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Tuesday, 10 November 2020
Australian National Maritime Museum
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales

Thank you, Ambassador Larsen.

Bujari Gamarruwa

Good morning in the language of the Gadigal.

This week is NAIDOC week, in which all Australians are invited to engage with and embrace the history of our country. This year’s NAIDOC theme is Always Was, Always Will Be,[1] recognising that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent and its inland and surrounding waters for over 65,000 years.   Importantly, the first nations people understood environmental sustainability as that was their key to survival.

It is therefore a particular pleasure to welcome you today, to this Symposium: ‘Towards a Sustainable Ocean Economy’.   I congratulate the Royal Norwegian Embassy, in partnership with the University of Sydney and the Australian National Maritime Museum, for hosting this event addressing such a vital topic.

Ambassador, the sustained efforts of Norway in this space, including as cochair[2] of the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy[3] are greatly appreciated.

Australia shares a strong global interest in healthy and sustainable oceans with Norway, with our Prime Minister being a member of the panel.

It is trite knowledge, I would expect, for the attendees of this Symposium that the Ocean[4]:

  • nurtures 80% of life on our planet
  • generates 50% of the oxygen we breathe and
  • absorbs 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions

Trite though it may be, that knowledge is of such critical importance to the sustainability of our planet that it needs to be part of every child’s education, as should knowledge of the stressors that impact on its health.  

Australia recognises that the health of the ocean is under pressure from the impacts of climate change including warming, acidification and sea level rise, overfishing (including as a result of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), plastic and other pollution, and the effects of coastal development.[5]

In responding to the circulation of the zero draft of the political declaration for the 2020 UN Ocean Conference, which unfortunately had to be postponed due to COVID, Australia commended this form of words, which puts it plainly:

Sea levels are rising, the ocean is warmer and more acidic. Plastic pollution continues to enter the ocean at a concerning rate, a third of fish stocks are now overexploited, and half of all living coral has been lost. These threats are increasing.[6]

In my role as Governor, I have the honour of meeting with visiting Heads of Government and Heads of State from around the globe and enjoy meeting with Ambassadors and High Commissioners based in Canberra and members of the Consular Corps here in New South Wales. I am pleased to see many familiar faces here this morning.

In discussions, particularly with our Pacific neighbours, Ocean health and sustainability is raised as a major concern. For our neighbours the intertwined impacts of climate change and declining ocean health are existential issues. But as Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama put it at the UN climate talks last year “we are all in the same canoe”.[7]

The UN General Secretary in his concluding remarks at the Pacific Island Forum last year, observed:

What we ask for is not solidarity, it’s not generosity, it is enlightened self-interest from all decision-makers around the world.[8]As I understand his message it is for every nation take action, not to rely on others, but to do so armed with knowledge.

Australia recognises that in a sustainable ocean economy, the economic benefits of the ocean and ocean industries are maximised, and the long-term health of the marine environment is safeguarded.

Production, protection and prosperity go hand in hand. Overuse or misuse of ocean resources puts the health and resilience of the ocean, and the growth of the ocean economy, at risk.[9]

One area of focus today is plastic pollution. 

Plastic, a man-made product of great utility and versatility is proving to be one of the more problematic concerns for ocean health.   If I were to reduce the argument ad absurdum, a technique I learned from my Professor of Private International Law, Professor Nye, I would ask one or two simple questions:  Do you want to eat plastic for dinner tonight?   Or perhaps: Would you feed plastic to your pet goldfish? The answer is as obvious as that to a rhetorical question. But, of course, we are not talking about a goldfish bowl.

Professor Elaine Baker of Sydney’ University’s Marine Institute in her work on waste graphing[10] tracked the increase in the use of plastics as compared to the population increase over a 20-year period to 1994:  a 200 % increase as compared to a 40% increase in population.  

The findings of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation study announced at the World Economic Forum in 2016 were that Plastic rubbish will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to recycle the material.[11]

The Foundation partnered in a further study, Breaking the Plastic Wave[12], published this year, which found that plastic pollution is rapidly outpacing efforts to stop it. By 2040, if we fail to act, the volume of plastic on the market will double, the annual volume of plastic entering the ocean will almost triple, and ocean plastic stocks will quadruple.[13]

Ocean Acidification is another recognised risk.

Plastics, ocean acidification and other existential threats to our oceans are matters of real concern.   The problems however also give rise to opportunities, not only of sustainability, but for innovation and business: hence the third key theme of this Symposium’s trilogy - ‘prosperity’.   

Today will not only increase your knowledge but, I am sure will deepen your resolve to find the practical solutions to these concerns before the threat becomes an impasse, before the soluble becomes insoluble.  

If anything has come out of the current pandemic it is the importance of science, scientific collaboration and whole of community engagement:  by which I mean of scientific, governmental, business, economic, medical, legal and individual collaboration and engagement at both the national and international level.  Of these, until recently, the strategic voice of science has perhaps been the least understood and the least utilised at the public level. Just as with the pandemic, science has a strong strategic role in the solution. 

Professor Emma Johnstone, Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales, describes scientists as the ‘sifters and the sorters’[14], with the knowledge tools and the intellectual ability, to “influence ongoing debates by seeking to push them towards evidence-based arguments and areas of scientific consensus”. 

This Symposium is the opportunity for the voice of science to join with the other voices at the table.   With the sustained leadership of countries, multilateral bodies and business to propel change, the vision of this Symposium will be a reality.  

I wish you well in your program today and look forward to taking in the first session of the morning.

[2] With Palau – “14 serving world leaders building momentum toward a sustainable ocean economy”

[5] Australia’s narrative for a sustainable ocean economy – DFAT

[9] Australia’s narrative for a sustainable ocean economy

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