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Dr Melodie Ruwet – Seafaring Diplomacy: The Politics of Large Marine Protected Areas





QUT Centre for Justice member, Dr Melodie Ruwet presented for Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) at Holding Redlich Lawyers on the topic of Seafaring Diplomacy: The Politics of Large Marine Protected Areas.

A report from AIIA following the event is below.  Congratulations Melodie on such an impactful presentation.

The warning was delivered to AIIA members and guests by Queensland University of Technology lecturer Mélodie Ruwet, pictured, on September 12 as she outlined the complex politics surrounding Large Marine Protected Areas.

Dr Ruwet highlighted the dire consequences of human activity on our oceans. Pollution has caused substantial harm to marine life, with over 100,000 sea animals being killed from plastic every year. Overfishing has additionally inhibited maintenance of healthy population numbers among marine animals. Dr Ruwet further noted the huge threat of climate change, particularly in causing ocean warming and acidification.

While ocean economy growth has furthered these harms, it has also brought increased attention to the crisis, and emphasised the need for an international response. She noted that the establishment and maintenance of Large Marine Protected Areas (LMPAs) have been central in ocean conservation targets and NGO action. This is evident in the 2015 United Nations target of conservation of 10 per cent of marine areas by 2020 under Sustainable Development Goal 14. More recently the 30×30 global initiative has campaigned for 30 per cent of ocean area to be protected by 2030. International efforts to increase marine protection has resulted in the recent proliferation of LMPAs such as Marae Moana, the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, and Palau National Marine Sanctuary.

Although the growth of protected areas marks a significant achievement in combatting the ocean crisis, Dr Ruwet highlighted various geopolitical complexities regarding their establishment and maintenance. Firstly, there is significant disagreement regarding how LMPAs are defined, particularly regarding level of protection. While some experts argue that no extraction of marine resources can occur in an LMPA, others believe periods of respite between extractions or lessened extraction constitutes sufficient protection of the area.

LMPAs are further complicated by financial considerations. Dr Ruwet emphasised the significant costs of enforcing protected areas, in addition to the large financial losses states experience by stopping extraction of marine resources. This was evident in the LMPA established by Kiribati in 2008. The Kiribati Government received initial NGO funding to compensate for the financial loss of halting ocean extraction. However, the Government later reopened the zone to fishing, stating it had lost up to $US2 million from fishing licence payments. Dr Ruwet stated that while LMPA establishment is relatively easy, practically implementing and maintaining such zones is much more difficult.

Additionally, states may establish LMPAs for reasons beyond ocean conservation. She stated that protected areas may be legally designated, but not enforced. These are known as paper parks, and allow states to look good in the international community without genuine commitment to ocean conservation. Furthermore LMPAs can be politically utilised to expand a state’s territory or increase sovereignty in the area. This can also have colonial implications as demonstrated by Britain’s establishment of the Chagos Marine Protected Area in the Indian Ocean. Colonisation of the Chagos archipelago had driven local inhabitants out. It was argued that Britain established the LMPA to ensure locals could not return by prohibiting fishing (their predominant food source).

Dr Ruwet’s presentation highlighted the significant political, practical, and ethical challenges regarding LMPAs. By spelling out the dire state of the oceans and potential for LMPA ineffectiveness she challenged her audience to question the political motivations underpinning conservation efforts, and asked whether the international response was sufficient.

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