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Ocean Governance Adrift in the Pacific


Ocean Governance Adrift in the Pacific

Pacific Island Countries have influenced international discourse on and governance of climate and the ocean. However, their efforts are falling short of their commitments and calls.

The High Seas Treaty was adopted in June 2023 following nearly 20 years of negotiations. More formally denoted the Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, and thus also the BBNJ Treaty, it became available for signatures on 20 September 2023. The first signatory was Federated States of Micronesia, a Pacific Island Country (PIC); thereafter other PICs joined.[1]

Pacific Islanders have influenced international discourse on and governance of climate and the ocean. This should not be a surprise because they inhabit a significant portion of the largest ocean on the planet, which is a carbon sink, provides at least (approaching) 60% of the world’s tuna catch, and is the site of immense levels of trade flows. 

Although they contribute less than 0.03% of total carbon emissions, these islanders face threats such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification. These threats are particularly concerning because of the PIC dependence on and historical connection to the ocean. 

Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) played an outsized role in effectuating a sustainable development goal (SDG) focused on the ocean: Among the 17 present SDGs sits SDG 14, “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

Even before the launch of the SDGs in 2015, “the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States [that was] held in Apia, Samoa, [a PIC,…] adopted the SAMOA Pathway, which specifically addresses oceans, covering inter alia sustainable use, conservation,…small-scale fisheries development and management, subsidies,…a series of environmental commitments.”[2] Since the 2015 launch, PICs have been involved in international activities concerning the ocean including:

– the first UN Ocean Conference in 2017, which was co-hosted by PIC Fiji;

– the UNFCCC COP23 in 2017, which was presided by Fiji;

– the 2022 UNWTO MC12 negotiations, which led to the adoption of the partial Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, “the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target to be fully met, the first SDG target met through a multilateral agreement, the first WTO agreement to focus on the environment, the first broad, binding, multilateral agreement on ocean sustainability, and only the second agreement reached at the WTO since its inception”;[3]

– a UNGA resolution, adopted in 2023 and initiated by PIC Vanuatu, requesting the International Court of Justice to present an advisory opinion on the obligations of states relative to climate change;

– the 2023 commencement of oral statement hearings at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for an advisory opinion regarding climate change, initiated by PICs Nauru, Niue, Palau, and Vanuatu, among other SIDS.

Given the emphasis PICs have placed on their ocean identity and advocacy, what do they have to show in terms of ocean governance? How will they continue to influence climate action, which is directly related to governance of the sea?

Governance of the Sea

Ocean governance is not clearly defined. Nevertheless, it is much more than the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has been termed the “Constitution of the Sea.”[4] (The PIC of Fiji was the first country to sign it. Additionally, the first Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting in 1971 saw discussion about the UN Law of the Sea.) There are various international and regional agreements, regulations, policies, norms, institutions, and decision-making processes related to the ocean. Moreover, many more actors, including indigenous persons, are involved or considered than was the case in the 20th century. Furthermore, the ocean is intertwined with climate action, in addition to economic and social concerns. Thus, terms such as “integrated management,” “sustainable development,” and “blue economy” have appeared in relation or connected to ocean governance matters, and environmental protection is a major purpose thereof.

Governance of the sea has been founded upon two categorizations: zones and sectors.[5] Zones include, with decreasing state sovereignty, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the Exclusive Economic Zone, and the area beyond national jurisdiction, which comprises the “high seas” and “the (seabed) Area.” Sectors include fisheries, shipping, and (controversially) deep-sea mining, among others. However, the flow and use of the ocean and its contents, together with their interrelationships, require an integrated framework of management. This entails collaboration and cooperation between all actors across local, domestic, regional, and global domains.

Pacific Ocean Governance: Integrated Management

Integrated ocean management (IOM) together with regional ocean governance have been very slowly progressing in the Pacific region. The Pacific Islands Regional Ocean Policy (PIROP) of 2002 was “one of the first comprehensive integrated ocean policies to be [developed] on a regional scale.”[6] Now, regional affairs are in a state of flux because of the development of the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent; its implementation plan will be agreed upon at the PIF Leaders’ Retreat in November 2023. However, the strategy recognizes the 2010 Framework for a Pacific Oceanscape (FPO), which was meant to integrate approaches to PIROP.

By 2017, “whilst the PIROP and FPO reflect[ed] the principles of [IOM], in practice the region still manage[d] the ocean domain on largely a sectoral basis.”[7] Additionally, the Marine Sector Working Group (MSWG) of the Council of Regional Organizations in the Pacific (CROP) “has lain dormant in recent years, [though] it serves a valuable function in developing policy objectives.”[8] A 2022 report from the Pacific Community (SPC), the most important technical and scientific Pacific region organization, states: “There is no evidence that there has been successful deployment of IOM,” which in turn drives poor regional harmonization. This is manifested by the non-alignment of PICs concerning deep-sea mining, with some being proponents of a moratorium on it and others advocating for it to move forward. Another example of a fragmented oceans governance architecture is the differing numbers of membership among CROP MSWG organizations.

Despite the slow progress, the 2022 arrangement of a stand-alone Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner (OPOC) may help to push collective cohesive action. Moreover, the 2050 Strategy enumerates “ocean governance” as one of the region’s “issues of significance,”[9] which could propel follow-through on commitments. Furthermore, the Pacific Community (SPC) recognizes the inclusion of traditional knowledge, communities and/or public/all stakeholders in ocean governance in various national ocean policies; words must be translated into actions into regionally harmonious standards though. Sustainable development needs indigenous collaboration.

(Notably, the first regional discussion in the Pacific “on areas beyond national jurisdiction,” which was in preparation for the negotiations that formulated the BBNJ Agreement, occurred at the first gathering of the Pacific Ocean Alliance. The alliance is a product of the FPO and is found under the oversight of OPOC.)

Pacific Ocean Governance: Sustainable Development

Sustainable development and ocean governance among PICs that are members of the UN and among PIF island countries (FICs) is not occurring at a breakthrough rate. This is according to the 2022 Sustainable Development Report (SDR) and the PIF’s Second Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report 2022 (QPSDR), both of which include SDGs data that complement official SDG indicators but do not completely follow its methodology. Pertinent to this piece are the evaluations for SDGs 13 (“climate action”) and 14 (“life below water”).

The SDR reveals that based on the indicators available nine out of 12 PICs have achieved SDG13; even so, the score of all nine of them is “stagnating or increasing at less than 50% of [the] required rate.”[10] Two PICs out of the remaining three do not have information available. The situation is worse in relation to SDG 14: Seven out of 12 PICs are facing major challenges to meet the goal. Also, the other five have significant challenges and three have decreasing scores.

What is interesting is that all 12 PICs have information available for SDGs 13 and 14, whereas nearly all of them cannot be tracked on at least one other SDG due to the unavailability of information. This may show that they are putting emphasis on reaching these goals by having data to monitor progress.

The grim findings also apply to the analysis shown in the second QPSDR. Out of five indicators for SDG 13, FICs only have data available for one: “Resilience and Adaptive Capacity,” which is “achieved or on track to [be achieved] by 2030.”[11] As for SDG 14, no indicators have information from all FICs; only five indicators have data for at least half of FICs. Furthermore, all the indicators with data have the same evaluation: “Some progress but acceleration [is] required to reach [the] 2030 target.”[12]

Additionally, in the subsection “Securing Our Blue Pacific Ocean,” territoriality of the sea, monetization of the ocean, and fisheries are the foci. Only one indicator of SDG 14 is highlighted as “making good progress.” Also, the word “development” only appears once, and it does so in the context of a call for more IOM. Despite these apparent shortcomings, the 2050 Strategy ties economic development to resource management and stewardship. Again, actions will speak for themselves.


The BBNJ treaty “encompasses 43 percent of the surface of the earth and the entire water column below, accounting for 90 percent of the ocean’s volume and biomass. Given the environmental stakes involved, the complexity of securing global agreement at a time of deepening East-West geopolitical rivalry, and the growing North-South frictions on climate and development issues, the treaty is an extraordinary diplomatic achievement.”[13]

PICs showed leadership by being among the first to sign the High Seas treaty. However, their regional and national efforts are falling short of their vocal commitments and calls.

Much of this disparity comes from the low levels of funds and capabilities available to the PICs. Thus, they have been calling for international finance reform. The Pacific islander push for a loss and damage fund at COP27 should translate into accessible means that they can use to invest in ocean sustainable development via IOM.

Such management will require technology transfers and technical support, especially in the form of digital tools. The ongoing UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development should lead to the advancement of PIC data gathering and monitoring capacities. Indeed, as shown above, all PICs are missing data for indicators that make up the SDR and the second QPSDR.

In any case, recognition must be given to the influence of PICs. Pacific islanders are not only ones to experience the difficulties of implementing a regional ocean governance policy; developed countries themselves have had issues.[14]

Although they are geographically and numerically small, PICs have elevated an international climate and ocean awareness. Considering the good SDR results for SDG 13, Pacific islands are well-placed to enhance climate action. This has the potential to further regional and international ocean governance because “ocean systems and ocean governance are not isolated[;] they interact strongly with land-based coastal systems and climate. Governing climate change mitigation and adaptation is synonymous with governing our oceans.”[15]


  [1] RNZ. “Pacific Nations Sign up to UN High Seas Treaty – ‘Ratifying and Implementing’ Next.” RNZ, September 21, 2023. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/498457/pacific-nations-sign-up-to-un-high-seas-treaty-ratifying-and-implementing-next.

[2] Govan, H. ‘Ocean Governance – Our Sea of Islands’ in Katafono, R. (ed.), A Sustainable Future for Small States: Pacific 2050 (forthcoming), (2017)Commonwealth Secretariat, London.

[3] WTO. “Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies.” WTO, 2022. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/rulesneg_e/fish_e/fish_e.htm.

[4] Singh, P.A., Ort, M. Law and Policy Dimensions of Ocean Governance. In: Jungblut, S., Liebich, V., Bode-Dalby, M. (eds) YOUMARES 9 – The Oceans: Our Research, Our Future. Springer, Cham. (2020) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-20389-4_3

[5] Ibid.

[6] Vince, Joanna, Elizabeth Brierley, Simone Stevenson, and Piers Dunstan. “Ocean Governance in the South Pacific Region: Progress and Plans for Action.” Marine Policy 79 (2017): 40–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.02.007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chand, Kevin, Katy Soapi, and Jens Kruger. Rep. A Pathway to Effective Regional Ocean Governance in the Pacific Region: Integrated Ocean Management. Noumea: SPC Headquarters, 2022.

[9] PIF Secretariat. “The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.” Pacific Islands Forum, 2022. https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/PIFS-2050-Strategy-Blue-Pacific-Continent-WEB-5Aug2022.pdf.

[10] Sachs, Jeffrey, Guillaume Lafortune, Grayson Fuller, and Eamon Drumm. “Country Profiles [of UN Member PICs].” Sustainable Development Report, 2023. https://dashboards.sdgindex.org/.

[11] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. Rep. Second Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development Report 2022. Suva, Fiji: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2022. https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/2022-06-12-PIF-Final-Report.pdf.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Patrick, Stewart. “The High Seas Treaty Is an Extraordinary Diplomatic Achievement.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 8, 2023. https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/03/08/high-seas-treaty-is-extraordinary-diplomatic-achievement-pub-89228.

[14] Vince, Joanna, Elizabeth Brierley, Simone Stevenson, and Piers Dunstan. “Ocean Governance in the South Pacific Region: Progress and Plans for Action.” Marine Policy 79 (2017): 40–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.02.007.

[15] Partelow, S., Hadjimichael, M., Hornidge, AK. Ocean Governance for Sustainability Transformation. In: Partelow, S., Hadjimichael, M., Hornidge, AK. (eds) Ocean Governance. MARE Publication Series, vol 25. Springer, Cham. (2023) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-20740-2_1




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