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Is piracy protecting our oceans?

Last week I was honoured to be named the United Nations Environment Programme’s Patron of the Oceans. The ceremony took place in Nairobi, Kenya, where UNEP has its headquarters.

The United Nations is a huge organisation that spans the globe, and I met many wonderful people during my brief visit to Kenya, all of them passionate about their work and the issues in their various fields.

The day I received the award was marred, however, by the tragic news of the bombing and subsequent attack on the UN headquarters in neighbouring Somalia, which killed at least 15 people. There I was talking about Marine Protection, and in the audience were people who have colleagues and friends at the Somali UN mission. Which got me thinking about the oceans in times of insecurity.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that the oceans off the coast of Somalia have indirectly benefited from the instability of the country, and from the threat of piracy in her waters.

Because of that instability, there has been little fishing off the coast of Somalia. There has been no drilling for oil. And shipping has been diverted and reduced. Because of the tragedies that are happening on land, the oceans have been left alone. And if you speak to scientists they will tell you that the sea off Somalia is recovering from exploitation at a rapid rate.

Now I’m not advocating piracy! But I was struck by the regional complexities of trying to protect the environment, whether in our oceans or on land. And I was struck by how the Somali situation shows what can happen when large sections are set aside as Marine Protected Areas. The oceans recover phenomenally quickly, if you just give them the chance.

New Zealand is a great example. New Zealand’s first marine reserve was established in 1975 and it now has 34 marine reserves, which protect 7% of New Zealand’s territorial sea. Close monitoring has shown dramatic changes to the ecosystem within just three years of ceasing commercial activities. When you compare protected areas with those outside the reserves you find increases in the size and number of lobster, in the number and diversity of reef fish, and positive changes in habitat where sensitive systems like seaweed forests have been able to regenerate.

South Africa is another example. After the country banned commercial whaling off her coastline in 1979 and the Southern Ocean was declared a Whale Sanctuary in 1994, Southern Right whales have shown a 7% increase year on year. That’s the difference between extinction and abundance.

Marine Protected Areas really do work but for the UN to do their work they need to do so in a safe and secure environment. I condemn in the strongest possible terms the attack on the UN mission in Somalia. I feel incredibly privileged to have been welcomed into this family. In the year ahead I will be spearheading UNEP’s campaign for the establishment of more Marine Protected Areas. One of the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity is to see 10 per cent of our oceans set aside as properly managed Marine Protected Areas by 2020. This would bring the protected areas in the oceans in line with the areas protected on land, in National Parks. If we can do it on land, we can surely do the same in the sea.

I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and helping UNEP in every way possible. I’ll be doing most of that work on the water: next year I will be embarking on an epic expedition, a three year journey that will see me crossing three oceans and 18 seas. When, where and exactly how will I do it? I’ll be telling you more very soon. Watch this space!

Author: Lewis Pugh is an inspirational speaker, an ocean advocate and a pioneer swimmer. In 2010 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He will shortly be departing on a 3-year expedition to highlight the plight of the world’s oceans. http://lewispugh.com