Commonwealth Blue Charter: Protecting our oceans

  • Hon Eugenie Sage

Working together to manage ocean acidification

Reynolds Room, Royal Academy, London


Tīhei mauri ora

Tēnā koutou katoa

Anei a mātou o Te Kāwanatanga o Aotearea

I tae pai mai ki tō koutou nei rohe

Ko te tumanako

Ki te korero, ki te whakarongo, ki te titiro

I ngā ahuatanga pai rawa i tō koutou nei takiwā

Ngā mihi ki a koutou


I rise to speak

Greetings to you all

We are from the New Zealand Government.

We have arrived safely in your region

It is our hope

To talk, to listen, and to see

All the amazing aspects of your place.

Greetings to you all.


Minister Coffey [attendance tbc], Special Envoy Thomson, Sir Jerry Mateparae, representatives of the Commonwealth Secretariat, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here at the Royal Academy tonight, not least to have the opportunity to experience the many exceptional works from around Oceania in this beautiful setting.

Thank you to the organisers of this event for accommodating my schedule. I regret needing to depart shortly after this speech in order to catch a flight to Egypt for an international biodiversity meeting.

The Special Envoy for the Ocean will speak this evening to the particular importance of the ocean to us, the countries of the Pacific.

This shared importance is best exemplified by Tangaroa, the Māori God of the Sea.

Known also as Tagaloa in Samoa, the Tangaloa family in Tonga, and Tangagoa in the Rennell and Bellona Islands of the Solomon Islands, Tangaroa is one of the great gods in Pacific mythology.

Indeed, the ocean is fundamental to New Zealand’s cultural, social and economic well-being. Sixty-five per cent of New Zealanders live within five kilometres of the coast.

For flightless, terrestrial birds, we Kiwis are certainly at home in and around the ocean.

Unfortunately, this very same ocean is facing many threats.

This evening, I will speak to one of these threats – the increasing acidification of our oceans.

I want to tell you what Aotearoa/New Zealand is doing and plans to do with other Commonwealth nations to manage ocean acidification as part of our leadership of the Action Group on Ocean Acidification under the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

So, what is ocean acidification?

At its core, it is simple chemistry.

The ocean acts as a natural carbon sink. As it absorbs carbon dioxide, carbonic acid is formed, lowering the pH level of seawater.

Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed around 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, increasing its acidity by 30%.

Carrying on at this rate, scientists expect the ocean to acidify a further 120% by the end of this century, creating an ocean that is more acidic than at any time over the past 20 million years or more. [1]

But these are just numbers and equations – what does it all actually mean? 

It means that shelled animals, such as mussels, clams, urchins and even tiny plankton at the base of marine foodwebs are going to have trouble building and maintaining their shells.

It means that corals may not be able to grow and form the complex reefs that house and provide habitat for many organisms, while existing corals will be corroded away.

It may even mean that the abilities of fish to grow, detect predators, “smell” their way home and even to reproduce are affected.

Ocean acidification will impact economies that depend on fisheries, aquaculture and marine tourism, coastal communities that rely on coral reefs for protection, and on marine biodiversity and conservation more broadly.

Small Island Developing States that rely so heavily on fisheries and coral reefs are especially vulnerable. 

So what do we need to do about this issue?

The inconvenient truth is that the ocean will continue to acidify as long as we continue emitting carbon at current rates. Carbon already in the atmosphere will unfortunately exacerbate the situation.

It is precisely because some degree of ocean acidification is now unavoidable, and because the impacts may be far-reaching and disproportionate, that we need to work together to help manage and address its impacts.

In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 14.3 calls for us to minimise and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels. New Zealand was proud to be involved in negotiating the target and we acknowledge the strength of the Pacific nations working together to ensure that there was a separate Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean.  We take the SDG target seriously.

New Zealand is proud to be leading an Action Group on ocean acidification as part of our support for the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

Through this Action Group, we aim to drive Commonwealth collaboration to help improve collective capability to address the impacts of ocean acidification.

We hope to do this in three ways.

First, we can deepen our understanding of the issue and its impacts by sharing best available science including traditional knowledge and cultural practices.

For example, New Zealand will share our learnings from a national programme to investigate the impacts of ocean acidification on iconic and economically important species such as abalone, greenshell mussel and snapper larvae, which is supported by a $4.9m funding commitment from the New Zealand Government.

Secondly, we can work together to identify the challenges and barriers we face in managing ocean acidification, whether it be capacity to measure acidification, technical capability or relating to social or governance matters. And we can enhance our collective awareness of potential mitigation, adaptation and resilience strategies.

Our partners at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) have indicated they will share learning from the New Zealand-Pacific Partnership on Ocean Acidification, which aims to build resilience in the Pacific region through practical adaptation actions. New Zealand is proud to support this important work, and has committed $2.1m over the life of the project.

Thirdly, we can improve the connectivity between Commonwealth nations and existing ocean acidification networks, such as the International Alliance to Combat Ocean acidification and the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network.

We believe that these conversations are best had face-to-face between policy-makers, scientists and other technical experts.

To this end, New Zealand will host a technical workshop in February next year for these important stakeholders to come together in our beautiful South Island, where participants will also see how the community and scientists there are working together to understand the local drivers of acidification.

We are encouraged by the interest expressed by many Commonwealth countries in our Action Group, including Australia, Barbados, Canada, Mozambique, Samoa, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the UK. We would welcome participation by others.

Conscious that the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole, I echo what Special Envoy Thomson will emphasise – that international action must be galvanised on ocean issues.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter, adopted by 53 nations responsible for one-third of the world’s national coastal waters, is a model for bold, coordinated leadership.

I acknowledge the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat to facilitate this important initiative and applaud the other champions of Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Groups, across which there may be opportunities to coordinate.

Finally I would like to mention that New Zealand welcomes the opportunity to be part of the Action Group to combat plastic pollution, the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, led by the United Kingdom and Vanuatu. We have seconded an expert on this issue, Mr Stephen Harris from our Foreign Ministry, to help the Action Group progress this critical work.

In Māori we say, He waka eke noa. We are all in this together.

New Zealand looks forward to working with all of you for a healthy future for our ocean.

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

[1] Source: Smithsonian Institute