Minister of Sea (finally) talks protection as Quercus warns oceans “hold almost more plastic than fish”

Attending the UN Conference of the Oceans in New York this week, Portugal appears at last to have shifted the maritime narrative from deep sea mining and gas and oil exploration to conservation.

According to Lusa, the government has delivered 10 “voluntary commitments” which involve doubling the quota of “protected areas” – to 14% of maritime territory under national jurisdiction – by 2020, and creating “management plans” for the marine environment.

“We don’t want simply to say which areas will be protected. We want to say what can be done, and where. We need planning regulations”, Minister of the Sea Ana Paula Vitorino told the State news service – suggesting rules would be like a maritime equivalent of land-based PDMs (municipal plans).

Rules would govern aspects like intensity and set out various protection measures considered necessary, she added – carefully navigating round any mention of hydrocarbon exploration.

“We have to have economic activity that is not simply fishing, but also maritime commercial and passenger transport, nautical sports, aquaculture and a variety of activities that also need to be controlled”, she said, adding: “We cannot have over-occupation, nor criterias of protection for these lesser activities than those that exist in relation to fishing”.

Other commitments involve expanding the “A Pesca por um Mar sem lixo” to all mainland Portuguese fishing ports by 2030, Lusa added, quoting Vitorino as saying: “All fishing ports are potential sites for pollution and the accumulation of rubbish. We want to extent a different type of treatment to all fishing ports – not simply in the form of the installation of new equipment but in new proceedings. We cannot just invest in equipment and hope change happens. There have to be parallel actions, the creation of infrastructures and equipments and training to change behaviours”.

Lusa claims Portugal has further committed to reducing maritime pollution through the development of technological platforms and “tools that promote the circular economy of the sea”.

“Working on a regional level with the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Northeast Atlantic”, Portugal has committed also to reducing Atlantic refuse by creating the Fundo Azul (Blue Fund), and reducing “accessory captures” of fish by up to 17% by 2023.

In case this is all leaving the reader a tad befuddled, this appears to be the idea, say marine conservation activists who tell us Portugal has actually made 11 commitments, not 10 – and it is number 11 that needs to be read sitting down.

But first let’s reach the end of Lusa’s ‘press release’, replicated verbatim throughout Portuguese-speaking media.

“Among (Portugal’s voluntary) commitments are measures to increase by €2 million public investment in conservation projects on marine biodiversity, create a research and innovation network anchored at the Port Tech Cluster in Lisbon, and the Atlantic Observatory in the Azores, and promote public policies and international attention focused on the importance of the oceans”.

“It is not possible that we delay any more firm promises made by other countries”, said Vitorino. “Our commitments are firm, they have dates and these dates are feasible.

“Commitments that we assume internationally have some leeway in relation to our internal commitments”, she added somewhat obliquely.

Lusa closed its report with the information that 193 countries took part in the UN Oceans Conference which closes today (Friday).

Marking World Oceans day on Thursday, environmental association Quercus used the occasion to warn that we have reached the stage where plastic floating in the world’s seas “almost outnumbers” fish.

The organisation’s president João Branco repeated alerts sounded by so many before him that floating plastic is slowly fragmenting into nanoparticles “so small that they can enter the cells of fish consumed by human beings”.

Swimming through the information to try and see where Portugal is really headed are marine conservation activists who tell us that they “almost gagged” on some of the PR verbiage coming out of Vitorino’s speech.

ASMAA, the group at the forefront of the Algarve’s anti- oil and gas fight, called the presentation “another green cloud of hogwash”, blotting out the real issues, which centre, says CEO Laurinda Seabra, on deep-sea mining and industrial farming.

“I am still reeling from what I have read”, she told us this morning. “I am not ready yet to make any kind of statement, other than the fact that Quercus should be focusing on a lot more than plastic”.

ASMAA has itemised the 11 – not 10 – commitments, saying number 11 concerns what Vitorino described as “Atlantic Interactions: a strategic research agenda (to be based in the Azores) integrating space, climate-energy, oceans and data sciences through north-south and south-north cooperation”.

This strategic agenda is to “address great challenges” among them “sustainable ocean exploitation”.

There is a lot more jargon, like the “urgent need to foster knowledge as our common future, and to recognize the need to bring to the center of our attention all of those in the margins of knowledge driven societies and knowledge-based economic activities”, but the bottom line appears to be that Portugal’s commitments – whether 10 or 11- have much more to do with big business and powerful lobbies than maritime conservation.

And remember, all this ‘news’ comes as the country is busily pushing to see its continental ‘platform’ expanded by no less than 3.9 million square kms (click here).

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