Ocean For Sale

Attending the UN Conference of the Oceans in New York last week, Portugal appeared at last to have shifted the maritime narrative from deep sea mining and gas and oil exploration to conservation. We say ‘appeared’ because, if activists’ ‘reading between the lines’ is to be believed, this was just another well-rehearsed step in a chess game that was carefully plotted years ago.

But first to the ‘official story’, delivered by Lusa and repeated almost verbatim throughout national media. 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 – making no mention of hydrocarbon exploration or deep sea mining (“keep going chaps… Let’s hope they swallow it”).

“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 continued: “We cannot have over-occupation, nor criteria 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 extend 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 is 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’.

“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 closed on Friday (June 9).

Marking World Oceans Day the day before, 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 offshore oil and gas exploration, deep-sea mining and industrial fish farming.

“I am still reeling from what I have read”, she told us. “I am well aware of the kind of back-room deals that have been going on for years. Quercus should be focusing on a lot more than plastic…”

ASMAA 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 recognise the need to bring to the centre 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.

This ‘news’ comes as the country is busily pushing to see its continental ‘platform’ expanded by no less than 3.9 million square kilometres.

If activists are correct, that is a totally ‘done deal’ corroborated by the appointment of former PS Prime Minister António Guterres as UN secretary general.

“I’m of the opinion that the UN secretary general will use his influence to ensure that Portugal gets what the “big lobbying” interests really want – namely the approval of the expansion of the continental platform so that they can dig their teeth into destroying the ocean floor to their hearts content and with limited scrutiny” said Seabra.

“We would be naive to think otherwise. I expect that most of requirements needed are already in place anyway, although they will have been done quietly and mainly behind closed doors – as information about it during the past 10 years is scarce on the ground”.  

“Just watch and wait”, Seabra concluded. “We have all been played to the hilt”.

BY NATASHA DONN [email protected] 

Photo: Delegates watch a video about the ocean during the opening of the Ocean Conference in General Assembly Hall at United Nations headquarters in New York on June 5, 2017