building a consensus across a wide range of stakeholders and communities.  Given this, the progress being made via multi-sector collaborations, including between countries, the finance sector, multilateral agencies, scientists, major companies, N.G.O.s and campaign groups could not be more welcome.

But along with knowledge and partnerships, decisive action is required.  An example of this is the difficult decision Canada took twenty-five years ago to protect the Northern cod stocks on the Grand Banks by closing a fishery that had all but collapsed due to mismanagement and overfishing.  This ended more than 400 years of fishing tradition and put over 30,000 people out of work over-night.  But, while this decision was unimaginably painful at the time, it has worked and the cod stocks are slowly increasing and this demonstrates that given a chance, and with some brave decisions, the Ocean can recover its health and by doing so generate employment and economic growth.  Surely we must take equally far-sighted steps to deal with plastic pollution or illegal and over exploitative fishing, or, indeed, ocean acidification, especially as our ability to fine-tune and accurately monitor implementation has been hugely enhanced by advances in satellite capability?

It does seem that this combination of increasing awareness and the availability of new tools has led to a clearer determination to act, both within countries and globally.  On the world stage the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals has created new platforms against which our efforts can at least be judged, while at the same time encouraging an integrated approach to problem-solving.

Yet while we should be relieved that the health of the Ocean is now understood, alongside rainforests, to be one of the essential prerequisites for our physical and economic survival, and I'm afraid I really do wonder if the Ocean’s fragility is yet truly grasped and how susceptible it is to the impacts of our economic activities?

As many of you know so well, the eight million tonnes of plastic that enter the sea every year - through our own doing I might add - is now almost ubiquitous.  As the Prime Minister said, f or all the plastic that we have produced since the 1950's that has ended up in the ocean is still with us in one form or another, so that wherever you swim there are particles of plastic near you and we are very close to reaching the point when whatever wild-caught fish you eat will contain plastic.  Plastic is indeed now on the menu!  Faced with such damaging effects on the ocean from plastic waste from the throw-away, convenience lifestyles of many around the world, it is, I believe, utterly crucial that we transition to a circular economy.  A circular economy allows plastic (along with many other substances) to be recovered, recycled and reused instead of created, used and then thrown away.  On our increasingly crowded planet this economic approach has to be a critical part of establishing a more harmonious relationship between humankind and the ocean that sustains us all and also provides a mechanism for the benefits of a sustainable Blue Economy to be reaped.

For the Blue Economy is not only what happens in or on the sea, it is in reality all the economic growth that is derived from or affected by the sea, its ecosystems, its coastline and the coastal hinterland.  The fact that the "Blue Economy" has entered the development lexicon and is leading countries, companies and communities to look towards the ocean for economic development and income generation should be welcomed.  However, we must never mistake it for a new frontier for endless economic exploitation, but rather remember that it is the ecosystem that ensures our survival. 

As we have just seen, ladies and gentlemen, in that amazing, if stark, film, coral reefs are perhaps the clearest litmus tests we have to gauge progress relative to the impact of an unsustainable Blue Economy.  These incredible ecosystems host about two-fifths of all marine species on just two per cent of the seabed, they protect many vulnerable coasts from storms, are nurseries for the young of commercially valuable fish and provide food and livelihoods for more than one billion people.

Coral reefs’ economic value is, then, truly vast, at least while they are still intact.  The fact that we seem to have catastrophically underestimated their vulnerability to climate change, acidification and pollution and that significant portions of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's Eastern coast have been severely degraded or lost over the last few years is both a tragedy and also, I would have thought, a very serious wake-up call.  Are we really going to allow ourselves the dismal comfort of accepting that in the long run we will only be left with a tiny fraction of them?

And so it is absolutely vital, it seems to me, that we create sustainable Blue Economy agendas that take truly integrated approaches to improve ocean and therefore planetary health as part of strategies that also seek to meet the overwhelming challenges of poverty reduction, population growth, food and water security, the circular economy based on resource-efficiency and the huge elephant in the room of accelerating climate change.  Although there is some movement in this direction - and even in the poorest countries, beset by so many challenges, the practical, social and economic case for sustaining ocean health is being successfully made - arguably the sense of urgency needed to tackle these issues is still lacking.  If the unprecedented ferocity of recent catastrophic hurricanes is not the supreme wake-up call that it needs to be in order to address the vast and accumulating threat of climate change and ocean warming, then we – let alone the global insurance and financial sectors – can surely no longer consider ourselves as part of a rational, sensible civilization.

Being confronted by all these issues, surely, ladies and gentlemen, the time is long overdue for taking a thorough, global look at perverse fisheries subsidies and their effects – particularly where they appear to contribute to overfishing, overcapacity and to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing?  I realize I am far from the first to ask this question.  Indeed, it forms one of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 14, which deals with the vital importance of protecting our Ocean.  Can it be right though to argue on the one hand that our Ocean must be protected whilst, on the other, activities that cause harm to the Ocean should be subsidised?  The fact that the World Trade Organization is seeking to identify and eliminate the inconsistencies of fisheries subsidies is, in itself, at least encouraging and I look forward to seeing the results that flow from the W.T.O. Ministerial conference this December.

Now I realize that new initiatives to move things forward will be highlighted at this meeting and, with this in mind, I am delighted that my International Sustainability Unit and the World Resources Institute are establishing a Blue Economy Initiative - and here I must again thank Prince Albert and his Foundation for their support.  The Initiative's purpose will be to help facilitate a collaborative effort to ensure that the Blue Economy builds Ocean resilience and reverses the cycle of decline, while encouraging ocean-related investments and policies to support sustainable development. 

My International Sustainability Unit has already been working with the European Commission and W.W.F. to develop Financing Principles for the Blue Economy and I was delighted to hear from Commissioner Vella just now that the recent meeting in Brussels has led to the establishment of a working group of banks, insurance companies and N.G.O.s to take this forward. 

I know that these meetings have been a celebration of what is happening that is positive, along with the many exciting new technologies, partnerships and instruments that are being developed.  It is of course excellent that this forum will meet again in Indonesia in 2018 and Norway in 2019 and I wish those meetings every success - but what, dare I ask, ladies and gentlemen, will success actually look like?

Will, for instance, a substantial amount of the world’s ocean be protected by then?  Will illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing have been halted?  Will there have been the investment needed to reduce and stop plastic entering the Ocean?  Will a significant percentage of "impact investing" and "green finance" have been targeted on the Blue Economy?  Will there be proper benchmarking for sustainability; will fiduciary responsibility be an incentive for investment that embraces a sustainable future and revolves around genuinely ecosystem-based approaches to management?  And will there, at last, be a realization that this small, beautiful blue dot of a planet may have been misnamed?  It is not earth, it is actually mostly sea and we are utterly reliant upon it.  There is no "green or blue economy" for there is but one blue ocean planet in our solar system and the economic system that we engineer must protect it.  And at present it most certainly doesn't.

Ladies and gentlemen, you may forgive me, perhaps, for experiencing a sense of mounting despair after all these years of trying – along with others – to draw attention to the immense planetary crisis we have been engineering for so long, seemingly driven by some strange, ideological urge to test the world to destruction, that we now face becoming the victims of history and our own human nature, which I feared from the start.  I have long worried deeply that the imperative for action to re-balance the way we do things to reflect Nature's own essential economy and underlying striving for harmony will only arise when ever more catastrophic natural disasters, dysfunction and human tragedy on a vast scale finally bring us to our senses in a state of collective panic.

But, ladies and gentlemen, so many of you here in this room are the ones who could make the urgently needed changes that are required and to forge the partnerships that are needed to ensure that it is not too late in the day.  Indeed, as I look around now I can see in front of me the people who are already making an enormous difference and who may be able to turn the tide.   Here in this room on this historic Island at this finely balanced point in our civilisation, we all understand the situation and we must act now.   How, otherwise, how, will future generations ever forgive us for destroying the viability of the natural world that is our ultimate sustainer?

I gather, ladies and gentlemen, that during the course of these two days it is customary for governments and organizations to commit themselves to courses of endeavour.  Mine is not a new commitment, but perhaps you will allow me to restate my determination to join you in continuing to do whatever I can, for as long as I can, to maintain not only the health and vitality of the ocean and all that depends upon it, but also the viability of that greatest and most unique of living organisms – Nature herself.