Small islands or big oceans?

How big do you think the Pacific islands are?

To paraphrase,  Epeli Hau’ofa when we think about the Pacific are we talking about small islands in a distant sea or are we really talking about a sea of islands? Are we talking small islands or big oceans?

The answer is very much a matter of perception but it has a big impact on the way we think about the role of small island states in conservation and our own responsibilities towards the world’s oceans.  Especially, given the rapid increase in large marine parks in the Pacific.

Take for example the island nation of Palau, a place I was fortunate to go do some research in, which has an amazing diversity of marine life. Palau’s land area is 460 square kilometers (roughly a third the size of Greater London) but it’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)  covers an area of ocean roughly the size of France. So size is really a matter of whether we focus on the island, its waters or a combination of both.

Palau's famous Jellyfish Marine Lake.
Palau’s famous Jellyfish Marine Lake.

Certainly, Palau, like many other Pacific islands, does not think of itself or its conservation as small. From being the first country to designate a national shark sanctuary to fighting it out at the UN for a specific marine Sustainable Development Goal,  Palau has been thinking big about conservation and the sustainable use of our oceans.  Last year, Palau took this commitment to its ultimate conclusion and made its entire EEZ into a national marine sanctuary which bans commercial fishing.

And Palau is not alone. Since 2006, seven Pacific island nations have designated huge swathes of their oceans as protected areas. The Big Ocean Network, a network of large scale marine protected areas (over 100,000 square kilometers) counts 14 member sites which together make up over half of the total marine reserve  area in the world.  These parks are responsible for a  disproportionate amount of progress towards the Convention of Biological Diversity’s target of conserving 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

Image taken from the Marine Conservation Institute based on MPA atlas
Image taken from the Marine Conservation Institute based on MPA atlas

But what enables these small islands to think so big when it comes to their oceans?

Maybe the motives are economic? The money from offshore fisheries might be drying up as reserves collapse and the percentage of profits which states get from fishing concessions is a fraction of the market value of products like tinned tuna. There’s certainly money to be made in tourism and having a green image. BUT Kiribati which also has a huge marine reserve, received over 50% of its GDP from offshore fisheries concessions in 2007.  Generally, I think we can agree that conservation rarely pays in our current economic system the way that over-exploitation does in the short term. So perhaps there are more cultural machinations at work.

In his book, The People of the Sea, Paul D’Arcy asserts that Oceania represents “one of the few truly oceanic habitats occupied permanently by humankind”. D’Arcy points out that Islanders saw the oceans not as a the end of their territories but as an extension of it. Micronesian navigators had such a familiarity with their oceanscapes that they recreated from memory the oceans currents and the locations of different islands in navigational charts.  Many island cultures  did not see the oceans as a separate domain but as something intimately connected with their lands and identities and today, this is a key justification for heavy investment in marine reserves.

Micronesian navigational chart shows the oceans currents and how they relate to different islands. Taken by Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Micronesian navigational chart shows the oceans currents and how they relate to different islands. Taken by Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford


We could use some of this connected thinking in conservation today. Put bluntly, marine conservation is often considered the poor cousin of the environmental protection that happens on land.  Because we can’t see and experience oceans the way we can say a tropical forest or a savanna grassland, we tend to think of them as abstract, remote and removed from our experiences. These thoughts are reflected in the resourcing and outcomes of marine conservation. While we are on track to meet a global target on terrestrial conservation of 17%,  current global efforts for the 10% marine target sit at between 1.6-3.5%. Large marine parks are one way of providing refuges for the world’s fish stocks but we need more action to push back again global over-fishing and coral bleaching. We need to start thinking big with our oceans before we run out of time and Pacific islands provide an indication of how we might do that.

So back to the initial question: small islands or big oceans? I think the real answer is both.  Some ‘small’ places are already refusing to belittle the connection between land and sea and maybe we should take their lead and start thinking bigger.

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