February 23, 2015


Sustaining the blue economy

The World Ocean Council was founded in 2009 and it’s probably fair to say that at the time, some in the shipping industry were not sure what to make of it. Neither a typical trade association nor an environmental NGO, Executive Director Paul Holthus was using terms like marine spatial planning and sustainable ocean business, that few were familiar with at the time.

And in doing so, he was bringing together stakeholders that at first glance had little in common except the sea itself, and that was the point. By positioning itself as a ‘cross-sectoral’ organisation, the WOC was something new to shipping.

What Holthus and the founders had correctly foreseen was a much greater awareness by governments of the need to plan and manage ocean space and resources; all kinds of raw materials and resources, from windfarms to seabed mining, fishing and tourism. As a result, there needed to be a way to interact across traditional sectoral silos “because there was a whole lot going on that would affect how business is done in the ocean in a general sense, not just by the specific industry you were in,” he says.

On the day that we speak, Holthus has just come from a meeting with a more traditional shipping organisation where the conversation included the recent move towards extending the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to include a binding agreement on biodiversity outside territorial waters.

“I’ve been catching up with shipping organisations on the decision of the UN to go forward with that process and they are happy to have the WOC in a monitoring and reporting role that keeps them informed,” he says. “The shipping industry is rightly focussed on its own issues and there has not traditionally been a way to engage in ocean governance and planning, even when it has significant implications for shipping.”

That role extends to a series of WOC working groups and the Sustainable Ocean Summit, the third of which takes place in Singapore later this year. Holthus admits there is an appetite for faster progress on some topics but says a measure of the council’s success is “the interest and energy from the business community to get together in ways they have not done before”.

“We knew there were people and companies who wanted to be more proactive and move beyond compliance to think about their long term future and deal with challenges, so the core of this was getting the leaders to talk to each other in a way that accepts the potential conflicts and finds ways to manage them,” he explains.

In a practical sense this can mean working between the cable-laying and shipping sectors or the offshore operators and fishing industry. At a broader level, a key role for WOC has been to address the gap between ocean business community and environmental lobbyists.

Clear that the founders didn’t want the WOC to be just another trade association Holthus says one of the WOC’s core roles is engaging with other stakeholders, especially the environmental community. “We got a lot of interest and support from the environmental community and have active relationships with them just as we do with IGOs, governments and UN agencies.”

So is shipping too blinkered? He thinks not, though nor does he rule out the possibility of an IMO observer role in future, if all the stakeholders approve.

“The IMO focus is primarily shipping, and the potential value of WOC is providing a watching brief for other industries and reporting on developments that may affect other ocean sectors.” He cites the growing body of IMO work on marine noise where there is value in bringing the offshore sector experience to bear. IMO regulations on tank washing are of interest to the miners whose cargoes the ships carry, as is what happens to the increasing range and volume of waste streams.

Perhaps the problem is that while IMO’s members have no difficulty making laws, it is the industry that is left to work out how to apply them and how compliance will be monitored?

“I think the industry is committed to living up to the language of MARPOL. Responsible companies will comply, but how can they comply if the waste reception facilities are not there? What we are hearing is that users would like WOC to help push for the development of those facilities.”

So does this suggest that the WOC, like the Trident Alliance is something new for shipping; a group of companies that shapes and pushes the agenda to facilitate policy and practice as well as compliance, putting it in a position that regulators need to take note of?

This is what some of shipping’s traditional lobbyists already do, though the WOC thankfully puts out rather fewer press releases. Rather he says, the council is a coalition of like-minded leadership companies working proactively, rather than waiting for regulations to be made.

“I would say there is value to regulators and the industry in alliances and collaborative organisations that want to get out in front on these issues and develop the agenda in a constructive fashion,” he says. “To have industry develop, test and implement solutions for compliance means progress can be made and we can help shape best practice, policy and regulations to everyone’s benefit. That is what leadership is all about.”

The approach is demonstrated by the recent announcement that the UN General Assembly will consider creating an extension to UNCLOS of a new legally-binding agreement on biodiversity beyond national maritime jurisdictions.

Holthus says if shipping is not ‘in the room’ providing input on its activities and impacts, there is a real possibility that regulations will emerge that do not take into account the economic and operational realities of shipping.

“That could mean regulations that are not based on good risk assessment and realities and as a result might not able to be implemented or are focussed on less important issues,” he says.

Neither does he think the fact that the US has failed to ratify UNCLOS will be an issue, citing a desire within “the business community, the US Navy and many in congress” to see it ratified. More important, he thinks, is that as governments move forward with changes to the law of sea they are co-ordinated with input from the business community.

“There are a lot of smart people in good companies who realise proactive work on these issues helps define the future, rather than waiting to be told how you need to comply with whatever the future is supposed to be.

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