Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Beyond the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Taking a new course for marine environmental protection and management

Statement by IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas {download as PDF}


The Deepwater Horizon oil spill shows that healthy ecosystems really do matter. This is becoming starkly clear as the immense environmental, economic and social consequences of damage to such a system unfold in the Gulf of Mexico. The current attention is focusing rightly on stemming the flow of oil, and addressing and mitigating the impact of the spill on the environment, people and livelihoods. However, this catastrophe for the oceans, the biggest environmental disaster in USA history, will inevitably lead to a global examination of what happened, why, and how to prevent such disasters from ever happening again. This debate is particularly vital as the massive global demand for energy resources is pushing industry into all the corners of the earth.

The global community has an opportunity in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon to act swiftly to ensure that better approaches are built to support and protect the marine environment, whilst also supporting legitimate energy and other use needs. However, we must ensure that human endeavours in the ocean do not stray beyond our means to manage the full range of impacts that may occur.

What has happened in the Gulf of Mexico holds lessons for many areas around the world, from the Pacific to the Arctic. Whilst industry techniques may vary, as do ocean conditions, it is often many of the same organisations that are involved. The lessons learnt need to ripple out around the globe to mandate significantly higher protection of marine environmental resources, achieve better decision making, and strong management of risk.

Our understanding of marine ecosystems and the short and long term impacts of such catastrophes is inadequate. Until our knowledge base is significantly improved and the necessary safeguards are in place, IUCN has called for a global moratorium on oil and gas exploitation in ecologically sensitive areas, including deepwater ocean sites and polar areas.
Pressures for energy generation will continue, whether through oil and gas exploration or in the form of physical space for ocean-based alternative wind, wave and current systems. The purpose of this statement is not to consider detailed lessons but to step back from the immediacy of the crisis and highlight a handful of high level strategic issues. These are issues in the context of IUCN’s overall position that contribute to the debate now needed on charting a new course for marine protection and management for the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. These directions rest on the fundamental position that the good health of ecosystems is a vital global goal. To head towards that goal in the Gulf and elsewhere around the world we need to:
(a) Recognise and adequately protect the full range of environmental marine features
(b) Act beyond boundaries to safeguard the whole system
(c) Ensure joined-up thinking, working and actions across industry, environment and users

We hope that these brief comments will be of interest to those concerned with improving the broad context within which this spill occurred and they may help stimulate the debate on the course actions and future initiatives might take.

Three key issues
The Deepwater Horizon spill brings into sharp focus that healthy marine ecosystems matter – they are best able to support our needs, they are more resilient to impacts and they are economically of great value. Moving forward from the Gulf of Mexico spill means delivering a better framework within which we don’t just recover from the spill but we maintain and grow the health of the ocean. Marine protected areas have an important role to play in this forward-looking agenda.
(a) Recognise and adequately protect the full range of environmental marine features. There needs to be much better recognition, visibility and action to adequately address marine environmental values alongside the needs of other sectors such as energy.

The Gulf of Mexico is well known for oil and gas production, but rather less well known beyond expert circles for its high marine environmental values. Many people recognise the value of the fringing beaches, coastal wetlands, birds and some sea mammal populations. Far fewer people are aware that the spill lies directly on one of the only two major Atlantic blue fin tuna spawning areas worldwide. Nor do many know that the extensive rafts of floating seaweed (Sargassum) in the Gulf act as critical nursery areas for many commercially exploited species. Equally only a few are aware that amazing and fragile deep water coral reefs occur across the affected seafloor. Whilst much commendable protection has occurred in past decades, in the Gulf as elsewhere we still fall far short of a connected network of special places (marine protected areas) that adequately protect and manage the full range of wildlife and their habitats, alongside measures to safeguard the marine environment as a whole.

This approach needs to balance the use of marine based resources with the long term need to protect the health and productivity of 70% of the planet’s surface. So far we have made inadequate steps and protected less than 1% of the world ocean in marine protected areas. More marine protected areas are just a part of the solution. However, by better recognising and protecting all marine values, the debate over the use of the seas is inherently better balanced. Industry, who may initially consider such areas as a constraint, ultimately has greater certainty and clarity on the context within which they work and a better base to assess and act on risk.

We need to change the global perspective on such areas from one of them being regarded as ‘special’ to one where they are considered ‘essential infrastructure’ for ecosystem based management and are routinely used in marine management. Opportunity should therefore be taken as recovery plans start to be discussed for the Gulf to go beyond the expected and anticipate restoration needs to do what is actually required to establish a fully representative network of marine protected areas. This network should include the shoreline, but also in open waters and the deep ocean throughout the Gulf to comprehensively and effectively ‘fill the gaps’ in coverage. Such a declaration would give the areas-based stimulus for recovery that will be needed, alongside making any necessary improvements to wider management and stricter regulatory regimes in the aftermath of the spill. The Gulf should become an inspiring model example of a balanced approach which fully understands that investment in long term health of the whole system is in everyone’s long tem interest.
(b) Act beyond boundaries to safeguard the whole system. It is dramatically evident the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is not observing political or administrative boundaries. It moves with the water and weather. Marine species and habitats similarly occupy environmental places regulated by a multitude of factors but none of them related to the artificial boundaries we erect for our own social, administrative and political reasons.

Now is the time to put in place proper ecosystem based management. As attention shifts to recovering the Gulf of Mexico we need to create a model of regional cooperation to inspire and ensure good protection and wise use of marine resources worldwide. Regional action that is integrated and treats the Gulf of Mexico as a single ecosystem is an imperative element of any recovery plan and would ensure better decision making occurs. In the Gulf this should include an effective multi-nation network of marine protected areas and strong aligned regulatory regimes that treat the area as a whole. Such a recovery plan for the Gulf of Mexico could be a beacon of good practice to the world on how to make this happen. Existing agreements and mechanisms, such as the Cartagena Convention, could provide the basis from which this could be developed.

(c) Joined-up thinking, working and action. Completing representative networks of marine protected areas should also be accompanied by accelerating thinking on how environment and industry relate to one another. In ocean areas where we both exploit resources and protect areas, strengthening the joining of these agendas would lead to better environmental management, regulation and enforcement, and ultimately better value for money.

A key part of this is by great accountability by industry for the environment. This would through better recognition of what is important and better integration of this knowledge with any exploitation activities. This recognition and integration should keep pace with any increases in development pressure. Such a dialogue should include investment by industry in the local environment being exploited and protected. This could be through significant re-investment of resource user fees or a proportion of other revenues directly into maintaining and enhancing the quality of the environment.

Creating and implementing new opportunities for reinvesting in the ocean’s health would be a way in which the Gulf could lead the way on better approaches to deliver more effective and comprehensive marine environmental management and protection worldwide.

In conclusion we should take this moment to convene all parties in a high level process to create a step-change in our exploitation, protection and management of 70% of the earth’s surface, the ocean, as well as ensuring such standards apply to similar situations on land.

World Commission on Protected Areas
Hinton, Canada
16 June 2010