Healthy Oceans, Healthy Small Island States

The dramatic images of coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives in recent weeks have captured the attention of many in the run up to World Oceans Day. Today marks the start of the second year celebrating the two-year theme “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet”. A healthy ocean is important for our survival. For small island states, which can be considered large ocean countries if one considers the borders of their maritime zones, ensuring good health of the ocean is even more critical to building sustainable “blue economies”.

The Hague Institute is currently working on a project to develop local climate action plans for Zanzibar. The team has witnessed and heard firsthand how the health of the ocean is deteriorating and thereby undermining the well-being of Zanzibari society as a whole.

In Zanzibar, the ocean is important in many ways. It supplies the main source of protein for the islanders. It also provides navigation possibilities. Furthermore, the people of Zanzibar derive income from the resources of the ocean. In the past decades, the health of the ocean has been negatively affected by the impact of climate change. Measured and perceived changes include acidification, rougher seas, surface temperature rise, and sea level rise. In addition, the intense human presence along the coast due to urbanization and tourism development has placed pressure on the coastal ecosystem.

In light of the theme of World Ocean’s Day, this commentary reflects on how policy-makers in Zanzibar could promote a healthy ocean that also generates benefits for the islanders so that they are incentivized to contribute to a healthy ocean. These lessons could also be applied to other small island states. Three sectors closely related to the health of the ocean and economic development are used to illustrate the approach, namely fisheries, mariculture, and tourism.

Fisheries in Zanzibar are mostly artisanal and take place within five miles of the shoreline. Apart from climate-related changes in the marine environment, the coast has been significantly altered and polluted due to uncontrolled construction along the beach, illegal waste dumping, damage to coral reefs, deforestation of mangroves, and extraction of sand and coral rag. Coupled with overfishing and destructive fishing methods, yields have decreased in both number and size.

Fisheries could benefit from modernization, encouraged through subsidies (e.g. soft loans), infrastructure (e.g. freezing plants), tax cuts on modern equipment, and fuel subsidies. Modernization will enable small-scale vessels to reach previously inaccessible deep sea areas, reduce travel time to allow more time for actual fishing operation, and achieve higher yield. Modern infrastructure will enable export. As new fishing grounds open up and more fishing capacity is generated, the government needs to provide training on keeping the sector sustainable, to properly enforce regulations against illegal fishing, and to establish marine protected areas.

Mariculture is relatively new to Zanzibar and is viewed as an alternative to fisheries and agriculture. Currently the dominant activity is seaweed farming, which is affected by climate change by way of increasing surface temperature and salinity. More unpredictable rainfall and disappearance of suitable drying ground also make post-harvest processing more challenging. Seaweed farming could potentially impact on the ocean’s health through chemical use, shading of reefs, and deforestation of mangroves to obtain gears.

As a large source of employment for women that also plays an important role in poverty reduction, seaweed farming should be promoted and in a sustainable manner. Offshore farming, with the caution not to negatively impact women with their inability to operate offshore, could reduce some environmental impacts. Polyculture, which entails integration with other forms of mariculture, could make better use of marine resources, maximize production per unit area, and reduce the impact of more intensive forms of mariculture. In addition, the government could provide extension services and technical support for farmers in light of the increasing vulnerability of the sector to climate change related pests and diseases.

Tourism has recently become one of the most important contributors to the Zanzibari economy. Unfortunately, tourism has experienced uncontrolled growth, which has over-exploited Zanzibar’s scarce water resources and habitable land while failing to deliver substantial benefits to local residents. The latter has long been a point of contention and cause of hostility between local residents and tourism investors.

Ecotourism offers opportunities for local economic development while preserving the ocean’s resources.  There is a high potential for ecotourism particularly in the more pristine areas of Pemba where tourism remains under-developed. Through responsible waste treatment and water conservation, for example, tourists could limit their footprint on the marine environment. Other activities may include sustainable diving, snorkeling and boat tours, particularly around coral reefs. Ecotourism can be promoted by offering trainings, education and information leaflets to tourism companies and employees as well as establishing certification programs to provide a level playing field.

As World Oceans Day seeks to remind everyone of the major roles oceans have in everyday life and to inform the public of the impact of human actions on the ocean, there is perhaps no better example than small island states to illustrate the importance of ensuring oceans are healthy. The anthropogenic impact on the oceans in Zanzibar are by no means unique and the ensuing recommendations can be applicable to other small island states. We need sensational pictures of bleached corals from time to time for awareness raising purposes, but real action on the ground also deserves attention, not least because of the low level of development in most small island states.

This blog is part of a series of blogs on oceans governance. Researcher Ting Zhang reflects on the importance of oceans for the development of small island states. Click here for other blogs on oceans.

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