Portugal and the Ocean Economy

By Ana Paula Vitorino

Today, our world is facing the challenge of understanding and living through the Anthropocene. Although this epoch is not yet officially recognized, it is increasingly accepted that we are in a special subdivision of the geological timescale, one in which human activity has a direct impact on our planet in terms of climate and the availability of natural resources.

The global competition for the exploitation of natural resources to sustain current models of development originated in the recognition of the ocean as an extension of mainland territories. If for centuries the maritime space was regarded as one of mobility—a highway to other spaces—today ‘terrestrial’ concepts are being applied to the ocean.

This change is connected to an increase in knowledge about the sea and its resources, as well as the technological advances that have facilitated the exploration of the ocean. The public order of the oceans, which incorporates a substantial territorial component based on a clear division between national sovereignty and jurisdiction and the freedoms of the high seas beyond current maritime borders, served the circumstances of its time well, providing the stability and legal certainty necessary for the economy of the sea to develop and prosper.

As we now know, however, by the time that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) entered into force in 1994, a number of challenges that threaten the oceans and marine resources were becoming more visible and better understood, and were in part detached from the idea of territory and sovereignty. UNCLOS provides ways to respond to environmental problems with respect to the world’s oceans and allows us to incorporate those approaches into decision­making processes. It also gives us tools to manage such issues so that solutions beyond the national borders of each coastal State can be reached. The foundations laid down by the Convention, however, are not sufficient to respond to emerging global threats. Examples such as ocean acidification, marine pollution, the depletion of fish stocks and degradation of marine ecosystems are impossible to address and resolve solely from the viewpoint of national sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction. We need a holistic, shared approach to sustainably manage our oceans.

This is why Portugal is fully committed to working towards a new UNCLOS implementation agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. The new agreement should reflect the best science available, and the decision-making processes set out in the agreement should incorporate this concern. We should recognize the contribution that such an agreement can and should make to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 of the 2030 Agenda, which deals with oceans, and to halting and reversing the decline in ocean health.

For historical, cultural and economic reasons, the ocean has shaped the lives of the Portuguese people and the ways in which we relate to others and belong to the international community. As a maritime country, the ocean is a fundamental and formative element of our identity. In support of the objective to promote and strengthen the global governance of the oceans based on a holistic and collaborative approach, the Government of Portugal created, in 2015, the Ministry of the Sea, responsible for the coordination of maritime affairs, the promotion of a sustainable ocean economy, and the formation and monitoring of ocean policies based on scientific knowledge, innovation and technological development.

The Ministry plays a cross-cutting role, coordinating several issues and the work of corresponding institutions that have traditionally depended on other sectorial ministries. These institutions support planning and knowledge related to the oceans, as well as the implementation of policies for the protection and exploitation of marine resources; the promotion of an effective presence in the sea and its uses; a sustainable sea economy; and the coordination of national participation in European and international bodies responsible for the design and monitoring of maritime policies.

The maritime areas under national sovereignty or jurisdiction—the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the continental shelf, extended within the scope of the proposal presented by the Government of Portugal to the United Nations in 2009—constitute one of the main assets for the future development of the country. The biological, genetic, mineral and energy resources that these areas contain open prospects for exploration that can establish Portugal as a model for economic growth and, above all, as a protector of marine biodiversity. Moreover, Portugal is a pioneer in the preservation of special marine ecosystems outside its EEZ, such as the hydrothermal vents in the Azores, on which Portugal reports to the network of marine protected areas established by the Commission of the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the OSPAR Commission).

Within this national context, it is important to address the challenge of balancing environmental protection and economic growth. In our opinion, technological and business innovation can reconcile the protection of marine biodiversity and the rights of sovereign States, including economic rights. For Portugal, innovation and the transfer of knowledge and expertise from the science and technology sectors to civil society paves the way for the world’s populations to have a more sustainable relationship with the marine environment, with a more efficient use of resources resulting in less impact.

Knowledge is an engine that can change the potential of Portugal’s geostrategic position in the following areas:

  1. The creation of added value in traditional economic activities, such as fisheries and port activity, enhancing the circular bioeconomy, avoiding the waste of resources and reconverting industrial waste. This refers specifically to the maximization of the use of sea life already caught, thereby reducing levels of catches, or the collection of marine litter, which can be recycled and reconverted into new products.
  2. New sources of sustainable growth provided by a set of emerging activities, from biotechnology to renewable ocean energy.
  3. The use of tools for the planning, monitoring and management of marine spaces to ensure the sustainable use of resources. Portugal is also in a position to assume a relevant role in the use of marine protected areas as an efficient mechanism for the management of specific marine ecosystems. Our short-term goal is to protect 10 per cent of our marine spaces.

In this respect we must assume a paradigm shift. We no longer want to simply monitor impacts; we will pursue a precautionary approach to avoid undertaking activities that could adversely affect the ocean.

In order to achieve all of this, we must also exercise our sovereignty.

Therefore, we want to:

  1. Ensure an effective presence in our seas through adequate defence, security and inspection capacities that integrate ships, aircraft and modern surveillance systems; support the observance of law, order and human security, defending the public interest in the maritime search and rescue zones under national jurisdiction or in partnerships; issue licences and regulate concessions of economic activities in maritime areas under national sovereignty or jurisdiction.
  2. Promote ocean literacy, a key element for raising awareness among the Portuguese population about the importance of the ocean in our daily lives and for teaching new generations about the benefits that oceanic ecosystems provide for society, through the inclusion of specific content in school curricula and sea activities in school sports programmes, as well as outreach programmes for adults.
  3. Promote sea management and the protection of natural capital and marine ecosystem resources by establishing priorities for action that preserve and enhance such capital through an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas, based on sound management plans that contribute to their valorization within the scope of the ocean economy.

For this to succeed it is essential to generate and manage knowledge on the tremendous resources of our oceans and seas. This requires a strategic investment in marine scientific research, which in the medium to long term will enable rapid and sustainable growth. The enhanced knowledge of ocean resources in the biological, biotechnological, geological, mineral, and energy fields will establish Portugal as a strategic partner in the international community. The Government is, therefore, determined to invest in generating knowledge about Portuguese seas as a strategic asset.

This commitment to ocean knowledge is aimed at fostering the national marine science and technology sectors as generators of highly qualified human capital and high-quality know-how, as well as establishing an international reputation that will allow us to introduce innovation in products and processes of the marine environment sector. Such a commitment is essential to ocean governance, as well as to further development of the national economy of the sea. Thus, knowledge about the seas and oceans will promote their sustainability. This approach will allow Portugal to compete in areas such as marine biotechnology, providing an opportunity for the creation of new and innovative pharmaceutical and medical applications; off­shore technologies, including underwater robotics, floating ocean structures and offshore platforms; and ocean monitoring systems and supercomputing modelling, which will enable continuous monitoring of the environmental state of the ocean and the impacts of human activity and climate change.

Portugal’s approach to the ocean economy corresponds with the major issues currently under discussion at the international level, such as marine genetic resources access and benefit-sharing; marine spatial management tools, including marine protected areas; environmental impact assessments; and capacity development and implementation of innovative technology. These issues are at the core of the country’s vision for a sustainable and equitable use of the ocean.

I will have the opportunity to discuss this and other issues at the Ocean Conference in New York in June 2017. I also invite everyone to the Oceans Meeting, to be held in Lisbon from 7 to 8 September 2017 under the theme “The Ocean and Human Health”. At the meeting, we intend to establish a common vision on the positive and negative effects that the oceans have on human physical and mental health.

We must all be aware of our dependence on the oceans on all levels, and we must act to ensure the sustainability of oceans now and for future generations.

Author bio: Ana Paula Vitorino is Minister of the Sea, Portugal.